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Suffering: The Only Way Out is Through

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 have lived 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 have been times in my life when I have been angry with Him for what I have gone through. Where I 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, in my better moments, I have recognized 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.


Originally published on Aug 29, 2016. This article has been updated. 

22 thoughts on “Suffering: The Only Way Out is Through”

  1. Steve writes:

    “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.” Beautiful!!


    Have you received
    Christ’s body dead
    Like the sorrowful Mother
    Who cradled His head?

    Christ’s body dead
    Is the death of a child
    Deformed or sickly
    Did you feel beguiled?

    Christ’s body dead
    Is the gift of disease
    Physical, mental
    Can’t do as you please.

    That’s because Christ
    Wants to be close
    To you who accepts
    The sixth sorrow’s dose.

    He chose you of hope
    To cradle His head
    For you know what is life
    And what really is dead.

    Climb Golgotha hill
    For you can handle
    So others can see
    Your light like a candle

    That Christ is with you
    Before and behind,
    And they’ll follow your path
    To the tomb quite resigned

    Where quietly gently
    All suffering will rest
    And your head will be cradled
    At our Lady’s breast.

    Oh sons of sorrow
    The gift – your breath…
    You’ll breathe at your birth
    Due to Christ’s body’s death.

  2. As with many others in this life, I am there with you, and so is He. Blessings. And let this trial transform your anger into zeal for the Lord.

  3. God bless you, Steve – what a beautiful, heartfelt and profound article. We are praying that our Blessed Lord carries you through as quickly as possible while still achieving His desired ends.

  4. Excellent Steve, thank you, sincerely, for this piece. Prayers going up for you and your intentions.

    The following was true in pagan, prechristian times:

    “Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out?
    19 Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
    20 But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.”

    But in these post Christian times,

    “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” Matthew 12:43-45

    Our times are post Christian and therefore “7 times” as demonic as the pagan times our ancestors defeated with Catholicism.

    I’m convinced that the present battle won’t be won now except by prayer and fasting – coupled with real and freely accepted redemptive suffering.

    Our culture is obsessed with sex, pleasures, comfort, leisure and satiety.

    We know this will end soon, and severe difficulties are directly ahead, along with real suffering and crosses. It’s unavoidable now.

    Since we “know” these crosses lie directly ahead anyways, due to our collective decadence and sin, can we start sharing the idea to tell God beforehand that we accept these crosses, and offer them up to the Father, for souls, the restoration of the Church, and the conversion or confounding of the men in Rome, who are behind this “progressive” heterodox agenda?

  5. When I saw this article I thought “Great, YET ANOTHER article about suffering with platitudes I’ve heard 1000 times.” but I have to say,Steve, that it made me think…so thank you 🙂 I have a rare mitochondrial disease called MNGIE and ithas been kicking my ass for the past decade…hsas advancedto the point where i can no longer walk or hold my head up, i eat through a tube,and my wife and my mother do everythingfor me from brushing my teeth to scratching itches and more embarrssing stuff. also have chronic painchronic nausea,seizures,etc…it gets worse as time goes and will eventually kill me, most likely while my children are still little and still need their dad. I have heard every platitude from “Think about how someone somewhere is carrying a heavier cross than you” when the pain is so bad,that it is all i can think about, the fact that someone else out there is suffering more than me or that “Everyone suffers” is of no consolation. . And “God never gives us more than we can handle” Is one that I hear very frequently. I really liked your analogy to strength training and it made a lot of sense–God does give us more than we can bear,so that we can become stronger as a result. I am still waiting on the “becoming stronger” part, haha. that is the tough thing about suffering…we just dont know what the other side looks like. I think about my son when he was a toddler. He is diabetic so very frequently he saw other children have cookies and ice cream, and he always cried when we told him he couldn’t have it because it would make him sick. Now that he has matured, he could see that we had very good, very loving reasons to say “no.” But in the moment, he could only see his immediate wants and that some other child had a good thing that he wasn’t allowed to have. And that is how I feel with God a lot of the time… I see people around me enjoying good things, like having a job, or having a body that allows you to go hiking, or camping, or being able to eat food and I think, “God, it really does seem like you’re trying to deprive me of everything good in this world.” and I throw a tantrum to myself, not that unlike the tantrum my son had, when we told him he couldn’t have ice cream because we didn’t want him to die.

