“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Suffering is an inescapable reality of life. Man or woman, rich or poor, believer or unbeliever, no matter what nationality, race, or creed, this experience of our fallen world is perhaps one of the strongest bonds uniting the vast diversity of mankind.
I have always struggled with acceptance of suffering. Perhaps due to a defect in my character, perhaps because of spiritual or emotional immaturity, but it is in my nature to run from discomfort, let alone pain. Over the nearly four decades of my life, I have also developed a response to being hurt that may in fact be more harmful than whatever it is that I am enduring: anger. When I was a young man, and prone to depression, anger helped me to fight off despair, sorrow, and malaise. When people hurt me through cruelty, betrayal, or neglect, I often lash out at them, burn bridges, or write them off. Anger was the fuel that gave me power to overcome uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, to brush limiting feelings aside, to close off vulnerabilities and bandage emotional wounds.
It has also hurt virtually everyone who has ever gotten close to me. It has stunted my spiritual growth. It has at times turned me against God. It has threatened to consume me.
I have better control over my anger now than I ever have, but I am by no means a free man. Whenever I am confronted with some great difficulty, it is always there, waiting, seducing me with the promise that it will vanquish all foes, that I need no one and nothing but the burning destruction that it allows me to wield.
I have always known that Our Lord desires that we suffer. It seems such a cruel thing — the kind of thing that no parent would wish on a child — but we turn our eyes to the crucifix and see there that it is the only key that can unlock the gates of eternal salvation. Anger again, plays a role here. The response of a child is to be angry at what the soldiers did to Our Lord. They see the manifest injustice of it. And yet, it is the injustice that saved the world. Anger eventually gives way to sorrow, to remorse. As a child grows older, the indignance he feels at the cruelty of the Romans who tortured and crucified Our Lord gives way to the horrifying understanding that we are just as responsible as they. We did not hold the physical whip or drive home the nails, but they were necessitated and given force by our sins.
There is no way to heaven except by the cross. Jesus, in the fullness of His humanity, has given us example of the full, terrifying cost of sin: the suffering and death that sets us free.
And you, whereas you were some time alienated and enemies in mind in evil works: Yet now he hath reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immovable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven, whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church…
– Colossians 1:21-24
What does it mean to “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ”? No doubt the fathers and doctors of the Church have provided their own exegesis, but I find some comfort in a simple explanation of my own: the only thing missing from Christ’s suffering is my own participation in it. The only thing Christ could not offer on the cross is my suffering; He has given us free will, it is up to us to offer our own in union with His passion.
It sounds logical. It even sounds desirable on some level. But it’s different when we’re actually going through it.
There’s a cliche that everyone has heard: “God won’t give you a cross heavier than you can bear.” I actually think that’s wrong, for two reasons. First, there is a concept in strength training called the “progressive overload” principle. It states:
In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.
What this means, practically speaking, is that if you want to experience continuing gains in fitness, muscle development, or endurance, you must constantly and incrementally push your body further than it has gone before. Doing 50 push ups a day is really hard in the beginning, but it becomes easier. Doing 50 push ups every day after you’ve built your strength to that level no longer yields improved strength. It only maintains what already exists.
So what do you think carrying the same cross does for your spiritual fitness? If God doesn’t increase the weight, little by little (or sometimes in larger, more painful increments), how are you going to continue growing? It is only by giving you a cross that is somewhat heavier than you can bear that you will attain the next level of spiritual growth.
Secondly, I believe that God often gives us crosses that are so heavy that we can’t lift them at all — on our own. He wants us to turn to Him. To rely upon Him. To recognize that apart from Him, we truly can “do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5). He asks us for total abandonment of self to His grace, and His will.
I am not just offering platitudes here. This is not a religious self-help guide. I am currently living this experience in ways that are too personal to share here, but were it not for Him, I would be crushed under the weight of my cross. With Him, I can do all things. (Mt. 19:26)
There was a time in my life where I would have been angry with Him for what I am going through. Where I would have shouted and screamed at the sky and demanded why, when I try so hard to love Him and serve Him, I am forced to endure such suffering and heartache. But through repeated experience, I have at last (I’m very stubborn) come to learn that He really is with me most closely in these moments. That abandonment to Him is the only path forward, because I lack the strength to carry the cross. That when it comes to suffering, there is no running or hiding or escaping from it. It comes for us all.
The only way out is through.
The only way to the other side of the pain He asks us to bear is to embrace it, drawing ourselves into His Sacred Heart, imploring the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, and putting one foot in front of the other. Second by second. Minute by minute. Day by day.
Our Lord tells us in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 11:30) that his “yoke is sweet” and his “burden light.” This always seemed counter-intuitive to me. But sometimes, in these moments, we are given a glimpse of His hidden meaning. How can it be sweet? How can it be light? Simply because when the cross truly becomes too heavy to bear, He takes the role of Simon of Cyrene, putting his arm around us and bearing its weight upon His own shoulders, lightening the load; He draws us close into the intimacy of communion with Him, and allows us, for the sake of our salvation and for love of Him, to partake in His passion.
That’s quite the privilege, if you think about it. And there’s a joy that comes in powerlessness and surrender. Even — and perhaps especially — when it’s the hardest to bear.