Suffering is an integral part of the human experience, and in one way or another, we all must learn to discover Christ’s love in the midst of our suffering. It may be helpful for some if they consider the distinction between sufferings that should be avoided, sufferings that should be moderately embraced, and sufferings that our Lord gives to us for our sanctification. As we learn to distinguish between the different ways we suffer, it can help us to appreciate the wisdom of the Church.
I would identify 5 distinct types of suffering:
1) Sufferings that Result from Bad Decisions
At one time or another, we have all made a bad decision in either our health or relationships which have caused both us and others suffering. Although it is not helpful to dwell on our mistakes when struggling to move forward, we must recognize that some suffering is our own fault. In this way, when overcoming such obstacles, a significant part of the process involves us acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness.
2) Fasting and Penances
The suffering that comes with fasting and other forms of penances is beneficial to our spiritual health if embraced prudently and in moderation. There have been famous examples of saints who have gone to extremes in this area, but our current wisdom is that moderation is to be preferred. The key is that there comes a point when fasting and penance loses its benefit and it becomes wrapped up in pride, sadistic pleasure, and other forms of a malformed intent. The key to discerning such practices is solid pastoral guidance from a competent authority.
3) Sufferings that Come from the Sins of Others and from Circumstances
At some point, we all experience hurts and injustices which are caused by others. All humans fall short of the glory of God and the spiritually mature person learns to forgive the weaknesses of others. Such forgiveness is not permission, but rather a cultivation of the interior freedom necessary for good discernment. In this way, by embracing this form of suffering, we learn to look past our wounds and hurt and discover God’s will in the midst of our pain and confusion. So even should we act to seek justice or to make a demand upon those who harm us, we must learn to do so from a place of stillness and love.
After we confess our sins, the roots of them remain deep within the human heart. Furthermore, as we are drawing closer to our Lord, these roots get exposed to us in ways that can cause great fear, anxiety, shame, and a whole host of unpleasant emotions and memories. Christ’s healing takes time, patience, and perseverance as we must willingly embrace the discomforts that come with spiritual growth. Ultimately, we will progress to the extent in which we open our hearts to this important work.
5) Existential Suffering/ the Dark Night of the Soul
In a sense, this form of suffering is a mysterious work of grace in which the believer participates in Christ’s abandonment on the Cross. St. John of the Cross is the writer who best crystallized and articulated this mysterious form of suffering. His understanding was grounded in the doctrine that through his passion, Jesus Christ undid the rebellion of original sin and death by taking on the sins of the world. In this way, while the physical suffering was immense, the Christian tradition has always held that there was a yet deeper suffering in which Christ, though innocent and perfect, took on the full effects of sin. Those who are being led into greater intimacy with God come to this point of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. As with purgation, this suffering is an incredible work of the Holy Spirit, and when it is freely embraced, it leads to our divinization in Christ.
In all forms of suffering, our fundamental response must be to observe our suffering and invite our Lord’s presence into the midst of what we are experiencing. For a practical method of how to do this, see this previous post http://www.contemplatio.us/4-steps-to-deal-with-stress-and-temptation/.