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” We are like the little toddlers, who can only see what is right in front of us, and cannot forsee the fulness of His plan for us. The hardest aspect of suffering for me is that I still don’t know why. I can only see my immediate situation which will only deteriorate as time goes on. There is no knowing what awaits me on the other side.

    • My heart is broken right now, Ches. And it breaks even more for you. Just because what I said is true, and what you said is true, doesn’t mean I don’t mourn for what is lost.

      God bless you. Your suffering will no doubt be more meritorious than you can know in these moments of agonizing doubt.

    • You clearly have the faith. Unlike so many who have suffered a tiny pittance in comparison, you are carrying your cross with faith, hope, & love. I cannot imagine how great your reward in Paradise will be, when this life will be visible as the flash in the pan that it is.

  6. Good meditation Steve. You do good work. Hopefully and eventually we can come to think of suffering as an opportunity to learn patience, to do penance, to offer it up, to be humble. And in the midst of all this say the Serenity Prayer:

    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    Living one day at a time;
    enjoying one moment at a time;
    accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
    taking, as He did, this sinful world
    as it is, not as I would have it;
    trusting that He will make all things right
    if I surrender to His Will;
    that I may be reasonably happy in this life
    and supremely happy with Him
    forever in the next.

  7. I stumbled across your website and in fact perhaps was led to it. Your article spoke directly to me in a way that no other reading before has done on the subject of suffering. I am currently carrying an unbearably heavy and torturous cross. Now, I am on a spiritual journey like no other and indeed, as an athlete all my life, your idea of a cross heavier than we can bear makes perfect sense in the training of my spiritual muscle. Although I do not think Christ desires us to suffer, I do think he wants us to turn to him in our suffering. God is all good and hates death and by envy of the devil it has entered the world. I want to be more like a saint but have yet to embrace my crosses. Thank you for an honest and straightforward article. I like the way you write – it hits the spiritual mark and am subscribing to your RSS feed.

  8. Thank you Steve, for this very fine article. Many years ago, my spiritual director Fr. B (now deceased), told me that the greatest problems are created by people running away from pain. …trying to escape from it.
    He encouraged me not to run away from pain, but rather to ’embrace’ it. However, I soon realized that I could not embrace pain unless I turned to the Lord, as He hung on the Cross, and His mother who stood beneath it. Only in Their presence, in Their company, could I deal with the pain one moment at a time.
    This is all so contrary from what the world tells us, with its emphasis on pleasure.

  9. Your line of work requires that you are either free from a wife or your wife is as supportive as Alice von Hildebrand. Great reflection on suffering, but beware of unreasonable family demands that can lead you to despair and conclude that Jesus is not in full control of His Church.

  10. great article. I have come to a point where I accept and surrender. The last para struck a cord because once I ask Him to take control, I am filled with peace. No worries, no concerns because My Lord, my savior is in charge. Jesus I trust in You.

  11. Dear Steve, Greetings from Australia! Thanks for this post. As someone who has recently (last year) been diagnosed with cancer I am always interested in how people discuss and try to make sense of suffering from a faith perspective. I’ve read quite a few ‘commentaries’ on Colossians 1:21-24 but your statement really hit home for me..’the only thing missing from Christ’s suffering is my own participation in it’. Exactly. Maybe for different reasons from you but I also run from this fact. Whatever it is that is weighing you down Steve I pray that the Lord gives you the strength to bear it.
    Thanks for your ministry.

  12. There’s a spiritual problem with your analogy of – progressive muscle strength training – as a way to understand God only giving us crosses we can bear or not bear, as the case may be. To use this idea as a principle is misleading, even though I know you don’t mean it that way. Why is it misleading? Because it unwittingly imposes limitations on God’s transcendent and sovereign will. As though God could not give us the strength to endure suffering without progressive preparation. The danger is one of reductionism, i.e., reducing the enormous complexity of sanctifying grace in our souls against the repugnance we experience in the face of the crosses Christ calls us to suffer. A metaphor of growth in physical strength is never adequate to help explain our spiritual and psychological struggles(which obviously includes our bodies), our acceptance of or refusal to grow in holiness.

    Many years ago I got involved in a therapeutic community. Ostensibly, to get help with a lot of emotional baggage. When I eventually left that community, I had the same problems as before. Yet, I was convinced that it was God’s Will that guided me to that psychotheraputic practice. But what was the point of it all? I had the same issues after that very painful episode in my life.

