Monday, August 2, 2010

Redemptive Suffering and Spiritual Combat

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" It is a question that is almost as old as suffering itself. We live in a world that firmly believes that living a life of goodness will lead to good rewards. On this point, the world is absolutely right. However, the world far too often fails to understand that not all good rewards can be perceived through the use of our senses. And all too often, what is perceived by the world as a good reward is little more than a scrap that is tossed to us by an evil one who wishes to blind us to the reality of far greater rewards, so that, as William Wallace puts it in the movie Braveheart, we become so busy fighting for these scraps that we lose sight of our God given right to something better. I firmly believe that bad things happen to good people so that we can be reminded of the fact that something better awaits, and that we should not content ourselves merely with earthly consolation prizes.

A second question is often asked. It is much like the first question, but is far more direct in the answer that it seeks. The question is this: "How can a God who is good allow people to suffer?" It is a question that has led many bitter and disillusioned people, consumed by despair, to abandon their belief in God, or at least in the goodness of God; and unfortunately, once they do this despair is exactly what awaits them, for hope depends upon faith. And once a person ceases to believe in the existence or in the goodness of God he loses the very hope that allows him to cope with the suffering that remains a part of his life whether or not he chooses to believe.

No man escapes suffering. Not one of us. Whether it is a physical form of suffering such as a disease or a physical wound, whether it is an emotional suffering such as a broken heart, loneliness, or the death of a loved one, or whether it is a spiritual suffering such as struggling with discerning our vocation, suffering can and very often does find us all. God spares no man from suffering. And for those who would ask why God would allow good people to suffer, I am reminded of what Jesus Himself said to the rich young man who called Him "Good Teacher." Jesus replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." He said this that we may be reminded that God is the source of all good, and that we can do no good apart from him.

But even this does not answer the question, because even if we accept that no one is good but God alone, we have the example of the suffering of the One who was good. "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Look at the good man who died on the Cross, and ask yourself: "If God had not allowed the very worst of things to happen to the very best of men, then how would the very best of things have been made available to me?"

I look at this, and I can't help but ask myself: "Is suffering necessarily a bad thing?"

Now mind you, I'm not saying that we should go out and seek suffering for its own sake. Far from it. That's called masochism, and those who engage in it are deeply disturbed individuals who derive no true benefit from what they are doing. But if we learn to accept the fact that suffering is an inevitable part of our life, then we can accept those sufferings when they do come and attempt to do some good with them.

We all know from personal experience that good things can come from suffering. We can all point to some painful episode in our past and identify good things that came about as a result of that painful episode. More to the point, we can look back and see that some good things that came about - things we treasure and which we would not trade for anything - would never have happened if those painful episodes had not taken place.

We also know that there are things in our lives for which we are willing to suffer. Those who have children will sacrifice everything for their sake. No greater love exists than to lay one's life down for the sake of another, Jesus tells us. Ask a parent sometime whose life they would choose to save if they had to choose between themselves and one of their children.

Of course, sacrifice usually takes on less severe forms. We have all been confronted with times where we had to choose between something we wanted and something that a loved one wanted. I think we'd all like to be able to say that we always denied ourselves for the sake of those we loved. Unfortunately, I think we can also say that we haven't always been that generous; but I like to think that we can all look back and remember times when we were. And that small cross of self-denial, while a source of discomfort, was also very rewarding when we saw the look of joy on the face of our beloved. Indeed, we can say that we took joy in that small cross.

We think about how much we love the people who are important to us, and what we are willing to sacrifice for them. How much more than that does God love us? It is a love beyond measure. It is a love so great that God the Father willingly sent God the Son to live and suffer as one of us. It is a love so great that God the Son willingly came and suffered for us when He had absolutely no obligation to do so. He recognized that through our sin we had incurred a debt so great that in our limited capacity we simply could not pay the devil his due, and so He willingly offered Himself up as a ransom infinitely more valuable than what was owed in order to redeem us. Jesus paid a debt He did not owe in order to help us settle a debt we could not pay. And He did it completely out of the boundless love in His Sacred Heart when He was under no obligation to do so.

