An atheist once told me that Christianity is a crutch for weak people. He sneered and referred to Jesus as my imaginary friend. Having had aggressive MS for decades, I think I know a thing or two about weakness, crutches, braces, and wheelchairs. Jesus is not my imaginary friend – His presence came into clearer focus the more I sank into the abyss of neurological degeneration. He is truer and more faithful to me than I have been to Him. He continually advocates to the Father on my behalf.
I have always slept well, but a few years after being diagnosed with MS, the attacks were so erratic and vicious, I found myself being awakened in the middle of the night by a Presence. It was Him. His message was unstated but clear: “It is I, be not afraid,” or more precisely, “I am. Be not afraid.”
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Apostle tells us that Christ has always been with God and that all things came to be through him. He wrote, “Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness – and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.4-5.)
The triune God is the Creator of all reality, life, understanding, and the source of all authentic illumination. I had to trust that Christ would somehow light the darkness of my fears and outright terror. That marked the beginning of my search for meaning in my suffering.
In my search for meaning in my suffering, I got a hint in something Saint Pope John Paul who once said, “[I]n order to perceive the true answer to the ‘why’ of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of meaning of everything that exists.” He told us that love is the richest source of meaning of suffering and that it remains a mystery.If God is love, then I must turn to Him for illumination regardless of what is happening to me.
The answer to the “why” of suffering ultimately depends on our ability to comprehend the perfection of divine love, beginning at the cross. The Pontiff said the reason for Christ’s Passion, and death on the cross was to settle with God the problem of human sin and evil. People suffer whenever they experience evil. The ultimate suffering is the loss of eternal life. Christ’s atoning sacrifice, his suffering and crucifixion, offering himself in our place to pay the penalty for our sins – liberating from evil all who believe this. Notice how closely evil is bound to suffering – specifically the suffering of Jesus Christ at Calvary. How we respond to His sacrifice for our sakes, can open the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the life of the person who suffers. John Paull II said this is the beginning of discerning the idea of divine mercy.
In my case the idea of divine mercy broke my heart because I was/am so undeserving of it. It called me anew to repentance and keeping short accounts with God. It introduced me to the blessing of being “poor in spirit.” This state of spirit poverty is the forerunner of internal transformation.
It was important for me to resist the temptation to become bitter, not to focus on my predicament, and simply surrender to the perfect and divine love of Christ. Through my Redeemer’s outstretched arms on the cross, He invited me to unite my suffering with his suffering.
Imagine that! I was invited into Christ’s redemptive suffering. This marked a critical transition point in my acceptance of suffering and stop resisting what I could not control. It required me to relinquish to Him ownership of my pain. It required that a shift take place in my spiritual mindset in order to realize that it is more important to understand than to be understood.
I was being called to set aside self-interest and ego and follow Christ with complete abandon. This is the complete antithesis of my egotistical and self-absorbed nature. Christ was calling me, in my sorrow and pain, to transcend beyond myself and unite my suffering with His at the Cross (just as he calls you to transcend yourself).
Jesus told us that we must be willing to take up our cross daily and follow Him. It is not easy for us to take up our cross, but it is necessary if truth means anything. It requires us to daily recommit ourselves to bear up under the weight of our cross and follow him. But follow Him where?
In my own weakness, I have been so irrationally afraid to take up my cross and follow Christ because I feared it might lead to a Golgotha. Yet divine logic assures me I can rest in Christ’s embrace as a child of God. I remember those words: “Be not afraid. I am with you.”
If I carry my cross of suffering in union with Christ’s redemptive suffering, it does not lead a Golgotha. It leads to the understanding that Christ raised human suffering to the level of redemption in Him – if we will accept it; a sharer in Christ’s redemptive suffering.
This is what Pope John Paul called the eloquence of the cross. Death for the believer completes the eloquence of the Resurrection.
Suffering in unison with Christ has helped me to see Resurrection in a whole new light. My hope in, and anticipation of the Resurrection help me to go through my darkest days of humiliations, my agonies, my doubts, my fears.
The Apostle Paul said, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We can, through faith, discover that Christ’s redemptive suffering gives us insights into our own suffering. I am convinced this is what St, Paul meant when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I love, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself for me.”
A suffering heart can rest in the hope of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The sufferer begins to realize they are mysteriously being transformed and made fit for heaven. If we open our sufferings to Christ’s love, it will inevitably begin a spiritual transformation.
Throughout the ages, it has been observed that suffering has the concealed power to draw the sufferer toward Christ if the sufferer allows it. I have discovered that Christ grants a special grace that transcends my suffering. Suffering has the capacity to strip away all things extraneous to life leaving only that which is essential.
Suffering has taught me that at the center of existence lies a beautiful mystery. Once that mystery has been glimpsed everything else becomes an irrelevance, a diversion. That mystery is the light of Christ which creates a renewed quality of Christian conversion. Many people throughout history have discovered this truth including, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Milton, John Donne, and millions of ordinary people.
The 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne wrote his immortal 17th Meditation while convalescing from an illness that nearly killed him. Most people are aware of that Meditation’s passage: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Later in that same Meditation he speaks about the refining effect that suffering can have on one person but wasted on another. He wrote, “No man and hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.” Is this the case for all people who suffer? No, and Donne acknowledged this a few lines later when he wrote, “Another man may be sick too, and sick to the death, and his affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him.”
John Donne’s believed that suffering could be a blessing to the individual or others if allowed to ripen a person’s spiritual character. These were insights from a man who defended suicide 15 years earlier in a scurrilous book Biathanatos. Why the change of heart? Could it be that his suffering and interior throes of his soul, had a purifying effect on his spiritual character?
Suffering is not what defeats people, suffering without meaning is what does that. All humanity longs for belonging. Our true belonging lies in surrender and resting in the light of Christ. That is all I really know. In my suffering I have received a glimpse of the truth and the truth is setting me free. Not even crippled legs, a useless arm and wheelchair could take that from me.
As I move into the last phase of my life, I think I understand the Why of my suffering and the meaning of my life. I was born to love God and my neighbour as myself. Christ wants me to take the hope that is within me, and the message of Christ's divine love, to others in their suffering, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. — Mark Davis Pickup
 Saint Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Dorolis, On the Meaning of Human Suffering, 11 February, 1984. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html