Jesus' unexpected solution to the problem of pain and suffering

Matthew 16:21-27  (22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

The Weeping Woman, Picasso, source
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon. (Woody Allen)

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. (George Orwell)

God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering. (St. Augustine)

Suffering is universal. It’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and muslims are all worried about. (John Green, author of the Fault in our Stars)

Because suffering is a universal experience, religions and philosophies have all tried try to explain how best to deal with its presence in our lives. Here’s some examples:
  • Stoicism explains that you should try your best to be indifferent to both pleasure and pain. When you are faced with suffering you need to “keep a stiff upper lip” and “suck it up”.
  • Hedonism argued that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is inherently evil. You should do whatever you can to maximize pleasure in your life and flee from whatever causes you suffering.
  • Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by unfulfilled desire. To get rid of suffering, you need to eliminate all desire in your life.
  • Islam proposes that when faced with suffering you must endure it, not question why you suffer but rather endure it as God’s will and submit to it as a test of faith.
  • The Old Testament presents various views to the topic of suffering. In places, suffering is viewed as a punishment for sin. In the story of the just man Job, however, we see that suffering is rather a test of faith. Ultimately, the Old Testament does not reach a final resolution regarding how best to approach suffering.

Jesus did not come to eliminate suffering. Rather, He showed how we could transform suffering in our lives, filling it with purpose and meaning. In today’s gospel, Jesus explains that both He and His followers will have to suffer. Peter is having none of this news and rebukes Jesus for even suggesting it. In response, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him a Satan, that is, someone who is opposed to the plans of God. Though Jesus does not remove suffering from His or our lives, neither does He flee from it or simply grin and bear it. Jesus freely chooses to go to Jerusalem, the place of His Passion. Jesus’ solution to the problem of suffering is to confront it head-on by offering Himself out of love. When Jesus makes His whole life a gift to others, He transforms the suffering that is in His life and makes it salvific. His suffering becomes a source of life for the whole world. He rises from the dead and reunited us with God the Father. We are called to respond to suffering in the same way. When we choose to offer our whole life to God and others out of love, the suffering in our life is redeemed so that it brings goodness to ourselves and others.

When we live Jesus’ paradoxical program for dealing with suffering, we discover that it leads to true fulfillment and happiness. St. John Paul II explained that human happiness is guided by the Law of the Gift. Just as it is a law that we need oxygen to live, the Law of the Gift dictates that true happiness is found by making our lives a gift to others by putting ourselves at the service of others rather than focusing on ourselves. We are tempted to think that if we possess all the best things and have others at our beck and call then we will be happy. When we focus on ourselves, however, we ultimately become sad because our sufferings, problems and what we lack in our life seem so large and inescapable. On the other hand, when we make ourselves a gift to others by serving God and our neighbour, we get the perspective to see that our problems are not so bad. We discover the joy of living in relationships with others and the peace that comes through service. I remember clearly one of the first times I discovered firsthand the truth of the Law of the Gift. During my first year at University I volunteered to help out at a parish dinner washing dishes. On my way to the dinner my mind was full of worries and concerns regarding all the homework I had to do. I was stressed out and feeling down. The short experience helping out at the dinner changed my mood completely. By the end, I felt peace and happiness. It gave me joy to be able to help others. My problems didn't feel so big after all. At some time we have all experienced this truth articulated by Jesus: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

We cannot choose whether we suffer in life or not; we can only choose how we confront suffering. Here we do well to remember the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. (Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi)

When we live the Law of the Gift in our lives, our suffering is kept in check and is even transformed into something that brings life and goodness to others. Is it an easy way to live? By no means. It is, however, the only truly effective solution to the problem of suffering. Today take a moment to remind yourself of a time when you experienced the Law of the Gift in your life. Recall the joy and happiness you felt. Allow that experience to motivate you to continue living that way in the future.