Lately, I’ve been going through some old writing of mine. This was something I wrote about suffering about five years ago. It was before I knew that I’d soon be Catholic, and was in the midst of the tail end of the journey that led me back to Rome. I was in the middle of a lot of painful things in life, so suffering was always on my mind, particularly the poignant suffering of loneliness and lost dreams and hopes which resulted from lots of things, including my desires for men, and the lost relationship with a woman who I believed I could have shared my life with. Five years on, I’m glad everything happened as it did, but back then I was a wreck most everyday. And to that, I say thank God I went through it all!
A good friend of mine had surgery today to remove a cancerous prostate. He and his wife have been in my thoughts quite a bit throughout the day. Sadly, I don’t think the surgery was the most painful thing today. The death of a dream and hope of having children is the most painful wound of all for both of them. It makes it so clear to me once again that suffering is not far removed from any of us.
I have another colleague who was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer, and another dear friend and colleague who just lost a three legged dog he and his wife had rescued from an animal shelter. Losing this dog was like losing a family member for him. He is in a profound state of grief.
Someone somewhere once said that there’s no need to look for suffering–it will find us. As I have wrestled over the past several months with my own difficulties and loneliness, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on suffering. The one fundamental truth that I have arrived at is that the best, and only answer, to suffering can be found in the teachings of Christ.
The very marrow of Christianity is rooted at the literal crossroads of supreme suffering. Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate act of redemptive suffering. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The sacrifice of Christ, on behalf of all of humanity, the act of willingly suffering so that others might be redeemed, is the sobering example I am becoming convinced Christ calls us to follow.
I have always wrestled with what Christ meant when he said to pick up my cross and follow him. That is a call shrouded in mystery. What is our cross, and what does it mean for us to pick it up? As I have wrestled more and more with this conundrum, I have found myself asking more and more what the cross of Christ represents. If we are called to be like Christ, and if Christ willingly suffered the travails of the cross, does that mean that he desires for us to follow him there, to daily pick up our cross, a cross that represents the pinnacle of redemptive and salvific suffering?
I prefer a crucifix with a crucified Christ to an empty cross. I believe in the resurrection, but what I need is the crucified Christ, a Christ who can join in with the suffering that I occasionally endure. I suppose those are the Catholic roots within me speaking, but for me, I need to be able to identify with a savior who suffers. Suffering is sure to come, and it is all around us. My neighbor to my left is fighting a battle with lung cancer and my neighbor to my right just lost her father to Parkinson’s disease. How can we make sense of all of these tragedies?
I take great comfort in the belief that our suffering can be offered up on behalf of those whom we love. For me, this is the crux of Christianity for me, the very nucleus of my belief in Jesus Christ. I believe in the resurrection, but it is the suffering Christ who I cherish most of all as I journey through this difficult life. And when suffering enters into my life, as it surely does and will, I am grateful that in Christ I can find an answer to why. Not only an answer, but a response, a way to embrace it and to view it as a means by which others can be redeemed. For me that is powerful, powerful stuff, and I don’t say it or believe it lightly. Suffering is bound to come–Christ embraced it willingly and offered himself up on behalf of others, for the redemption of others. Is that his call to us? To embrace suffering? Is this what he asks of us when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him?
Paul writes about suffering so often, and he knew suffering. What I find intriguing is how often he talks about suffering on behalf of others. Surely this is Paul taking up his cross.
Check this out from 2 Corinthians 1:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” How beautiful is that?
And here’s a sobering example in Phillipians 3:
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
“The fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” I’m beginning to view that becoming like Christ in his death must mean being willing to offer up our lives on behalf of those we love. Sobering stuff if you ask me.
But most profoundly moving for me, and the verse that gives me the greatest assurance and comfort whenever I contemplate the reasons behind suffering can be found in Colossians 1:24–
“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
I do not believe that Christ’s afflictions were somehow insufficient, or incomplete. Rather, if there is anything “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, it could only be out of a desire on the part of Christ for us to be able to participate with him in the redemptive suffering he partook of on the cross. In my mind, it must be something akin to what Pascal said about prayer and why our prayer has power: that it bestows on man the dignity of causality. I tend to think that through suffering, we have been given the dignity and opportunity to enter in with Christ in the redemption of the world, not in a figurative sense, but in a very literal sense. For me, this is what it must mean to take up our cross and follow him and the only answer to the eternal question of why there is suffering in this world.
When I wrote that, I believed that the primary reason God allowed homosexuality to exist in the world is primarily as a particular call to suffering, to be united with Christ’s suffering. That’s part of it–but since that time, I’ve also come to realize that another reason why it’s been allowed in the world is because it’s the most effective tool in his quiver to whittle away at the “old man”transforming us into the “new man” in all of us who live with same-sex attraction. In that mind, it’s a precious and beloved wound, one I would never write out of my life.