Daily suffering is a part of our lives, and we often wonder why God allows it. In this talk, Pete Burak explores suffering and how we should go about it as sons and daughters of Christ.
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Printable Study Guide PDF
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Reflective Study Guide Questions
“…[W]e suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified withRom. 8:17
1. Jesus endured suffering and death, conquering both. He understands suffering and hurts when we hurt. How have you united suffering to Jesus’s? How has that transformed your experience?
2. God allowed Job to suffer immensely. When Job cried out to the Lord, God reminded him that He is God (and we are not). When or how have you encountered suffering? How did it affect your faith?
3. Jesus suffered in light of eternity, seeing the glory that was to come as He embraced His criss. How can you begin to view suffering with the eternal perspective Jesus had? What is one small way you can do this daily?
4. St. John of Avila profoundly said: “A single ‘blessed be God’ in adversity is worth more than a thousand acts of thanksgiving in prosperity.” Have you found it easy or difficult to praise God’s name in the midst of suffering? How can you work toward suffering even better for Christ?
Text: Suffering & Redemptive Suffering
Everybody suffers. This is not a hot take; this is not a new revelation for you. You know, I know, that everyone suffers, we’ve all experienced tremendous suffering in our life. Sometimes it’s small things like you stub your toe or trip down the stairs and need stitches or forget lunch and have to go without food for a little while and get some hunger pains, and then of course there’s much more serious suffering like the loss of a loved one, famine around the world, wars or things like that. We’ve just recently experienced in our country with mass shootings in Buffalo and in the elementary school, these moments of profound grief often generated by moments of profound evil that when we encounter them and we experience them either in our lives or in the lives of the people we love or just on the news and we look at them, we’re faced with all sorts of questions. Why does suffering exist? What’s its purpose? How am I called to respond to it? Where is God in the midst of all this?
Suffering is an unavoidable component of the human existence, and what I want to do over the next few minutes is try to unpack a little bit about what we can understand about suffering, but also properly frame suffering in the narrative of the Christian message, give us a few temptations that come with suffering that we need to avoid, and then try to leave us on a hopeful note of how do we take our suffering, both that we’re currently experiencing and that we will experience, and make sure that we can do as the church invites us to do, bring it into what we would call redemptive suffering.
Sons and Daughters of Wrath
So, you know, at the beginning of the Bible, we have this awesome narrative of how everything came to be, and God creates everything. And after everything He creates He says, “It’s good.” It’s like, “It’s good, it’s good, it’s good.” And then when He creates mankind, man and woman, He says, “It’s very good.” So, something, right up from the beginning God’s vision for everything He creates is good, it starts from a place of goodness. But we know the story, very quickly that goodness shifts and all of a sudden, a new element is introduced or a lack of an element, goodness is replaced by disobedience and pride, and ultimately sin.
Sin enters the equation as Adam and Eve reject what God has asked them to do, they put themselves in the position of God and they listen to the serpent and they say, “We want to be like God.” And so, instead of receiving the gifts of knowledge, receiving wisdom, receiving everything that God has for them as a gift that they can humbly walk in, they reach out and they take something that doesn’t belong to them and they disobey and they sin and they fall. And what enters into the world and what enters into our story then is, through sin, all of a sudden death enters into the equation along with suffering.
And now all of us, as we are born into this world is born under a curse, “We are sons and daughters of wrath,” St. Paul’s tells us, instead of sons and daughters of God. And then of course we know what happens in the story is that throughout salvation history, God is entering back into the equation, He’s reaching out to His people, He’s wooing His people, He’s preparing us so that when Jesus comes in the flesh, He takes on the curse, He takes on all that comes with being humanity, being human, and He takes that to the cross and He suffers and dies and takes on the blame and the punishment that should have been ours, He takes all of that to the grave, and then through the resurrection, He breaks the power of sin and death and next thing you know, we have the hope of eternal life, that we can be brought from darkness to light, from death to life, from suffering to wholeness, that healing, deep true healing is now part of the equation. The eternal perspective, which was once we are, our destiny is damnation, our destiny is separation from God has shifted now, that because our identity is no longer that under a curse, our identity is now under a son of the Father, son or daughter of the Father through baptism, now, that new identity leads to a new destiny should we persevere to it, which is salvation.
