Something that has been on my mind a lot lately is the topic of suffering. What it means; why we suffer; why it seems that some people suffer more than others; and so on. To be honest, these questions have come about due to a recent season of great suffering in my own life. As I’ve healed and recovered, I have gone through two competing emotions. Some days, I am able to see how my suffering was God’s providence at work bringing about his good in my life. On these days, I am grateful, and I marvel at his ways. On other days, I feel resentful and frustrated at the suffering in my life. These feelings often have to do with comparing my life to someone else’s—someone who seems to have it all.
The truth is, I am steeped in two worlds with completely contradicting messages about suffering. Our society, Facebook, and social media seem obsessed with presenting our lives, families, and homes as thriving, joyful, and curated down to the last detail. Even if we know that these presentations are not the full reality, these portrayals can really make it seem as though other people have perfect lives. This tempts me to think that suffering is something that good lives, good families, and good marriages do not entail. According to this mentality, suffering is more or less a curse that one should hide or be ashamed of.
Yet our faith has a totally different message about suffering. Whether we like it or not (and probably not), our faith consistently refers to suffering as a necessary refinement and sanctification for our salvation. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Padre Pio said, “The more you are afflicted, the more you ought to rejoice, because in the fire of tribulation the soul will become pure gold, worthy to be placed and to shine in the heavenly palace.” We are used to hearing such phrases, so they can be easy to accept on the surface, but when we experience real suffering, this becomes incredibly hard. When suffering is ugly and confusing, or involves the effects of sin, or is wreaking havoc on my marriage or family, then I tend to panic and ask myself how things could have gone so horribly wrong. Why has God abandoned me? I feel cursed and angry. I want the world I see in social media! At such times, the world’s attitude toward suffering as cursed and horrific is more compelling than Jesus’s or Padre Pio’s suggestions that suffering can be good.
Yet . . . yet in the aftermath of the worst suffering of my life, times when I thought there was no way the situation could have any sense or redemption, I have been blown away to discover deep and needed growth in the situation’s aftermath. These ugliest of times have turned into the times of the most grace. I am nowhere near the kind of saint who welcomes such suffering, and I pray for my suffering and that of others to come to an end as quickly as possible. But most of all, I pray that in the hardest of times, we can steel ourselves against our pain, our feelings of shame or rejection, and the lies the world tells us about suffering. At those times, I pray that we can hold fast and say over and over to ourselves or to our suffering family or friends, “Jesus, I trust in you.”