And what was this debt that was paid? So many books and movies have tried to depict the Passion of Our Lord. So many Saints have been blessed with visions of those horrific events. But none can truly do the suffering of Our Lord justice. Even the frankly brutal depiction in the recent movie The Passion of the Christ, as much as it jarred our senses, falls laughably short. Consider that it was more than just the physical beatings He endured. Consider that it was more than just the many emotional humiliations that were visited upon His divine dignity. Consider that it was more than just the spiritual anguish of seeing His Blessed Mother's heart break, or that he saw the tears of His followers and the lament of the heavenly host of angels who were there, just waiting for Him to give the word so that they could come to the defense of their most Beloved, or who were even willing to offer themselves up for sacrifice in His place. Consider that, from the moment He left the upper room where He instituted the Eucharist and knelt in anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the moment He was laid in the tomb of St. Joseph of Arimathea, He placed Himself completely at the mercy of the evil one. Satan and his legions were given this one chance, one opportunity in all of time or eternity, one chance to destroy God! One chance to throw everything he had at God - every horror that his sick, twisted, yet incredibly creative mind could devise - and God the Son humbly stood there, making no effort to fight back. Do you think the devil held back? Do you think there was a single kitchen sink that was not uprooted from its place in the bowels of hell? Do you think there was a single form of suffering known to man - and countless other forms besides - that were not inflicted upon Our Lord's precious form in that small window of opportunity afforded to the evil one? We think we know what it means to bear a cross. We should be thankful to God for our ignorance! Such was the love of the Eternal Word that He became flesh and dwelt among us, and did what no sane human being would ever do. He said, “Devil, do your worst!” And the devil did.

The Gospels tell us that when Christ knelt in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, His stress was so great that His sweat fell to the ground in drops of blood. It’s easy to overlook this moment in light of what the Lord later suffered, but it is such an important part of the Passion to understand. Ask a medical expert sometime what incredible amount of stress is needed to sweat blood, and then try to imagine how much greater the stress needed to be for the God-man to do so. Theologians and Saints blessed with visions of the events of the Passion have long held that in those moments when He knelt in prayer, Our Lord was receiving the final preparations for the ordeal that was now beginning for Him. In that time, He was shown every sin for which His sacrifice would bring forgiveness, and every sinner for which His sacrifice would bring redemption. He saw each and every one of us, for before we were formed in the womb He knew us; and He saw each of our joys, works, and sufferings. He saw everything in us that was sinful and broken, and He saw every grace that would be given to us from that infinite deposit of grace that He was about to win for us. He saw us, He knew us, and He loved us. And as He saw each of us, He knew in His heart that He would gladly do it for any one of us, to say nothing of being willing to do it for all of us.

In the Agony in the Garden, Jesus assumed the weight of the world. He was shown every cross that each of us would bear, and each of those crosses, burdens that are so terrible for us to bear alone, were but a mere speck, a speck of a speck, of the True Cross that He was about to bear.

It is important for us to understand this fact. Every cross that we have borne, every cross that we now bear, and every cross that we have yet to bear was added to the burden that Our Lord carried for us. So it is with every person who has ever lived and who is yet to enter the world. And just as each of us is unique, so every cross that we bear is unique. No two crosses are alike. More than one person may be affected by the same event - such as siblings losing a parent - but due to a variety of factors each person will respond to the event in a different way and as a result they will bear separate and unique crosses. And just as each cross that we bear is unique, so are the graces that we receive to bear each cross unique. We often speak of wishing we were in a certain person’s shoes, or of certain people with whom we would never want to trade places. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that others are better or worse off than we are as far as bearing crosses. We need to abandon this way of thinking. We could literally trade places with anyone in the world - from the person perceived as living the most wretched existence to the person perceived as leading the most charmed life - and I guarantee you that within a week everyone would be begging to have their old lives back. This is because while we might be able to trade the crosses, we can never trade the corresponding graces. Each cross that we bear comes with a unique grace to be able to bear that cross. We are literally tailor-made for our crosses. Such is the will of God, and it is one of the many reasons why He has a unique plan for each of us.

