The Discipline of Suffering


The sufferings endured for God are the greatest proof of our love for Him.
ST. ALPHONSUS MARIA DE LIGUORI

It is a tradition of Lent to pray the Stations of the Cross. There are fourteen of them, and they tell the story of Jesus on the way to the cross to die. The practice grew out of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem where the pilgrims would visit these sites and say prayers. As the Holy Land became impossible to visit over time, the stations were erected inside of churches which is why every Catholic parish has the stations on display on the walls. I recommend that everyone pray and contemplate the Way of the Cross. It teaches you how to suffer.

The last time I contemplated the Way of the Cross I was struck by something that never really occurred to me. In all that Jesus endured, He did not complain a single time. The closest we come to a complaint is when Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" People do not understand why Jesus cries this out, but it becomes clear that this cry was a quotation from Psalm 22. Obviously, our Lord wished for us to read this. Here it is:

PSALM 22
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And by night, but I have no rest.
Yet You are holy,
O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted;
They trusted and You delivered them.
To You they cried out and were delivered;
In You they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm and not a man,
A reproach of men and despised by the people.
All who see me sneer at me;
They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying,
“Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him;
Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”
Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb;
You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts.
Upon You I was cast from birth;
You have been my God from my mother’s womb.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near;
For there is none to help.
Many bulls have surrounded me;
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
They open wide their mouth at me,
As a ravening and a roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And You lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.
But You, O Lord, be not far off;
O You my help, hasten to my assistance.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
My only life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth;
From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.
I will tell of Your name to my brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.
You who fear the Lord, praise Him;
All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,
And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel.
For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from him;
But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.
From You comes my praise in the great assembly;
I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.
The afflicted will eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.
Let your heart live forever!
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship,
All those who go down to the dust will bow before Him,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.
Posterity will serve Him;
It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation.
They will come and will declare His righteousness
To a people who will be born, that He has performed it.

This Psalm was a prophecy of what Jesus would do on the cross, so the cry was most likely a direction for us to read the psalm. God did not forsake His son. Protestants put the forsaken spin on this because of their doctrine of penal substitution which is the belief that God poured out His wrath upon Jesus to pay for our sins. This is a grievous error. It colors and distorts the Passion and also renders null and void our sufferings in this life.


The true and correct doctrine is that Jesus offered Himself up as a sacrifice to the Lord. God did not punish Jesus for what you did. Instead, Jesus offered Himself up to atone for what you did. If anyone punished our Lord, it was you and me. This begs a question. What is atonement?

It helps to first contemplate sin. What is sin? We can cite the Ten Commandments or other rules, but they do not get at the heart of the nature of sin. Sin is the hatred of God. When we sin, we hate God. Since all have sinned, we have all hated God. Despite the arguments of Calvinists, God cannot hate us. He loves us. The problem is that we do not always see that love which is why you get a poem like Psalm 22. And then, you start to understand why Jesus quotes it from the cross. In the cross, we see that God has not forsaken us. The cross was God's answer to the lament of the psalmist.

Sin breached the relationship between God and us. Consider how sin affects our personal relationships. A husband cheats on his wife. What could he possibly do to atone for the hurt he has caused her? I could never do such a thing to my wife. I would rather die than cause her that pain. But if I was that stupid, I think dying for her would suffice to erase the pain of my betrayal. This is what it means to atone. To atone is to offer a sacrifice of love sufficient or beyond to erase the pain and damage of the transgression.


When Jesus took on our humanity, He was able to do what we could never do. He loved God with the purest and perfect love even to the point of death. Simultaneously, through Jesus, God shows His perfect love for us. Essentially, the passion was God turning the other cheek to our transgression. This leaves us with a choice. Do we strike God's other cheek? Or, do we realize our evil and repent of it?

The Christian is the one who repents. The evil person is the one who does not repent but keeps striking. Since God cannot be hurt, the evil person's continuous hatred feeds on itself becoming a consuming and burning thing ending in Hell. Hell is the freedom to hate God forever. Heaven is the freedom to love God forever. This world is the fork in the road.

The acceptance of suffering in this life is how we show and demonstrate our love for God. It is our way to atone for our sins and to join our atonement with the cross of Christ. This is how our salvation is worked out. This is what the discipline of suffering is all about. This is why all saints have suffered. This is why martyrdom leads straight to Heaven since it is the supreme act of love for our Lord.


The discipline of suffering is to take all that we endure and offer it up as a sacrifice of love for the Lord. This is why we should not complain in our sufferings. It makes our offering imperfect. We may cry in anguish. We may collapse as Jesus did under the weight of His cross. But to complain is to mix our love with bitterness. How I struggle with this. I offer up everyday of my life to the Lord, but I have yet to offer up a single day without complaint. I have so far to go in learning to love God. I have yet to offer the unleavened bread of sacrifice because all I give is leavened with bitterness.

People think that to be a saint is to do something large like dying for the faith. But I tell you, if you can just endure a single day of your life without complaining or bitterness, you have done a mighty thing. I suspect that a day of martyrdom is easier to endure than a lifetime of the daily grind. As Flannery O'Connor put it, "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." What the daily grind lacks in intensity it makes up for in duration.

The discipline of suffering is to endure hardship without bitterness. If you can do this, you have made a large step towards becoming a saint. It is something I am still working on, but I complain a little less each day. I take to heart the words of St. Francis de Sales who wrote, "If we walk steadily and faithfully, God will lift us up to greater things." My desire is to get through a day of grind without complaining. May God help me.