Why Do We Suffer? The Theological Answer of St Paul

…I have been crucified with Christ…

Galatians 2:20

…I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions

for the sake of His body, that is, the Church…

Colossians 1:24

The Problem of Pain

Nearly every religion seeks to make sense of the problem of pain. If God is both omnibenificent {all-loving} and omnipotent {all-powerful}, why then does He allow us to suffer? The Eastern traditions such as Buddhism dismiss pain and suffering as “unreal.” This solution is difficult to explain to a child with cancer. Other religious traditions attempt to accrue “good karma” in order to ensure that good times will come with a future reincarnated life. For these traditions, the origin of suffering is past sins, even sins committed in previous lives. Still other religions, such as Islam, seem to place the origin of suffering in the capricious “will of Allah.”

Knowing Christ Crucified

The Catholic Faith offers an entirely different account of suffering, because the Church holds up the crucified Christ as the archetype for Christian living. No doubt, the Church is obsessed with the crucifix, and that for good reason. The crucified Christ provides the meaning of life and the meaning of death, even the meaning of the life to come! The suffering of Christ does not prevent our suffering on earth, but it does allow us to suffer with dignity and meaning. Saint Paul indicates that every authentic Christian will suffer in this world:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Phil 1:29).

It was for this reason that the Apostle Paul focused the attention of his spiritual life on the crucifixion of Christ:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

This “crucifixion mentality” is one that Paul sought to instill in his disciples. When the Apostle perceived heresy in the Church in Galatia, he realized that they had forgotten their identity as followers of the crucified Christ:

Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? (Gal 3:1)

The glib Protestant adage, “But we worship the resurrected Christ, not the crucified Christ” finds no traction in the writings of Paul. One cannot divide Christ. There is not a “resurrected Jesus” and a “crucified Jesus.” There is one Lord Jesus Christ and His resurrection possesses meaning for us only in so far as we appreciate His crucifixion. Moreover, Saint Paul indicates that if we wish to attain the resurrected glory of Christ we must first enter into the sufferings of His death:

That I may know him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).

Paul also states that we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him” (Rom 8:17). Moreover, Saint Luke also preserved the words of Christ to this effect: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).

A person will carry the cross only if the cross carries meaning. The cross swallows every sin and every pain. When Adam and Eve sinned, they brought mankind into the state of original sin, as we observed in an earlier chapter. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Rom 5:12). God permits the suffering of mankind on account of sin. Yet, God did not choose to remain outside of our sufferings. Instead, He entered into our sufferings. Jesus Christ experienced the hardships of humanity. He experienced poverty, hunger, thirst, false accusations, persecutions, and even a bloody death. Christ our Lord has experienced pain and death, and so when we unite our own sufferings to those of Christ, our personal sufferings take on redemptive power. Saint Paul explains how through Christ he transformed physical hardships into spiritual strength:

I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Many well-meaning Christians are repulsed by the crucifix, because it displays the weakness of Christ. However, the cross teaches us that Christ transformed His greatest moment of physical weakness into the most potent act of redemptive suffering. Christ’s death is our salvation. The Catholic Church guards as a precious jewel the paradox that states, “when I am weak, then I am strong,” or alternatively: “death brings forth life.” Because of this, Saint Paul perceived his own vocation as a ministry of redemptive suffering:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:8-11).

Saint Paul explains that he always carries in his body “the death of Jesus.” When Paul is crushed, persecuted, struck down, he remains mindful that he bears within himself the “death of Jesus.” The union between Paul’s sufferings and Christ’s sufferings results in the manifestation of Christ’s life in the person of Paul.

Saint Paul articulates his doctrine of redemptive suffering in a shocking statement to the Christians in Colossae:

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 (Col 1:24).

On the surface, it seems that Saint Paul is uttering blasphemy. How can Paul complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Can we possibly speak of there being any lack in the sufferings of Christ? We know that Paul did not wish to diminish the sufferings of Christ, or else he would not have said:

But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).

We might best understand what Paul means by “that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as those sufferings that we must experience in this life. Christ’s sufferings are complete and efficacious in their own right. We can add nothing to the redemptive suffering of Christ. However, we can unite our sufferings to Christ. This is the element that is “lacking.” When we offer our sufferings to Christ, Christ makes them His own in a mysterious way. To this end, Saint Paul even speaks of himself as nailed upon the cross with Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

Ultimately, this is where Saint Paul’s doctrine of participation reaches its highest expression. At this point, our book turns full circle. We began with Saint Paul’s miraculous experience on the Road to Damascus where he heard those significant words of Christ in Acts 9:4: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Unbeknownst to Paul, Saint Stephen and the other persecuted Christians had united their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ. One might even place the words of Paul in the heart of Stephen as he died a martyr’s death: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…for the sake of Saul.” Perhaps it was the prayerful suffering of Stephen, in union with Christ, that initiated the grace of God toward Saul who stood by holding the coats of those who cast their stones at Stephen, the Church’s first martyr.

This post is excerpted from a chapter in Taylor’s Marshall’s book The Catholic Perspective on Paul: Paul and the Origins of Catholic Christianity. The book vindicates Saint Paul as a Catholic priest, apostle, and theologian against the claims of Martin Luther and Protestantism in general.

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