As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the nation, the scandal of human suffering is constantly before us. The nightly news brings us stories of people dying alone, of healthcare workers laboring through fear, and of long lines of struggling families at make-shift food pantries. Amid this unfolding drama, we hear from public health officials seeking to understand how the virus works and what can be done to mitigate its spread — and from politicians wrestling with how to stabilize the economy and what can be done to help struggling families and business. Meanwhile, beneath this swirl of “hows” and “whats” simmers a question that science and civics cannot answer: Why? Where science and civics fail us, Scripture gives an answer which, even if not easy to digest, offers meaning and purpose in place of anxiety and despair.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that believers in Christ are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17, emphasis added). As believers, we stand to gain something (inheritance of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven) and experience something (glorification of our whole being, including our physical bodies) provided we suffer with Christ. This claim that suffering is both good and necessary is particularly paradoxical for us, who live in a culture that seeks to eradicate any form of suffering and inconvenience. Why is suffering necessary, and how is it good? Is God somehow vindictive and cruel?
Quite the opposite. Remember, in the beginning, God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the peace and security of the Garden of Eden, where all their needs were provided for and where there was no suffering. But our first ancestors rejected this free gift of God in an act of disobedience that St. John Henry Newman describes as a “rebellion against God” that is the heart of all sin. In this context, Christ’s suffering becomes clear for what it is: a reversal of the spiritual physics of sin and death. Christ’s death on the cross is an act of selflessness that reverses the effects of Adam’s act of selfishness. It is also an almost unimaginable act of humility and charity — God doesn’t demand this action from Adam’s descendants, rather he takes it upon himself, for our sake. Christ’s suffering, therefore, is a self-emptying act of love.
For our part, if we are to rise with Christ in the resurrection, we must also die with him in his suffering. In our baptism, we received the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and incorporates us into Christ’s mystical body. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:19-20), and we have died with Christ so that we may live with him (Rom 6:8). It is for this reason that St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body” (Col 1:24).
In short, any suffering we endure matters. It has value, for us and for the whole body of Christ — provided we unite that suffering with Christ on the cross. As perplexing and paradoxical as it may sound, if we must endure suffering, we can do so with peace and confidence “for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:10).
Mike Christie is director of Evangelical and Catechetical Services at the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.