If we understood just how much of a grace the crosses we bear can themselves be, we would not want to trade them away anyway. None of us can possibly understand how truly blessed we are to have the crosses we carry. As I mentioned before, each of those crosses is a speck of the one True Cross - but it is a unique speck. No one else can ever fully understand what it is like to bear one of your crosses. There are those who may have some notion of what it is like from bearing a similar cross, but their cross, however similar, is just as unique as yours. No one can fully help you bear the burden. No one, that is, except the one who already bore that burden. If any of us could truly understand what a unique and irreplaceable bond we have with Our Lord through each cross that we bear - something we share with Our Lord that is uniquely ours - we would bear each cross joyfully and without complaint, despite the suffering involved (and the suffering must be present, otherwise it is not truly a cross). But we don’t see it, because of our fallen nature. So we must pray every day for the eyes to see how blessed we truly are, so that we may live our lives accordingly with joy in our hearts.

As He knelt in the Garden, Our Lord not only took upon Himself the weight of the world upon His shoulders, He also gave us the proper example of how a burden should be carried. There are those who look at His comment - “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” - and they say that Jesus was experiencing a moment of weakness. If so, then as the perfect human being it must have been a perfectly human moment of weakness. By that I mean that Jesus is revealing something to us about the nature of man. Remember that He entered the world free from sin, and was not affected by the effects of original sin that leads to our fallen nature. If He is telling His Father that He would prefer not to suffer, then the obvious conclusion is that man had an aversion to suffering even before the Fall of Adam and Eve. Thus, Jesus is having an honest moment where He is telling the Father that He is not looking forward to what comes next. In those moments when He knelt in prayer, Our Lord was, in fact, already bearing the Cross of redemption.

But Jesus did not just come into the world to redeem creation. He also came to sanctify us, to teach us how to rise above our own weaknesses and to turn our eyes toward God despite our fears and aversions. Thus He goes on to say, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Let Your will be done Lord, not mine. Jesus is calling to us to obey the will of God. More than that, He is calling us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul, and to be willing to make any sacrifice that is pleasing to Him for the sake of being with Him. Jesus offered up His cross - His most perfect Cross - for the perfect fulfillment of God’s will. For our own suffering to have any merit, we are called to unite our own meager crosses to those of Our Lord, apart from whom no good can be done.

In the Agony in the Garden and the following events of the Passion, Jesus also shows us another important aspect of how to suffer properly for Our Lord. Though He had every right to do so, He didn’t just march up to Calvary at the head of a royal procession and say, “Let’s get this over with.” No, for the duration of the Passion he submitted to the authorities - both natural and preternatural - that would carry out His Passion. Jesus knew that the crosses we bear in our everyday lives would hold no redemptive value unless we bore them humbly. That is the single greatest challenge that each of us faces when it comes to embracing our crosses. This is certainly the case in my own life. Lord knows - literally - that I have not always been gracious in receiving the crosses that He has willed for me to carry. I can point to many times in my own life where my crosses left me bitter and disillusioned, and more recently than I care to admit. I know we have all had this struggle. Jesus set the proper example for us. When we recognize that we are carrying a cross, we must recognize our own weakness - “let this cup pass from me” - but also recognize the grace we have been given to be able to say, “Let your will be done, Lord, not mine,” and move forward, asking for the help of the one who bore the True Cross to help us bear own meager cross humbly towards whatever goal God desires.

