Two questions have plagued the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike: why is there suffering? Why does God allow suffering?
There is one person who stands out above all to give an answer to these deepest of questions, namely St. Paul. In St. Paul’s writings we find a greatly developed meaning of suffering. Pope John Paul II explains why St. Paul writes so much on suffering: “The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help – just as it helped him – to understand the salvific meaning of suffering” (Salvifici Doloris, 1).
In this column we will consider Paul’s inward focus, the way in which he sees himself, through his suffering, as participating in salvation, especially the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the next column we will consider his outward focus, namely, his view on how his suffering affects others.
Paul understands that the suffering he endures serves as a way to be like Christ, as well as it being for Christ’s sake. Paul says: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his suffering, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11)
This passage follows a text where Paul speaks about all he had gained according to the flesh, being a Hebrew and a Pharisee. However, he now considers this gain to be loss and refuse, compared to gaining Christ through his sufferings. He gains righteousness not through his own power but through Christ’s.
Suffering is a participation in the mystery of Christ and is the way Paul can become like Christ. Suffering is his way of “becoming like him (Christ) in his death” so that he “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Through his suffering, Paul sees himself as participating in the Passion of Christ. Because we are being saved through the death and resurrection of Christ we must participate in his Passion to obtain salvation.
We see elsewhere in Philippians this notion of imitating Christ being gain for Paul, whether in death or life. He says: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:19-21).
For Paul to live is gain because while he suffers in this life he is imitating Christ and becoming more Christ-like. Further, to live is gain because while Paul lives he can spread the faith and be an example for the Christian community. He says, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:24) Also, to die is gain because if he were to die he would share in the resurrection of Christ. So whether he lives and suffers, leading to the resurrection for himself and others, or dies and shares in the resurrection himself alone, he will be united to Christ and be an example for all.
Another dimension of Paul’s thought on the meaning of suffering is his conception of suffering as a means for sanctification, keeping pride at a minimum and trust in God at a maximum. He says: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’…For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
It is in weakness that we are more apt to trust in Christ because we realize that what we accomplish is not of our own doing, but the grace of Christ is working in us. Furthermore, it is in our weakness and suffering that we grow in humility and cannot pride ourselves in our accomplishments. We suffer “to make us rely, not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
We see in these verses of 2 Corinthians 12 that this suffering is once again “for the sake of Christ.” It is through grace that Paul can be content with suffering. We receive here an insight into the effectiveness of grace. Grace helps us to participate in the salvific act of suffering and to be content with it.
This is why Paul can say in his letter to the Galatians that “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (2:20) Christ gave himself up for us in the salvific act of his Passion and death; Paul sees himself doing the same in participating in the Passion and death of Christ. Christ lives in him when he is “crucified with Christ.” John Paul II notes that “Christ also becomes in a particular way united to the man, Paul, through the cross” (SD, 20).
Paul reveals to us the paradox of the cross. To be crucified usually means death, but for Paul it means Christ living in him. In suffering, when united to Christ, death now means life. This is why he says in 1 Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18).
There is this intimate bond between the cross, the epitome of the sufferings of Christ, and the suffering of the people which is a participation in the self-same cross. Thus participation in the cross through suffering is a way of obtaining grace, the power of God to participate in salvation. This is also why Paul can say elsewhere in Galatians: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world…Henceforth let no man trouble me, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:14, 17).