St. Paul’s understanding of suffering as a participation in salvation is especially evident when he speaks of how his suffering affects others.
In 2 Timothy Paul says, “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2:3). Following this Paul speaks of his imprisonment for the preaching of the Gospel, “the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal” (v. 9).
We hear how his suffering affects other when he says: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him” (vv. 10-12).
In this passage, we see clearly that Paul views his suffering as being salvific for others; he suffers to bring the Gospel, the message of salvation, to the people. He endures his suffering so that they may obtain salvation. Dying, living, and reigning with Christ are aspects of salvation; they “go with eternal glory.”
This notion of suffering to obtain eternal glory is also found in Roman 8:17-18 where Paul is speaking of receiving the Spirit of sonship whereby we become children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Paul says: “…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Further on in Romans 8 he tells us, “We know that in everything [suffering] God works for good with those who love him who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28). Those who suffer are called to share in eternal glory, which is made clearly manifest by the resurrection of Christ.
This notion of our suffering and glory go hand in hand with the suffering and glory of Christ. Not only did the resurrection of Christ show his glory, it was also manifested through the cross. John Paul II notes, “In weakness He manifested His power, and in humiliation He manifested all His messianic greatness” (Salvifici Doloris, 22). Christ manifests his power in our suffering and death, which will one day lead to the resurrection.
Elsewhere Paul speaks of his suffering for others so they may obtain glory. He says, “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (Ephesians 3:13).
In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of how he is afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying in his body the death of Jesus (cf. 4:8-10). He also speaks of how in living he is dying for the sake of Christ.
However, suffering is not only for Christ. Paul goes on to say: “[K]nowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake…” (4:14). Notice once again he reveals how suffering leads to being raised. Paul suffers not only for his sake, nor only for Christ’s sake, but also for the sake of others, so that they may be brought into God’s presence.
John Paul II recognizes in this text that “these sufferings enable the recipients of that letter to share in the work of Redemption, accomplished through the suffering and death of the Redeemer” (SD, 20). St. Paul speaks of the notion of glory a few verses later: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17).
Colossians 1:24 brings together all that has been said thus far. It summarizes Paul’s view that when he suffers he does so for Christ and for others. We see in this passage that when Paul speaks of suffering for Christ, it necessarily includes suffering for others, namely the church. Here Paul’s teaching on the mystical body is linked most profoundly to his teaching on suffering when he says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
John Paul II notes concerning the notion of making up what is lacking: “This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as His Body, Christ has in a sense opened His own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. Insofar as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings…to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world” (SD, 24).
We must realize that making up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering does not mean that redemption is not completed by Christ. Rather, “it only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering” (SD, 24).
Paul is trying to show us that when we suffer we participate in the saving act of redemption. This is not because Christ did not do all he needed to do, but rather that Christ allows us, by divine will, to participate in this aspect of our own and others’ salvation. Suffering is not meaningless. Paul rejoices because in his suffering he suffers for Christ the head, and Christ the body, the church, bringing about her salvation. He is also joyful because suffering is not useless. John Paul II notes, “Faith in sharing the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person ‘completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters (SD, 27).
For Paul, suffering leads to hope precisely because of God’s love. He says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).