    In 1986, eight years after my departure from depth psychology, out of the blue, the Holy Spirit came to me in a new and conscious way that changed my life forever. I was slowly made to see the profound spiritual dimensions of my life as a faithful Roman Catholic and I came to see the pride and arrogance of psychotherapy which utterly denied the spiritual immortal soul. I was made aware that this was God addressing me through the Catholic Church I had been baptized in and which I thought I had left when I was 20. And so for the past 30 years I have lived a deep interior life in conformity to church dogmas while the Holy Spirit guides the integration of my true self with the lived life of my ego which stubbornly resists surrendering to the true person I am. We would all be that true self, hidden in the spiritual shadows, if original sin did not cause such devastation to humanity.

    To get to my point. I subsequently thought that my years in therapy were preparation for my spiritual journey which started consciously in 86. But over time I was given to understand that I was imposing my ego’s limitations on God’s Will for me. God did not need to prepare me as I had foolishly assumed. His will, his Grace is sovereign. Over the 8 years I was “in therapy” I experienced tremendous psychological humiliation. Which was the total opposite of what I had hoped for. Nevertheless, it had a profound spiritual purpose, the suffering I endured, for which I am so very grateful, but which I would never have intentionally chosen. However, God knew what I needed to grow to love Him more and more. What is even more significant is that I accepted albeit, with a lot of struggle, the humiliations. The problem I had that led me to humiliation: Anger!! The Holy Spirit wanted me to experience over and over again with His Grace, the humiliation that came with having to face up to my anger and taking responsibility.The reasons for my anger were not psychological at all, which I had assumed it was. The primary reason for my anger was spiritual. That is the spiritual life God gave me. But what God prepared me for was the knowledge that all those years had a spiritual importance that it was impossible for me to see or accept at the time. And most of my anger and anxiety have been healed. They are in the past for which I’m grateful. However, in the proper ordering of my spiritual and psychological life my issues are of secondary importance.

    Because we are wounded by Adam’s sin of pride, we can’t not be blind and stupid.. We are self-centred, and so we are not even aware that we measure God by the standards and limitations of our foolish egos.

    Was Padre Pio prepared for the stigmata he bore for 50 years?. Was Joan of Arc given preparation for her ordeal at the stake? And Ste Therese de Lisieux, Was she prepared for the last 15 months of her short life, her body devoured by tuberculosis and at the same time suffering the Dark Night, without a single consolation? We don’t know the most intimate secrets of the souls of holy men and women. OF COURSE GOD PREPARED THEM. We just don’t know the hidden ways God prepared them. One thing for certain, any ideas they had about how and why they suffered were dispelled by the Holy Spirit if they put limitations on God’s holiness and thereby He raised them up to great heights of holiness. We can only ask for the sanctifying graces that God wills to prepare us for holiness. And accept what He gives us or leads us to and trust that He will give us the strength, the resources we need to obey His will.

  13. Thank you for your insight, Steve. I have a brother who is in the most intense chronic pain due to botched spinal surgery and in terrible emotional pain from the rejection of his children. He is no saint..he has wreaked his own havoc; however, the level of suffering he is enduring with no end in sight is heartbreaking and, dare I say, not just. He keeps reaching out and gets slammed and is a slave to painkillers and there presently is nothing that can be done. He cannot sleep, cries out in pain and is losing his will to live. I laid awake for much of the night praying for him and asking God why this has to be and begging Him to heal my brother. No insight or inspiration given. Yet, after a hellish night of my own sleeplessness and wrestling with God, I see this article. I won’t say it is an answer to a prayer. I cannot for I am struggling very much with this. However, your description of yourself reminded me of my brother very much and your struggle and faith gives me hope for him. He is a faithful man, a believer in Jesus. I still want my brother to be cut some slack in the suffering department. He is a tough guy, but he also has a tremendous heart which has been very hurt and it just seems that his life has been nothing but failure, loss and pain since he was born…and it isn’t getting any better. I don’t know how much God expects some people to take. Thank you for giving some hope this morning.

  14. An amazing, heartfelt post! Thank you! I am sorry for the suffering you are currently experiencing, Steve, whatever it may be. And I hope you will one day see the blessing that it is and praise God through the pain. (Or perhaps you are already doing so?) It is a journey we each must take – and we either lighten our load by embracing our cross, or we add to its weight by cursing it. Either way, it is God’s will that we carry it and only in humble submission do we grow in holiness through it.
    If I cannot post this link here, please remove it. I only post it to let you know how much I appreciate the strength it takes to reveal your pain and how suffering can indeed bring about so much good. Prayers that peace comes to your heart.


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