All too often in our haste to “defend” God, we fail to ask, and more importantly, answer, what are the most foundational questions of the Christian life. Take, for example, the question of suffering. Quick to build the bridge made by man’s free will, we cleanly unite God’s omnipotence and His omnibenevolence with suffering. Meanwhile, we fail to ask the more personally relevant question as to why it seems that Christians suffer more than non-Christians. Of course this is not true in every individual case, but there is a certain universality we all observe. Not to minimize the suffering of the various groups at the hands of genocidal maniacs, but all of the totalitarian regimes of the past two and a half centuries had a common target: Christians.
For many Christians this is a sign that, very soon, a great chastisement is going to be visited upon mankind. It is only a matter of time before God removes His hand of mercy and rains fire from heaven, wiping out our modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. Others can only see God’s “mercy,” unable to fathom such vengeance from Heaven. In the usual manner of finding the Catholic solution, neither is entirely true nor are they entirely false. That the world in recent times has gone off the rails and that Heaven cannot remain silent is without question. But what if God’s vengeance is being rained out upon the earth and is filtered through the hands of mercy?
Before you dismiss this as theological doublespeak, hear me out. No mere theological sleight of hand, it actually answers the foundational question I opened with. Christians are the ones who suffer more because they are the ones who actually bear the brunt of the chastisement. In so doing they act as the hands of God’s mercy keeping the punishments from falling upon the rest of mankind. God’s mercy and His justice, two sides of the same coin.
There is a Scriptural precedent that illuminates this idea. When God “contemplates” destroying Sodom and Gomorrah He admits to Abraham that He will hold back its destruction if He finds righteous inhabitants within those cities. It is only when He finds none that He allows the destruction to happen. It wasn’t just because He refused to destroy the righteous (even they would eventually die), but because the righteous act as a shield to those around them, holding back the full consequences of sin that would lead to the destruction of the unrighteous. In shielding those around them from the flaming arrows, the righteous still get burned (usually by the very people they are shielding). The just debt for sin is still paid through the application by the Christian of the merits of Christ.
All this talk of God’s justice seems absurd when Christians are “punished” for not just their own sins, but the crimes of others. There is nothing just in this. Except that is, if it is willingly borne and the person is rewarded accordingly. This is why it is such an important question—it is a reminder of what it means to be a Christian. “When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “He bids him come and die.” In becoming a Christian through Baptism, we are brought into the very life of Christ. Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are offered as sacrificial witnesses (i.e martyrs). Christians recapitulate Our Lord’s life and death so as to share in the reward of His resurrection. This is no mere theological metaphor, but an absolute truth and one that ought to inform our every action.
Christ came to make reparation and to save souls. He did this through His suffering and death. The Christian merely continues that mission—armed with power that He won for them as the God-Man. The first soul that I must save is my own, but this is no mere “me and Jesus” thing. He will use my willingness to save others (see Col 1:24). The Church in her members too must go through His Passion and spread its power throughout the world. Therefore you can never define a Christian without making reference to the Cross because a Christian is not a Christian without picking up the Cross. It is not my Cross that I carry, but His. The job of the Christian is to carry it through the streets so that others can come in contact with it.
All too often we forget that this is in fact what we signed up for when we chose the Christian life. We volunteered to be “other Christs,” allowing His life to become incarnate once again in us. That may sound really sweet when we are talking about being nice to other people and spreading Jesus’ love. But that is not the only part, nor is it really the most important part. We have accepted a life of suffering for the salvation of souls. That can never, ever be forgotten. The more often we recall this fundamental truth and embrace our crosses, the greater our reward. That is why there is nothing unjust—it is only through suffering voluntarily accepted or undertaken that “an eternal weight of glory, that far outweighs our afflictions can be built up within us” (2 Cor 4:17). Suffering can only be understood in relation to the promise of the reward. In other words, our willingness to suffer is a measure of the depth of our faith.
Suffering and Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden
What does that actually look like? Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I suspect this is where many of us struggle. We don’t ask the question because we don’t like the answer. We know everything of what has been said is objectively true. Yet, it does not ring true within our hearts. There are three reasons for this, each of which can be illuminated by looking closely at Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.
First, there is the natural repulsion to suffering. As mortal creatures, there is always a physical recoil of pain and suffering. No one will naturally “feel” like suffering. Even Our Lord felt this pull to a certain extent in the Garden. But, like Our Lord’s “not my will but your will be done”, one can will to suffer without actually feeling like it.
Second, and this is often the biggest obstacle, is the fact that no one can will to suffer in the abstract. We often avoid thinking about suffering because we imagine our worst fears becoming reality. But Christ could only say, “Your will, not mine” after the sufferings He was about to endure were brought before His mind. We can fall into a trap by getting ahead of ourselves and letting our imagination (with the help of the Evil One) get ahead of reality. We cannot say yes until we know what we are saying yes to.
Third, we know that we should want to suffer, but we find no strength to do so and therefore grow discouraged or forget about it altogether. There is only one way out of this trap—admit our weakness to Our Lord. He will only heal what we ask Him to heal. The great sufferings of the saints are not because they were strong-willed, but because they humbly knew they were not and allowed grace to make them stronger. There is no “fake it ‘til you make it” on this one. Instead we can only begin by saying “I want to want to suffer for You” and allow Him to implant that desire in us. All too often our unwillingness to tell Jesus how weak we really are is the biggest impediment to our spiritual growth.
Why should we look to Our Lord so closely in the Garden? It is not just He is a model, but because every action He performed, including this one, was done to win specific graces for us. Those moments when we struggle with this part of our Christian vocation are the moments that we need to turn to Him in the Garden and ask that He give us those graces He fought so hard to win for us. In a certain sense, not to take hold of the graces He won is to make Him suffer in vein.
Now it becomes clear as to why the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Only by re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ to the world, can Christians win the world. Those who were our enemies, now become our friends. History is rife with examples of true Christian heroes—the ones who rather than defeating their enemies, win them over. This same challenge is before us. How much suffering is one soul worth?