One never knows what sort of trials, sufferings, disappointments or illnesses may come our way. This year it is the coronavirus which provides us a great opportunity to turn to God, ask for His help and offer our sufferings to God as an act of love in a joyful way. How do we do this?
In this context the words written by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians are especially striking: “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Col 1:24). He rejoices in his sufferings? For most of us, pain and suffering are things to be avoided at all costs, and yet St. Paul wrote to the Colossians in the mid-first century—and to us today—that he not only endured his sufferings for good reason, but he rejoiced in them.
Why would he say such a thing?
We find the answer in the rest of this verse: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” Here St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, shares with us the great secret of redemptive suffering (suffering that has value and meaning), or what St. John Paul II called salvific suffering.
In his beautiful letter “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering,” the great pope explains St. Paul’s joy:
“The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.”
“The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering.” In St. Paul’s words, we find a great gift from our Heavenly Father: the truth that suffering need not be meaningless, but instead, it can have great purpose, and not just any purpose, but an eternal purpose. We, like St. Paul, are able to join our sufferings with Jesus’ own sufferings. In so doing, our sufferings become what His were—saving acts of love.
When we turn to God and receive His spiritual help to offer our sufferings to God the Father, Jesus’ continuing saving work through our sufferings is accomplished. In other words, we let God into our lives to suffer with and through our sufferings so He can continue to save souls. Wow, we get to cooperate in God’s act of saving souls.
In the words of the Second Vatican Council, also quoted by John Paul II in his letter, “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful.” By choosing to “offer it up,” as this month’s feature article so powerfully explains, God is able to give our sufferings the power to save and to draw others closer to Him.
How, though, do we do this? How do we “offer it up”? By recognizing that every instance of suffering is an opportunity, a chance for us to participate in Jesus’ work of saving souls. This is something that everyone can do. Nothing happens by accident, including our sorrows; God permits everything that happens to happen for a specific reason.
By accepting them with God’s help through an act of the will, a decision in our minds, and an offering of our hearts to give our sufferings to Jesus, to join ours to His. When we do so, that joining occurs, and our pain is given purpose.
May we all follow the example of Jesus and St. Paul when we experience pain, sorrow or suffering, say to the Lord, in your own way and your own words, “Jesus, I give you my sufferings. I join my pain to yours, to help save souls.” And in so doing, like St. Paul, we can find in our suffering the spiritual fruit of joy.
May all our sorrows, sufferings and trials, including the many hardships of the coronavirus, be offered to God as an act of love for His purpose of helping us all get to heaven.