A God that Allows but Limits
That’s the story, that’s where living under. So just to remind us, just a few phrases to remind us, we believe in a God who suffers, but conquers suffering, we believe in a God who died, but conquers death, we believe in a God who understands suffering. Jesus as He took on human flesh and lives in the fallen world in order to redeem the fallen world, Jesus understands suffering. He understands suffering and He responds to suffering. How does He respond to suffering? By bringing healing. Hold that thought. We have a God who hurts and heals, hurts, understands our pain, but brings healing, and we have a God who allows, but limits, allows, but limits, that our God allows the consequences of our decisions through free will we have the opportunity to say yes to Him or reject Him, and because of the fallen nature of the world, how we respond does bear with it real consequences for what we experience in this life. But whenever the Lord allows suffering, whenever the Lord allows evil to reign or to come out, He always limits and He always creates a path for those who love Him, He always creates a path for there to be good to come out of it.
The Story of Job
We see this very clearly in the story of Job. You have this kind of intriguing story that’s plopped right in the middle of the Bible with Job where you have this dialogue between God and the evil one, Satan. And God’s kind of bragging about Job, He’s like, “Look at my servant Job, look how great he is and look how much he honors me.” And Satan’s like, “Well yeah, of course he does, look at all the stuff he has, he lives a great life.” He says, “If I could take that from him, he would curse your name.”
So, the idea of suffering for Job doesn’t come from God, it comes from the evil one, it comes from evil, comes from Satan. And God says, “All right, I will permit you to, you know, stretch out your hand against my servant, Job, but you’re not allowed to touch him, you’re not allowed to touch his body.” So, there’s a moment where he’s allowing suffering, right? He’s allowing something to happen, but He’s limiting it. And of course, the story of Job is an analogy for all this so there’s parts that we have to understand.
So, the devil comes out and wipes out Job’s family and he loses all his livestock and all these things and Job doesn’t curse God. And then the devil says, “Well yeah, because you didn’t let me touch him.” And the Lord says, “Well, you can touch him, you can affect his body, but you cannot kill him.” He allows but limits. So, the devil gives him all sorts of sickness and boils, and through all of this, what is Job’s refrain? “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” And then there’s this long stretch in Job where his three friends try to convince him to curse God, to try to convince him that his state isn’t just, and that he should rebel against God, and that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They ask him all these questions and they have this dialogue and it culminates with this incredibly dramatic moment where Job finally kind of has a chance to cry out to God and kind of express his displeasure with what’s happening in his life and kind of say, “God, where are you in this? What’s going on?” And God’s response is so critical here. Remember, He allowed but limited. And we also know in the grand context of this whole story that whatever the Lord allows, but limits, He provides a way out for those who love Him, He always works for good for those who love Him both in this life and the next.
So, the Lord’s response to Job’s question, kind of the why question, is not what I think we would expect. The Lord doesn’t try to explain Himself to Job, in fact, He basically says, “Are you God? Do you have my power? Were you there when the foundations of the earth were put in place? Are you capable of catching the Leviathan from the sea? Do you see the storehouses of heaven laden with hail and rain?” He just goes on and on about like, all the attributes of Himself, of who He is and His majesty, His power and in His wisdom, and Job in hearing and being reminded of who God is repents, repents, says, “You are God.” And basically, says like, “You are God, I am not, and so I will serve you.”
What we learn from this story is that the Lord limits, He allows, but He limits, and that at the heart of suffering is an unavoidable mystery, as we understand as Catholics, mystery not being something that we are incapable of understanding, but more so, that there’s a depth to understanding that is always ongoing, that there are always deeper and deeper understandings that we can get into, into the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of the Eucharist, the mystery of suffering.
