There are many good, true, and important answers that one could give in response to questions about the mystery of suffering in our lives. However, the best, most complete answer to all our questions about human suffering is found in the suffering of Jesus Christ.
The suffering of Jesus – the passion of Christ – is God’s concrete answer to all our questions. In the cross of Christ, God, who took on our humanity in womb of the Virgin Mary, suffers with us and for us. In the cross, the suffering that was the consequence of human sin becomes the means of human salvation. In the cross, human suffering becomes an instrument of divine love. The cross is God’s final answer to our questions about human suffering, and it is so in at least three ways.
First, the fact that Jesus suffered – and suffered horribly – shows us that God allows suffering in those He loves. When we suffer, whether from serious illness or from some other tragedy, we are sometimes tempted to think our suffering means that God doesn’t love us. God is punishing us, we might suppose. Or God has rejected us or abandoned us. The suffering of Jesus shows these answers to be false. It reveals that God the Father allowed his only begotten Son to suffer the worst of torments. Yet, as the Resurrection states loud and clear, God the Father did not reject or abandon Jesus after all.
Neither does God reject or abandon us when we suffer. Our suffering, far from meaning that God doesn’t love us, actually means the opposite. When we suffer, God the Father is treating us the same way He treated Jesus. This is confirmed for us in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons. For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7).
Second, the passion of Christ shows us that Jesus shares in our suffering. Jesus is Emmanuel. His is God-with-us. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God came to dwell among us. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is fully divine, but also fully human. He shares our human life and human experience and is like us in every way except sin (See Heb. 2:10-18, 4:14-16). In Jesus, God enters into the totality of human experience and so is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus is with us as a brother who has been through everything that we go through with the sole exception of our sins.
Jesus is with us most especially in our suffering. For it was to suffer that He came into the world. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18). Jesus came into the world to suffer with us and for us. By taking on human suffering, Jesus unites our suffering with his own. By submitting himself to suffering and death, Jesus has defeated suffering and death on our behalf.
Third, the passion of Christ answers the question of suffering because Jesus, who suffered for us, invites us to suffer with Him. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, we read, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). Likewise, Saint Peter, in his First Letter, exhorts us, “Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Pet. 4:13). These two great apostles teach us that our suffering can be united with the suffering of Christ. We are invited to share in Jesus’ suffering and to find in that sharing a cause for joy and a source of meaning.
Saints Peter and Paul rejoice in their suffering because, by sharing Christ’s suffering, they hope to share in the result of that suffering: the glory of his Resurrection. As members of Christ’s body, the church, they rejoice that they can be joined to Christ in his bodily suffering and death, because then they will also be joined to Christ in his bodily Resurrection. For Peter and Paul, as for all the members of Christ’s body, suffering has a new meaning. It is the way we are invited to walk with Christ and thereby arrive at the glory of his Resurrection.
Because we are members of Christ’s body, our suffering can now share in the meaning of Jesus’ suffering. This does not mean that Christ’s suffering is in any way imperfect or insufficient. It means that Christ does us the honor of allowing us to share in his saving work. Our suffering, joined to Christ’s, can become part of the redemption he accomplished.
The passion of Christ is the final answer. Christ suffers as beloved of God. He suffers with us and for us. He suffers to accomplish the redemption the world. And he invites us to share in that redemption by sharing in his suffering, and thus, in his eternal glory.