The Meaning of Suffering

Our suffering is meaningful.

Suffering and death. No one escapes it. It is part of the drama of our human existence. Accepting or denying this fact makes all the difference in pursuing our own happiness. We must look to the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to begin to see and find the meaning of our suffering. But suffering is seen as meaningless to the world governed by the falsities of immediate gratification and the often irrational demands of the self-absorbed ego. The postmodern world looks desperately to material things like science on the one hand, or drugs and decadence on the other, in the vain attempt to avoid or to end suffering, and it always fails.

The great American and Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, knew about suffering, having suffered over most of her adult life with the long-term effects of Lupus, an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, joints, kidneys, brain and other organs, caused by the immune system of the body mistakenly attacking healthy tissue. According to Lorraine V. Murray in her book, The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey, “She understood that suffering is not meaningless, but that it uncovers the secret at the heart of life. Far from being senseless, it actually makes sense of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. It is not needless but necessary. Her faith taught her that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross had changed suffering forever, giving it a deeper meaning, and she lived as if she believed it.”

Suffering is a paradox. Without accepting suffering and understanding it, we become victims of it. In accepting it and in facing it, whether it comes to us unjustly, or through our own sinful errors, it gives us an opportunity, through faith, humility, and the practices of patient endurance, to find meaning in it. In doing so, we can grow and mature as human beings. We can also prepare our eternal souls for the life of joy that awaits us in the Kingdom of God.

In Flannery O’Connor’s stories, we see that the absence of the acceptance of suffering leads to sadism, often of the most psychotic type. Her truly psychotic character, the “Misfit”, in her short story, ironically titled, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, reveals this insight when he says, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If he did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” The “Misfit’s” non-acceptance of the meaning of his own suffering is literally deadly, and is rooted, ironically, in theology, not psychology.

How much of the horror and, arguably, the psychotic evil that we see going on at every level today, from the level of the family to the present wars being conducted around the world, is a result of this inability to accept the reality of suffering? Could it be that our all too common refusal to accept the reality of suffering, and then our cowardice to honestly address its causes, in order to seek meaningful and just ways to deal with it both at the personal and the universal levels, is related to the all too quick, knee-jerk, psychotic choice of “going to war?”

Jesus, the One, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8), is our example. It is Jesus and his kingdom that we must keep our eyes on in order to find meaning in our own suffering. It is Jesus’ suffering and death that changes everything, that has the power to give meaning to all of our own suffering. His suffering and death reveals the depth of the Father’s love for us, and through it, the eternal kingdom of God has been opened to us. Our suffering, confronted, endured, and, yes, even offered up for the coming of his kingdom, is as meaningful as anything in life could ever be. This is true heroism, true love, and real meaning and purpose.

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