Can Suffering be Redemptive?

This past weekend my wife was left alone with our two youngest children (7 and 2) while I and two of our oldest were out of town at a youth conference.  This also happened to be the weekend which she volunteered to help at the annual church fundraiser a Jamaica or bizarre.  It’s a full day event packed with games, food vendors, live music and more.  Upon arriving to the venue she stepped out of our van onto the gravel parking area where she proceeded to slip and twist not one but both ankles (possibly tearing ligaments, test pending).  Now the fall and the popping sound was so bad that it caused bystanders to rush to her assistance with one person wanting to all 911.  Instead she remained and manned her booth for the entire event, staying on her feet for over ten hours.  That was Saturday it wasn’t until Monday afternoon when I returned that she went to the ER.  Ask her how she handled the pain and she will tell you that she “offered it up.”

What does that even mean?

Suffering Romans

Suffering is Inescapable

Suffering is part of human existence from birth until death, and every human person suffers in a variety of ways: physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The Bible provides many examples: one’s own death, the danger of death, the death of children or friends, sterility, homesickness, persecution, mockery, scorn, loneliness, abandonment, remorse, watching the wicked prosper while the just suffer, the unfaithfulness of spouse and friends, and the misfortunes of one’s homeland (SD 6). Suffering in one form or another afflicts each of us every day.  It is a part of life that should be embraced.

Why Suffering?

Suffering naturally leads to questioning. Why do I suffer? Why do others suffer? How can suffering be overcome? Is there any meaning to suffering?

Each religion has its own answer.  In Hinduism, suffering is seen as the result of karmic debt owed from a prior incarnation. Buddhists believe they suffer in life because of their desires that can be relieved by good meditation and prayers. In Judaism, suffering is seen as everything from senseless to positively willed by God as a result of Jewish disobedience. In Islam, suffering is seen as the result of Allah’s positive will. For some brands of Protestantism, suffering is always the result of personal sin.

At times God permits us to suffer the consequences of our behavior. If we are sexually promiscuous, we might suffer disease, and broken relationships. This suffering brings about good when we change our lives and abide by God’s laws.  Other times, God permits us to lose things that we have come to worship above him. For example, someone who has made money his god may suffer the shame and hardship of bankruptcy. This suffering can bring about a total dependence on God and submission to his will.  The most difficult situations to understand are when God allows suffering that has no apparent reason–a child dies, we are injured in a car accident, or a natural disaster strikes. Though we do not see the reason for such suffering we know that there is one, even if it is not apparent from our limited perspective


Redemptive Suffering

The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages and reminds us of our vocation: “By His passion and death on the Cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to Him and unite us with His redemptive passion” (CCC #1505).

The word “redeem” means to rescue, set free, ransom, and to pay the penalty incurred by another. We often lose sight of the definition to “set free,” and we miss the power of our example as Christians to do exactly that — set our neighbor free.

We must look at this aspect of Redemptive Suffering if we are to understand its role in our daily lives. St. Paul told the Corinthians that, “indeed, as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so, through Christ, does our consolation overflow. When we are made to suffer, it is for our consolation and salvation” (2 Cor. 1:5, 6).

Redemptive suffering is any trial or tribulation we offer up and UNITE to Jesus- as a “gift” to Him to express our love, in exchange for some other good.

St. Paul was so filled with the idea of the redemptive power of suffering that he exclaimed: “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

The Bible and Suffering

There are several versus in the Bible with regards to redemptive suffering.  Here are some of the most quoted:

“Whoever follows me must take up his cross…” (Mt 10: 38).

“Therefore we are not discouraged, rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (II Cor 4: 16). ”

“With Christ I am nailed to the cross. It is now no longer I that live but Christ Who lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20).

“For the Spirit Himself gives testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him. The sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.” (Rm 8:16-18)

“What we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed in us…We know that all things work for good for those who love God…For I am convinced that neither life nor death…nor future things, nor powers nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rm 8:18, 28,38).

Offer It Up

Offering it up can be done formally or informally.

Formally, many Catholics make the Morning Offering to give to Our Lord that day’s efforts, works, joys, sufferings, and intentions. At the Mass, we consciously, silently, and privately offer ourselves up, along with the Son, to the Father during the Offertory.

Informally, we “offer it up” by simply asking God in our own words to use a suffering as it occurs; we often do this for specific intentions.

It’s quite a discipline to react to suffering this way! In mental or physical pain? Drop something on your toe? Putting up with a co-worker who is making your life a living Hell? Enduring the constant ache of arthritis? Standing in line at the grocery and hating every minute of it? Spill the milk? Accept these things in peace, and ask God to use them for the good of the Church or for a more specific intention close to your heart.

Think of it. By accepting willingly and without complaint the little inconveniences, irritations, frustrations, delays, setbacks, etc. which God in His Providence allows to come our way, we can pay in part the debt that we, or others, have incurred by our sins. Because God is just, He demands that the debt of suffering be paid,, but because He is merciful, He allows one person to “fill up what is lacking” in another member of the Mystical Body which is the Church.

Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. The answer that comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!” Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. (SD 26)

We can join our suffering with Christ’s for the sake of others. In this way suffering becomes redemptive. It is not suffering but our response to it that makes it so.

Ask yourself these questions: How can I intensely merge my sufferings with Christ? How can I more readily blend my trials with Him? How can I consistently entwine my difficulties with Him?

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Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in accordance with the official Latin text promulgated by Pope John Paul II. (1994). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Paul, J., II. (1984). Salvifici doloris (On the Christian meaning of human suffering). Retrieved from