As Catholics, we don’t run from mystery, we embrace mystery because the majesty and the fullness of who God is and how He’s revealed Himself is both inexhaustive, we can’t reach the edges of it, but also able to be examined. So, mystery is that beautiful tension between understanding and unknowing of true light that’s come to the world to reveal something about it, and then still a darkness, not a darkness of evil, but a darkness of unknowing that is a gift to us that we can still in humility continue to pursue the Lord and receive from Him all that He has for us. And so, this mystery of suffering cannot be avoided. And so in Job, we have this recognition that all of a sudden, yes, we can question, we can cry out, we can wonder at why these things are happening and how this all fits into place, but at the end of the day, God is God and we are not, and the only appropriate response to God is worship, is fidelity, obedience, trust and ultimately faith.
Temptations of Suffering
The crisis of suffering always causes friction and bumps into faith, and either suffering becomes fuel to enhance, deepen, empower our faith, or for many of us and many in the world, suffering becomes the reason to say no to faith. Faith and suffering are actually not incompatible even though they’re often seen that way. And what we see in Job is this recognition of a deep suffering, but then letting that be a springboard into even deeper faith in the Lord, deeper trust in Him, and a deeper acknowledgement of His majesty and power.
So here are some temptations that come with suffering. One temptation for suffering is to pretend that it doesn’t exist or pretend that we can avoid it completely in our life. There is no utopia here on earth, there is no lifestyle, there’s no amount of money, there’s no amount of entertainment, there’s no amount of distraction, there’s no amount of food or protection or anything, no government, no laws, no Hollywood can create a life devoid of suffering. So, we can’t ignore its existence, in the sense of, we can’t ignore that the human experience will contain within it suffering.
Second is that we can’t also act as if we are powerless against it. “No, we are more than conquerors,” Scripture tells us, “In Christ who loved us,” that there’s example after example after example of the Lord kind of crashing into a situation to provide radical and supernatural healing to a moment of suffering, or to bring people out of a disastrous, dangerous situation into a place of refuge. And sometimes the Lord acts in those dramatic ways and sometimes He doesn’t, but we have to believe that He can, we have to believe that the Lord will and can heal today. And if we don’t see the healing that we desire in this moment, it’s not like something, it’s not like God’s fault, it falls back into more of that category of mystery and faith. And Lord, we believe and we trust that if the healing that we’re pursuing and asking for isn’t coming, we still choose to bless your name because again, of the greater purpose. So again, we can hold these things in tension that suffering exists, but also can be dealt with in the Lord.
One temptation and suffering is to think that we are abandoned. This is a lie of the the evil one to say that you’re alone, that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t see you, that He’s not listening. And friends, I don’t really have a solution for you in that other than to say it’s just not true. Paul talks about no height, nor depth, nor separation, nothing, nothing can separate you from the love of God, other than your own will to say, “I don’t want it.” But when you pursue Him and when you say yes to Him, He’s there.
Another temptation is to see everything that we’re dealing with is only in the here and now, that everything that we’re up against is right in this contemporary moment, that everything that is going on in life can only be evaluated from this temporal existence. And one of the ways that suffering makes sense, one of the ways that we can kind of wrap our heads around suffering is to see it in light of eternity. “For the joy that was set before Him, Christ embraced and endured the cross.”
Jesus saw what was coming, the eternal weight of glory that would be His through His death and resurrection and He was able to embrace the cross, He was able to embrace the most intense suffering that any human being has ever experienced, both the physical suffering of the scourging and the thorns and the nails to the cross, but the deep spiritual and emotional suffering, being rejected by all those who loved Him, loves Him, and bearing the weight, the spiritual weight of all the evil that had ever been committed and ever would be committed. Jesus saw what was to come, He understood the eternal perspective and He didn’t get trapped into temptation of evaluating everything in the here and now.