Of course, we are not without an enemy as we seek to embrace our crosses and fulfill God’s will. This enemy seeks to remain in the shadows, always working to separate the Body of Christ from its Head, always seeking to separate us from the Cross that proved to be his own downfall, so that he can pick us off one by one. It is the same ancient enemy who first posed the question, as innocently as his twisted lips could convey it: “Why would a good and loving God let you suffer like this?” Always, the devil strikes first where he knows it will hurt most - our pride. Why, he would ask, would you be willing to believe in someone who would torture you like this, and worse, expects you to delight in that torture! That doesn’t sound like a loving God to me. You deserve better. There’s so many pleasures around you. Why keep denying yourself? There’s no need to suffer like this.

Always, the devil tries to convince us first that God doesn’t exist, because not believing in God means not believing in the devil; and he wants us to think that the voice counseling us to turn away from God belongs to us and not to him. When he sees that he cannot turn us from believing in the reality of God, then he tries to undermine the reality of God as good and loving. So many people in the world today who claim to be atheist and launch a crusade against the Christian religion - people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - are so full of bitterness towards anything that smacks of Christianity that I have a very hard time believing they are true atheists. You do not launch a crusade against something you do not believe in. You launch a crusade against something you hate. I believe the devil, having failed to convince the likes of these that God does not exist, convinced them instead that God was not good and loving, thus making Him in their mind an entity worthy of revilement. Nothing else can explain their desire to destroy all evidence of anything that gives glory to God.

The devil’s next trick, after failing to convince us that God is neither present nor good, is to make us think that God did not intend for us to suffer. And if we counter that with the obvious question of why He would allow His own Son to suffer if this was indeed the case, then he would answering by saying that Jesus suffered so no one else would have to. To which I reply: “Yeah, tell that to His Apostles.” Every step of the way, the devil will try to talk us out of the need to embrace our crosses. Mind you, he so hates us that he still wants us to suffer from the burden of the crosses, he just does not want us to find redemption in that suffering.

This is the battle that is waged around us every day - the devil always trying to appeal to our pride so we do not grow in that wonderful virtue of humility, while our guardian angel works to keep him at bay so that divine grace can take firm hold in our hearts and leads us to do what is good. You see, the devil is always taking what is good and from God and creating twisted versions of these things. God gives us virtues, and the devil gives us vices; and through those vices, seven deadly sins. God gives humility. St. Augustine writes that humility is the foundation of all other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there can be no other virtue except in mere appearance - and the devil is all about appearances! Without humility, we cannot practice the greatest virtue of all: charity, which properly defined is the love of God above all things and for His own sake. Simply put, without humility we cannot truly love God.

To oppose humility, the devil gives us pride, the love of our own excellence, that wretched sin that was the catalyst for Lucifer’s own fall from grace, and which keeps us from acknowledging our own limitations and our own brokenness and blinds us to the glory of God. Pride is the foundation of all vices and all of the deadly sins, because pride is what allows us to justify our sins even as we are committing them. And unless we embrace our crosses as an opportunity to grow in humility and thus closer to God, the devil will use our sufferings as an opportunity to nurture our wounded pride and drive us further from God, as he has succeeded in doing with so many embittered souls.

This is the battle that is being waged every day. It is the same battle that Our Lord fought, with the devil trying to turn Him away from the mission He took on flesh in order to accomplish. This is the battle of which we need to be aware, so that we can cooperate in the act of our salvation by responding to the sacrifice of the Cross and the promptings of divine grace. We must forever be mindful of the fact that hell is not a punishment, but a choice. God desires that we be with Him in eternity, but He so respects our free will that He will never force us to choose Him. The crosses we bear are such a wonderful opportunity to respond to the work of divine grace. They are the perfect way to unite ourselves to and embrace the crucified Christ, so that just as He conquered death we may, through His divine example, gain everlasting life. They are, finally, a constant reminder of what Christ told us concerning the need to grow in holiness in this life. He never promised it would be easy, He only promised that it would be worth it. God bless!