Someone recently asked me to recommend something to read (Thomas Aquinas, Job, New Testament...) for someone trying to understand the purpose of suffering.

Of the ones you listed, I like Job the best since no answer is really offered except that we need to accept God’s will when good things or sufferings come our way. It is easy to accept happiness, prosperity, etc. and to thank God for it. It is hard to thank Him when suffering happens.

I like to go back to the beginning in Genesis (Gn 3:1-24). Suffering didn’t exist until the first man and woman sinned. So, the root of all suffering is sin. It won’t disappear until sin is destroyed when Jesus returns. For someone who has lost faith in God, this may not help.

With respect to suffering and evil, Christianity turns the atheistic position on its head. While the atheist sees suffering as evidence that God does not exist, the Christian sees suffering as a great gift from God. It is a gift of mercy by which we are being led to repentance and eternal life.31 It is also a gift by which we know that God is working some great good in us. In addition, it is another sort of divine gift, an opportunity to give something great to God, just as Christ did in accepting His sufferings. Finally, for a Catholic, suffering is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s sufferings, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings.

Here is an example of the way Christianity turns suffering on its head. St. Gregory the Great, commenting on the book of Job, writes that God’s providential ways, though difficult to understand, are still more mysterious when things go well with good people here, and ill with bad people . . . . When things go well with good people here, and ill with bad people, a great uncertainty arises whether good people receive good so that they might be stimulated to grow into something [even] better or whether by a just and secret judgment they see the rewards of their deeds here so that they may be void of the rewards of the life to come. . . . Therefore since the human mind is hemmed in by the thick fog of its uncertainty among the divine judgments, when holy people see the prosperity of this world coming to them, they are troubled with a frightening suspicion. For they are afraid that they might receive the fruits of their labors here; they are afraid that divine justice detects a secret wound in them and, heaping external rewards on them, drives them away from internal ones. . . . Consequently, holy people are more fearful of prosperity in this world than of adversity.”32

For the Christian, says St. Gregory, one should be more concerned when things go well here, than when one faces suffering and loss and trials. Sufferings and trials in this life are evidence that God our Father loves us, and is working in us to prepare us for Heaven, and the rewards to be received in the life to come. But the one who comes into prosperity and ease in this life, should be concerned that he is receiving his reward in this life, instead of in the life to come.

Here is more turning of suffering on its head: In Colossians, St. Paul writes,

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. (Col 1:24)

“through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God”(Acts 14:22)

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)33

The early Christian martyrs all had the same attitude. Why did the early Christians rejoice in their suffering? Notice the contrast with those who think that suffering is pointless. Atheists cannot rejoice in their sufferings, because they have no reason to do so. But the early Christians saw things quite differently from those around them. They saw this present world already, as it were, from the perspective of the life to come. Suffering for Christ, in this present life, is a great honor, when seen from the divine perspective. And this is the Catholic perspective, that when we suffer, our suffering is an opportunity both to grow in our faith and love for God, but also to honor and glorify God, by loving Him in the midst of our sufferings, and so storing up an incomparable reward in the life to come.

Contrast the Catholic perspective on suffering with that of what is called the “Health and Wealth” gospel. According to that position, since Christ on the cross paid the full price for the salvation of our soul and body, therefore, all Christians should be wealthy and healthy in this life. There is no point to suffering, because Christ has already suffered for us. All suffering must therefore be of the devil, due to a lack of faith. This is a logical extension of the error of monergism. The monergistic idea is that since Christ suffered for us, therefore we do not need to suffer. And since Christ’s suffering was redemptive, therefore our suffering is not redemptive. This position fails to recognize that in our suffering we are given the great gift, through our union with Christ, of participating in Christ’s own sufferings. Our suffering is not meaningless, but meaningful precisely because it is joined to Christ’s own sufferings, as a sharing in His suffering.

In Romans 8, St. Paul writes:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.34

This is the gospel; it is a gospel of suffering. “If any man would come after me… let him take up his cross daily.”35 Elsewhere Jesus says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”36 Only when we take up our cross can we begin to understand the meaning of redemptive suffering. We cannot see its meaning in the stance of resistance or distrust. And this is why the atheist cannot see it. Only from the stance of humble trust does the possibility of its meaning come into our field of vision.

For a Catholic, suffering is even an opportunity for merit. What do we mean by ‘merit’? Aquinas writes,

“Merit implies a certain equality of justice: hence the Apostle says (Romans 4:4): “Now to him that worketh, the reward is reckoned according to debt.” But when anyone by reason of his unjust will ascribes to himself something beyond his due, it is only just that he be deprived of something else which is his due; thus, “when a man steals a sheep he shall pay back four” (Exodus 22:1). And he is said to deserve it, inasmuch as his unjust will is chastised thereby. So likewise when any man through his just will has stripped himself of what he ought to have, he deserves that something further be granted to him as the reward of his just will. And hence it is written (Luke 14:11): “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”37

31 “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

32 St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, book 5, introduction.

33 Commenting on this passage in Romans 5, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, It is a sign of the ardent hope which we have on account of Christ that we glory not only because of [our] hope of the glory to come, but we glory even regarding the evils which we suffer for it. And so Paul says that we not only glory (that is, in our hope of glory), but we glory even in our tribulations, by which we attain to glory.

34 Rom 8:17-18.

35 Luke 9:23

36 Revelation 2:10

37 Summa Theologica III Q.49 a.6

One of the greatest secrets to finding happiness in life is the message of the cross. Self-sacrificing love is what put Jesus on the cross and saved us all and insured our eternal happiness. Mother Theresa, St. Damien of Molakai, and countless martyrs sacrificed themselves totally for others, were the happiest people you could ever meet, and should have been miserable by our world’s standards. But they were happy in giving themselves and their sufferings to others.

I would recommend the following books about those who are special examples of self-sacrificing love to someone who is troubled about suffering: Mother Theresa (Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa. New York, Harper Collins, 1997) Father Damien (Richard Stewart: Leper Priest of Moloka'i: The Father Damien Story. Honolulu,University of Hawaii Press, 2000), Isaac Jogues (Francois Roustang: Jesuit Missionaries to North America. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006), Jesus Christ (New Testament).

For a more thorough intellectual approach with great references to philosophers, artists, poets, theologians, prophets, and religious leaders, I suggest: Peter Kreeft: Making Sense Out of Suffering. Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1986.

For a more mystical approach, read and pray: Bishop A.A. Noser: Joy In Suffering According to St. Therese of the Child Jesus: a Novena. Rockford, Illinois, Tan Books, 1986.

For a short presentation of types of suffering (preventive, corrective, repentant, redemptive, witness, interior, personal, wasted) related to the suffering of Jesus, read: Mother M. Angelica: The Healing Power of Suffering. Irondale, Alabama, EWTN, 1977.


See also: EVIL