Redemptive Suffering

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

It was not in the plan of God that suffering and death be a part of human existence. That they became the lot of the human race was not God’s doing, but man’s. God made man in His own likeness and image, desiring to share with him His own infinite happiness and goodness. He endowed man with special gifts that made him immune from all suffering, and free of the necessity of undergoing death. These gifts, however, were not essential to human nature and could be lost.

God endowed man with free-will, in order that man would have to freely choose God above all things before entering into the beatitude of heaven. But, as we know, it was man’s free will that upset what God had planned, for our first parents rebelled against the restriction placed on their freedom, wishing to decide for themselves what they could do or not do. As a result, they not only were not admitted into heaven, but they lost for themselves and their descendants those gifts that made them immune from suffering and death.


Because of his sin Adam was utterly displeasing to God, and because of the loss of grace he was unable to do anything that would win God’s favor. God could have left mankind in that helpless state of eternal separation from Himself; or He could simply have pardoned man, restoring all the gifts he had lost. But God would accept neither of those solutions.

In His mercy He sent His only begotten Son to become a member of the human race to offer, on behalf of mankind, the infinite reparation that divine justice demanded. The divine Word took on a human body and soul in order that He could suffer to pay the penalty that a just God demanded in expiation for the sins of the world. Because He was man, He could pay the debt on the part of the human race; and because He was God, the reparation He offered was infinite.


Christ could have offered sufficient reparation without the Passion, for His every deliberate act was one of infinite love, sufficient to redeem the whole of mankind. But the Father willed the way of the Passion, the way of suffering. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why: (III, 46,3) (III, 48,1, ad 2)

1. The Passion made God’s love for us so much more manifest, suffering so much on our behalf. “You have been bought at a great price” (1 Cor. 6:20). “Greater love than this no man has . . .” (Jn. 15:13). By His passion man is stirred to love God in return, and in this love of God lies man’s perfection.

2. It helps man to realize the enormous evil of sin, when God would go to such length to make reparation for it.

3. It helps us to see more clearly the justice of God, Who willed the death of His own Son to repair for sin; and the mercy of God in the way He applies to sinners the merits of Christ’s sufferings.

4. It gives such a wonderful example of humility and obedience, those indispensable virtues in loving God. Through PRIDE and DISOBEDIENCE Adam refused God the love and homage due Him. Through HUMILITY and OBEDIENCE Christ offered His Father the love and submission due Him.

5. It shows clearly the immense love of Jesus for His Father, Whom He obeyed “even to the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:8). When Christ went forth to the Passion, He told the apostles that He did so “that the world may know that I love the Father” (Jn.14:31). 6. The Passion of Christ was especially valuable in teaching the necessity of suffering if fallen man (having the use of reason) is to attain his eternal salvation.

Additional scriptural passages clearly testify to the need of the Passion in fulfillment of the divine plan:

“The Son of man must be lifted up, that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:14).

“Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?” (Jn. 18:11)

“Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so enter into His glory?” (Lk. 24:26)

To His disciples before the Ascension: “Recall those words I spoke to you when I was still with you; everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled . . . .Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise again from the dead” (Lk.24:44,46).


By the sufferings in His human nature during the Passion by which mankind was redeemed, Christ gave to all suffering experienced in the members of His Mystical Body a redeeming power when accepted and offered up in union with His Passion. As Pope John Paul II wrote:

“In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris).

Speaking on one occasion to a group of infirm persons suffering from various illnesses and handicaps, the present Holy Father recalled the great mercy of Christ in the many times He miraculously cured the lame, the blind, the deaf, the leprous, etc.; and how to save the newly-weds embarrassment, He miraculously changed water into wine. But, he said, there is here an even greater miracle, a greater mercy – when He gives to human suffering a supernatural value. All the miracles mentioned were changes on the purely natural level; that is, the gift given in each miracle was some benefit of the natural order. But when He transforms human suffering giving it a supernatural value, a supernatural power, that is a far greater gift, a far greater miracle. But it is a gift so little appreciated, for it is known only in the light of faith; and the faith of many is weak. How many opportunities for spiritual growth and for helping others are wasted in complaining about the crosses of life.


St. Paul was so filled with the idea of the redemptive power of suffering that he exclaimed: “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

Those words of St. Paul are a puzzle to some, for they seem to imply that something is lacking in the Passion of Christ. St. Paul is speaking here of the Mystical Body of Christ, made up of Christ, the Head, and all souls in the state of grace who are the members of His Body. It is in the members of His Body that something is lacking. Shortly before He died Christ exclaimed: “It is consummated!” He says in effect: “All is accomplished that I came to do. By My painful obedience to the Father I offered infinite reparation for the sins of mankind, and merited the restoration of grace for the whole human race.” There is no grace that comes to any human that was not merited by Him. He had no need of any other in redeeming the human race. But Jesus willed that the mystery of His Passion continue on in us, so that we may be associated with Him in the work of redemption. Jesus could have accomplished this alone, but He willed to need us in order to apply the infinite merits of His Passion to souls. Pope Pius XII spoke of this in his encyclical on the Mystical Body:

“In carrying out the work of redemption Christ wishes to be helped by the members of His Body. This is not because He is indigent or weak, but rather because He so willed it for the greater glory of His spotless Spouse. Dying on the Cross, He left to the Church the immense treasury of the Redemption. Towards this she (the Church) contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this task of sanctification with His Church, but he wants it, in a way, to be due to her action. What a deep mystery . . . that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body offer for that intention, and on the assistance of pastors of souls and of the faithful, especially fathers and mothers of families, which they must offer to our divine Savior as though they were His associates.”

