Finding Meaning in Suffering
by Tim Lanigan
“Offer it up!” If you’re a Catholic, you probably first heard it from the lips of your mother. If you’re not, you may have heard a Catholic friend say it. It can sound like hard, uncaring advice. Yet, taken in the right way, it is anything but. What does it really mean to “offer it up?”
The “it” in the saying refers to suffering. No one goes through life without suffering. It can be physical or emotional, temporary or lasting. And it can be intense, maybe the most intense experience we will have in life.
If we can’t escape suffering, how can we deal with it? Some people live by what’s been called the Pleasure Principle: “Seek pleasure; avoid pain.” That’s led some people to illegal drugs and alcohol as a way of alleviating their suffering. But as any drug addict or alcoholic can tell you, addiction just makes things worse.
A few people try to avoid suffering through suicide or euthanasia. But the mere fact that some are willing to take such a drastic step to avoid suffering raises the question: Is suffering such a great evil that it even outweighs life itself?
That may have led one Catholic writer to put it this way: “If suffering has no meaning, then life has no meaning.” Or to put it another way, since we are bound to endure suffering during our lives, we might as well find meaning in it.
So if someone suggests that you “offer it up,” they are saying more than just “Live with it” or “Get over it.” They are giving you one of the keys that open up the door to the meaning of life.
In today’s world, people often seek meaning in achievement alone: Write a prize-winning book; score a big political victory; manage a multibillion dollar company. People who achieve these great goals are people we look up to.
Yet as Christians, we are offered another role model. Saint Francis de Sales put it simply: “Live Christ.” Read the life of Christ as written in the Gospels, and what you will find is an emphasis on suffering, the sufferings of the people around him and his own suffering as well.
Human suffering was at the heart of his actions: healing the sick, consoling the afflicted, feeding the hungry, freeing people from deafness, blindness, leprosy, and many other evils that afflicted people.
Suffering was not only at the heart of Christ’s actions, but at the heart of his teaching, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out. The eight beatitudes, a guide to the Christian life, were addressed to people tried by various sufferings, namely the “poor in spirit,” the “afflicted,” the “persecuted,” among others.
And at the end of Christ’s life came his own suffering on the Cross. Most of us would flee from such suffering, but he didn’t try to avoid it. Even though he had done nothing to deserve it, he willingly offered himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
If we “live Christ,” we offer our own sufferings up, not only as a reparation for the evil things we have done in life, but also for the evil committed by those around us and by people we have never met. We share in the sufferings of Christ to help redeem a sinful world.
By doing so, we find meaning in our sufferings. In finding meaning, we can cast aside the feeling that we are being victimized; we can overcome the subconscious need to complain about our sufferings in the hope that we can transfer some of the pain to others around us; we can shift our intense focus from what ails us to what ails others. And we can also find an answer to the question: “Why me?”
Suffering is a part of life. By “offering it up,” we can find joy. Or as St. Paul said in referring to the Lord: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Yes, “offer it up” seems like hard advice, but we have it on faith that it is a key to happiness here and in the hereafter.