A mother brought a child, who just died, to Gautama Buddha and asked him, “Why there is suffering and death?” I lost my only child, can you do something? Buddha answered the mother, “Go and bring a handful of mustard seed from a family which has not experienced suffering and death and I will give life to this child. She went and came back to Buddha and got enlightened that suffering and death were part and parcel of human life.
Suffering tests our character, makes it stronger thereby leads to hope in God and a deeper understanding of his love. It helps us to have a better focus on God. In such experiences, God invites us to draw strength from him. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans says, “Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, Character hope, hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us” (Rom 5:3-5).
Thus our proper response to suffering becomes testimony and encouragement to many others who too suffer. Again St. Paul in his letter to Corinthians says, “Praise be to God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all comforts, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the suffering of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Cor 1:3-5).
We see in this text, the experience of suffering and comfort in four levels:
1. God understands our suffering and he is the Father of all comforts.
2. His comfort flows to us through Jesus Christ in whose sufferings and comfort we participate.
3. We are comforted by him in our sufferings.
4. That comfort we receive from him should overflow to others, who go through sufferings. In fact, our love for one another, being galvanized by our suffering, shapes us for our compassionate service of one another. Our sufferings bring us closer to others who suffer and also strengthen our faith in, and dependence on God.
Suffering for others or for a cause or for an ideology is not uncommon. For example, the mother undergoes suffering to give birth to a child. Jesus says, “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:21). Similarly a soldier at the war suffers and dies for the country; even terrorists go on suicide missions for their own goals and risk their lives. This is called vicarious suffering or suffering for the sake of others.
Jesus came into this world, with a purpose. He identified with human race in everything except sin (Heb 4:15). He suffered and died and washed our sins, by fulfilling His Father’s will. He manifested in the act of sacrifice his love for the Father and the humanity. Every disciple of Christ is called to manifest the love of Christ. Love cannot be manifested without sacrifice. Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). This is the cost of discipleship. St. Paul writing to the Corinthians encourages them to bear the sufferings and trails with trust in the Lord. “No trial has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tried beyond your strength, but with the trial will also provide the way of escape so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). God uses our sufferings for our purifications and salvation of others. Hence suffering becomes redemptive and vicarious.
Let us look at Jesus on the cross. He accepted suffering with total confidence in his Father. “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; remove the cup from me; yet not what I will but what you will” (Lk14:36). By putting Father’s will before his will, he teaches us how to face our own sufferings. Hence Jesus received strength and courage from the Father to face his sufferings. Besides, St. Paul considers his own suffering as a privilege in partaking in the suffering of Christ. “Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body, that is the church” (Col 1:21).
The Pentacostal groups don’t value the meaning of suffering. They give easy solutions to all sufferings of the devotees. They fail to teach the meaning and value of suffering. They are preaching a “Christianity without cross”, which is contrary to the spirit and the message of Jesus. To praise and thank the Lord in the midst of adversities is not easy to put into practice. This is possible only when we accept our sufferings as partners in the passion and death of Jesus.
St. John Paul II speaks of “creative character of suffering”. He himself underwent terrible suffering at the end of his life. He was admitted in Gemelli hospital, in Rome. It was Maundy Thursday. He wanted to participate in the ceremony of that day as it is a special day for priests and it is the day of the institution of the Eucharist. Since he could not physically be present for the ceremony, he was sad and dejected. He had suddenly experienced a joy and peace in his heart. He said, “Now I am uniting myself with Jesus, who suffered for me on this day and who offered himself on this day for the salvation of mankind”.
Hence it is important to teach people especially the old, the terminally ill and bedridden people to unite themselves with the suffering of Jesus so that they may value their suffering and accept their suffering with peace and serenity.
Most Rev. Dr. M. Devadass Ambrose
Bishop of Thanjavur