Think of it. By accepting willingly and without complaint the little inconveniences, irritations, frustrations, delays, setbacks, etc. which God in His Providence allows to come our way, we can pay in part the debt that we, or others, have incurred by our sins. Because God is just, He demands that the debt of suffering be paid,, but because He is merciful, He allows one person to “fill up what is lacking” in another member of the Mystical Body which is the Church. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “by the cooperation of Christ’s satisfaction, much lighter penalty suffices than one that is proportionate to the sin” (III, 49,3, ad 2).


The Cross was the instrument chosen by God for the redemption of mankind. That is why Our Savior refers to the hardships and fatigue and trials of daily life as the “cross” that we must embrace if we are to be His disciples. Accepting them in union with the passion of Christ gives them a redeeming power, a redeeming value, a share in the fruits of His Passion. The “cross” can include everything that goes against the grain, and that can be an endless list. To mention a few examples: physical pain, mental anguish, disappointments, depression, humiliations, delays, sickness, poverty, set-backs in business, loneliness, being misunderstood or falsely accused, hardships and fatigue of daily routine, sadness at death of family member or friend, the difficult sacrifices in fulfilling God’s commandments and the duties in our state in life, etc. All these entail suffering, and are part of the penalty of sin of our fallen nature.

We naturally try to eliminate all forms of suffering from our life, but insofar as they are beyond our power to control, they are part of God’s providence. God foresees them, allows them, and can bring good out of them if we trust in Him. Suffering in some form or other is the lot of every human, saint as well as sinner. But since our attitude toward them can make them profitable or unprofitable (even increase our misery), it is important to see them in the light of the Gospel, in the light of God’s providence. That is because suffering can get one down, or it can bring one closer to God. It can make one resentful and bitter – even blaming God for his lot, or it can make one more conscious of God’s providence at work. It can make one turn in on himself in self-pity, or it can help one to open out upon the world in apostolic and redemptive action.

That suffering is not something good in itself, is clear from the great number of Christian institutions (hospitals, sanitariums, etc.) established to alleviate human suffering. While the ills and hardships and setbacks of life can be instrumental in spiritual growth, in themselves they are something evil. Christians are not forbidden to seek the comforts of life, or to enjoy lawful amusements, or to seek remedies from pain. The Church does not glorify suffering for its own sake; but it does glorify God by the loving acceptance of suffering when the fulfillment of His will entails it.


We have already mentioned the Holy Father’s frequent comments on the salvific value of suffering when addressing the sick and disabled. He wrote at length on that topic in his Apostolic Letter “Salvifici Doloris” in which he remarked:

“Christ does not speak in the abstract . . . . 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. . . .”

“Without the vision of faith one has a sense of the uselessness of suffering.

This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly, but makes him feel a burden to others . . . and useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty the suffering person ‘completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of revelation he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.”


In the divine plan Mary was destined to share in a unique way in the redemptive mission of her Son, and therefore in His suffering. She received an early confirmation of this at the words of Simeon that a sword of sorrow would pierce her heart. On Calvary Mary’s suffering, beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view, but which was supernaturally fruitful for the redemption of the world. As the application of the fruits of the redemption will continue until the end of the world, so will the unique role of Mary in the distribution of those graces. Pope John Paul II speaks of this in relation to the Immaculate Heart of the Mother of God:

“The Divine Redeemer wishes to penetrate the soul of every sufferer through the heart of His holy Mother, the first and most exalted of all the redeemed. As though by a continuation of that motherhood which by the power of the Holy Spirit had given Him life, the dying Christ conferred upon the ever Virgin Mary a new kind of motherhood – spiritual and universal – towards all human beings, so that every individual, during the pilgrimage of faith, might remain together with her, closely united to Him unto the Cross, and so that every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of the Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of the Cross” (ibid.).


In spite of Jesus’ willing acceptance of the Passion, and His insistence that His followers must embrace the “crosses” of life, His human nature shrank from pain just as ours does. We see that in the Garden of Gethsemani; yet He willingly accepted it when commanded by His heavenly Father. “I seek not my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (Jn.5:30). The same should be the goal of His followers. Those sincerely seeking to grow closer to Christ know that it must be by way of the cross. Each day brings many little opportunities to submit willingly to various kinds of self-giving that go against the grain. Like Christ, we too can pray in certain painful situations, “let this chalice pass from me” as long as we are willing to add “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).