“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” said the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah (1:5). “Before birth the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name,” said the prophet Isaiah (49:1).
Their words remind us that we were called into existence by God Himself. He knew our names in advance, He understood us better than we would ever understand ourselves, He knew each and every intricacy of our character, and He knew what we would experience in our earthly lives. If even a small bird—one of the millions of sparrows in existence—does not fall to the ground without His knowledge (Matthew 10:29), how much more is He acquainted with our personal anguish?
[Thus says the Lord:] Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.Isaiah 49:15
Since He never forgets us, and knows about our pain, what is He doing about it? More to the point, what has He done with it?
Our Suffering Has Meaning in Christ
As Christians living in the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to imagine life without a Savior. Jesus has always been there for us, and we can’t imagine a world without Him—which means we often take Him (and the possibility of heaven) for granted.
Before the coming of Christ, all the suffering in the world could not heal God’s people from their sins, save them from eternal death, or open the gates of heaven. The anguish of mankind did not have redemptive power. Indeed, it must have been a grave struggle to see suffering as having any purpose at all. The Jews—God’s chosen people—longed to be rescued from spiritual and physical bondage by the promised messiah.
As He usually does, God surprised His people. He did not merely send a messiah—He came Himself. This was so unexpected that many did not accept it as being true. Some of the Jews received Him with open arms; others were determined to get rid of Him. They did not recognize the God in their midst.
God also surprised us by coming to earth in order to enter into our suffering. He experienced our suffering before we did when He embraced His Passion.
He came to redeem our pain, to sanctify it, and to endow it with purpose. He chose to turn weakness into strength, brokenness into wholeness, helplessness into power. He uses tools that we ourselves would throw aside.
On Calvary, Christ used suffering as the instrument by which He won for us the grace of redemption. By doing this, He has sanctified human suffering for all time and has given to all our suffering a quasi-sacramental value.Dom Bruno Webb, Why Does God Permit Evil?
[Christ] took suffering upon himself and sanctified it. He changed it from an evil to a good. He took death upon himself and removed the sting from it. Here was quite a new dispensation. Suffering and death still occupied an essential place in the general scheme of things, but they were not to be dreaded in the way that they were dreaded before.Dom Hubert van Zeller, The Mystery of Suffering
Rather than tossing suffering away as a useless tool, Jesus took its apparent futility and turned it into a series of stepping stones that lead to heaven. Having transformed and redeemed the anguish of fallen man, He invites us to imitate Him and to unite our sufferings with His. We now have what is known as “redemptive suffering.”
We see this mysterious reality in the gospels when Our Lord said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27). He is calling us to share in His work of redemption.
In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.Pope St. John Paul II, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (Salvifici Doloris)
Through this redemptive suffering, Jesus has given us the dignity of uniting our efforts with His one perfect sacrifice:
Because of the personal love of the Lord towards us, we can in fact make a very real addition to His plan of salvation by uniting our sufferings to His saving Cross, just as a little child can make a very real addition to the construction of her mother’s cake when she lovingly allows her to add the eggs, flour, and salt. While the mother could do it all unaided, the child’s addition is real and meaningful, as the love of the mother meets the cooperation of the child to create something new and wonderful. In the same way, God permits our sufferings, offered up, to make an indelible mark in His work of Salvation.Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, “The Authentic Transformation of ‘Useless’ Human Suffering”
Through the mercy of God, we are able to receive fruits and benefits from the suffering we experience:
…whenever He permits any suffering whatever, be it great or small, to come to any of us, that suffering comes to us as a channel of grace.Dom Bruno Webb, Why Does God Permit Evil?
If welcomed trustingly and peacefully, suffering makes us grow. It matures and trains us, purifies us, teaches us to love unselfishly, makes us poor in heart, humble, gentle, and compassionate toward our neighbor.Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom
Of course, this is easy to believe for certain disappointments—but it’s harder to remember when major sufferings impact our lives.
And that is where trust comes in. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). He does (or permits) what appears absurd and unnecessary—yet in the end, this same suffering will be transformed into what is best for the individual soul.
Without the aid of divine grace, our finite (and fallen) human perspective cannot see how good is drawn out of suffering. There are some evil events that will always baffle us; we will never see what good can be extracted from them this side of heaven. God alone knows it. All we can say to Him is, “Even though I don’t understand, I trust You, because I know You are trustworthy.”
As Job cried out in the midst of his suffering, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” (cf. Job 13:15, KJV translation).
This is an absolutely fundamental truth: God can draw good out of everything, both good and bad, positive and negative. For he is God, the “Almighty Father” whom we profess in the Creed. Drawing good out of good is not so hard. But God alone, in his omnipotence, his love and his wisdom, can draw good from evil. How? No philosophy or theological argument can explain it completely. Our job is to believe it on the word of Scripture inviting us to this degree of trust: “In everything God works for good with those who love him.” [Romans 8:28]Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom
If we are faithful, we will begin to see some evidence of suffering’s fruitfulness. The lives of the saints are prime examples.
As it is, many of us personally know someone who has suffered greatly—with peace—whom we deeply admire. We are not in awe of people who have “had it easy”—instead, we respect those who have endured immense suffering without complaint. Their quiet witness compels us to strive for greater courage in our own suffering. We can glimpse the radiance of God’s grace in their bearing.
That is the effect of suffering with love in the company of Christ.
And that is what we must cling to: the truth that we suffer in company with Him. His Holy Face gives meaning to all our anguish.
This excerpt was taken from our series The Meaning of Suffering. If you’re suffering…if someone you love is suffering…if you’re striving to handle your own pain, whether physical or emotional, The Meaning of Suffering provides crucial answers to questions and gives spiritual support in times of suffering. You can participate by signing up here.