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On the Mystery of Offering Up Our Sufferings
Dr. Robert Stackpole Answers Your Questions on Divine Mercy
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 23, 2007)
Every once in a while, someone sends me a letter that is so poignant and so profound, that I am compelled in conscience to share almost the whole text of it with the readers of this column. That happened recently with a letter I received from a person with a truly beautiful soul named "Angela." Here is the entire text of her good letter (printed here with her permission):
Dear Dr. Stackpole,
I just read the section on your website that asked: "If God is so merciful, why do the innocent suffer so much?".
And I have something that I would like to add. Although I have also struggled greatly with this question throughout my life (and still do at times), I have begun to understand the value of our suffering if we offer it up for the salvation of souls in union with Jesus' suffering on the cross.
Yes, it is very hard to understand why suffering is a necessary part of love and of our salvation. For example, why did Jesus have to endure His horrifying passion and death?
He was certainly innocent. Why was that necessary? He is God. Couldn't He have chosen another way to save us? That is truly the hard part to understand. However, He went before us, He suffered first, and then He said "take up your cross and follow Me," out of love for all souls and thus a desire for their salvation.
Before I learned about, and understood, "offering things up," I used to be very angry about my suffering; not so much for myself (because I knew I was supposed to bear my cross), but for the other people in my life that I thought I was negatively impacting. I had ongoing, apparently inexplicable health problems, and I kept thinking, "OK, maybe this is my cross to bear in life, but how can any good come of this? How am I supposed to serve God or do anything worthwhile with my life when frequently I can barely function? And how is this fair or right for my child to have to live with?"
It is still quite difficult at times, but I have to say that once I began offering things up (which over time has become easier and easier to do, as well as much more heartfelt and sincere) and truly understanding the offering and its great value for souls, my anger about suffering has dissipated. Do not get me wrong — I do not seek out suffering, or wish it upon myself, but I do make full use of it when it is present. I offer it up and begin praying for all souls, as well as for specific people who need my prayers, and this allows me to endure the suffering with a sense of peace. When I fail to do this, anger begins to blossom and take over.
As for my daughter, her cross to bear has been to have to live with my health problems as well. But this has not hurt her. In fact, it has helped her to develop into a kind, compassionate, and loving child, who thinks of others and not only of herself. And in sharing the value of offering things up with her, she has grown spiritually as well. This experience has been a blessing for her, not the horrible deprivation I once thought.
Saint Faustina, St. Padre Pio, and many other saints have suffered much in their lives, and talk about offering it up, and how pleased Jesus is when we do this and how many souls are saved through this action.
The awesome and true value of offering things up, like Jesus did, is the main point that I wanted to make; however, one final thought occurs to me in reference to your comment that we do not understand the whole picture, but God does and we must trust Him. I completely agree. For example, our suffering can be strengthening, developing, and molding us for something greater that we must do later in life. Or frequently, it is one aspect of many that places us in the right place at the right time to do God's work. Perhaps we meet someone in a doctor's office that we would not meet otherwise; and it is Divine Providence that we meet this person either for their benefit, for ours, or for countless other people whose lives we may touch. We do not know His magnificent plan. But we do know that He was innocent, He suffered first, and He does love us deeply.
Offer your sufferings for souls, teach others about this great treasure, and teach your child. As a result, you will greatly ease their sufferings as well as bring about the salvation of countless souls in the process. I wish someone had shared this with me many years earlier in my life.
Angela, there is no way in a million years that I could have taught people about this aspect of the mystery of suffering any more beautifully than you have done here. Thank you so much for sharing this with me, and for permitting me to share it with all our readers.
I will just add a few additional thoughts in closing.
First, as you pointed out, St. Faustina was one of the saints who participated in this mystery of intentionally offering up one's sufferings for the good of the souls of others. In Diary entry 1032 she wrote: "I saw the Lord Jesus nailed upon the cross amidst great torments. A soft moan issued from His heart. After some time He said "I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help Me, My daughter, to save souls. Join your sufferings to My Passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners."
In entry 482 she writes: "My sacrifice is nothing in itself, but when I join it to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it becomes all powerful."
Jesus said to her, in Diary entry 67: "You are not living for yourself but for souls, and other souls will profit from your sufferings. Your prolonged suffering will give them light and strength to accept my will."
In entry 324 He says to her: "There is but one price at which souls are bought, and that is suffering united to My suffering on the cross. Pure love understands these words; carnal love will never understand them."
In Diary entry 309, St. Faustina heroically offered herself to our Lord, willing to endure even extraordinary sufferings for the good of souls: "I make a voluntary offering of myself for the conversion of sinners, especially for those souls who have lost hope in God's mercy."
Second, it is important to note that this mystery of "co-redemptive suffering" (in other words, of suffering with Christ in such a way that brings the fruits of His redemptive work to needy souls), is also rooted in the New Testament, in the teachings of St. Paul (Col 1:24): "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." Notice that St. Paul did not write, "I rejoice in spite of my sufferings," but "in my sufferings."
There is a deep joy in being able to offer up one's unavoidable sufferings for others. Angela has begun to experience this, and St. Paul understood it very well. Notice also that by "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" St. Paul did not mean to say that there was something inadequate in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross for our sins: what is "lacking" is only enough Christians who are willing to serve and to suffer to bring the fruits of His redemptive love to others: through evangelism, through charitable action and through suffering.
Finally, the most in-depth teaching on this mystery of suffering with Christ is found in one of the greatest documents that Pope John Paul II ever wrote: the Apostolic Letter Salvifici Dolores (literally, "Salvific Suffering"). Here is just one passage of that Apostolic Letter that gets right to the heart of the matter (from sections 26 and 27):
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else He says: "Follow me!" Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross! Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed to him. ... Faith in sharing in 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. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.
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