And then finally, the temptation of suffering is that we spend a lot of time trying to solve it and understand it, that it’s just a, you know, a puzzle that we can fix. And very often the hard truth about suffering is that a lot of time we can’t solve it and we can’t fully understand it, and that when we lay it all out on an equation, yeah, we can see some of the good, and yeah, we can still see the suffering, and it doesn’t seem like the equation adds up, doesn’t seem like the good that’s come of it is better than the suffering that we went through.
It’s like when my dad died from cancer, yeah, I could see the benefits from it in the sense of I saw the impact he had on some of my cousins and my aunts and some of the people in his life who aren’t believers, I saw the good that came from his intercession, I still experience his intercession that I believe he’s in heaven for, you know, but at the end of the day like, I’d much rather have him here, I’d much rather have my best friend with me right now.
Suffering Has a Radical Purpose
So suffering is not something we can just easily explain away and nor should we try, because at the end of the day, what we see in Romans 8 is this radical claim that suffering has an incredible purpose and value within the kingdom. “For those of you who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, we receive the spirit of sonship.” Praise God, we are sons and daughters of God. “When we cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” What does that mean? We are heirs of the kingdom, we’re heirs to the fullness of God, that God became man so that we could become God St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, so that we have a hope of eternal life. That is our inheritance.
Life after death, not just life and perpetuity, but the fullness of joy, the fullness of all of our desires fulfilled in God, but provided, what? That we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” Paul says, “Are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That in the grand plan for humanity, this incredible rescue mission of God for us, suffering plays a role, an important role, sometimes an annoying role, a frustrating role, but again, an unavoidable role in that if our master embraced the cross, so should we.
Unite Your Suffering with the Cross
So why do we do this? How do we experience redemptive suffering, and experience what Paul talks about here, uniting our suffering to Christ? Well, the first is to actually spend the time to unite your suffering to the cross. And what do I mean by that is this is an act of the will, to get down on your knees and to pray and to say, “Lord, I give you this suffering. I give you this situation, I give you this person, I give you this pain, I give you this illness, I give you, whatever it is, it’s yours. I give it, I bring it to the foot of the cross, I intentionally, consciously ask you, Lord, to come into the midst of this suffering and to bring your kingdom here.”
We talk about this all the time, like to offer it up, just offer it up, just offer it up. My mom used to say that all the time, “Just offer it up.” And it finally dawned on me, like, she’s serious, you know, like, I really can offer it up as a sacrifice to the Lord to say, “Lord, I give you this pain. And even if the pain doesn’t go away, and even if the situation doesn’t get resolved, and even if things get worse, still I bless your name and I unite it to you.” Like, this doesn’t sound practical, but it’s actually really practical. Like, have you ever spent the time to pray, to truly pray and say, “Lord, this is yours, this situation is yours, this pain is yours.”
Pray for Healing
The second way to experience redemptive suffering is to pray for healing, is to say, “Lord, I believe and I know, and I trust that you love me, and I also believe that you have the power to heal, and so, I ask for healing for my friend, for this situation, for our country, for me, and I believe that you want to, and I believe that you will either in this life or the next, and I trust that if it is your will in this moment that I be healed, you will do it.” And like Job, if the Lord heals or the Lord doesn’t, blessed to be the name of the Lord.
So, second way we can operate a redemptive suffering is to unite. First, is unite it to the cross, and second is to ask for healing. And then the third is to follow the advice of a book I’m sure you’ve read many times before but I’m going to reference it for you, it’s the Book of Sirach. And believe it or not, Sirach is in the Bible, okay? Sirach 2, this is how we’re going to close, listen to this, “My son or daughter, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.” Another translation would be, “Prepare yourself for a trial.” “Set your heart rate and be steadfast and do not be hasty in time of calamity, cleave to Him and do not depart that you may be honored at the end of your life. Accept whatever is brought upon you and in changes that humble you, be patient. For gold is tested in the fire and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in Him and He will help you make your way straight and hope in Him.” “Furnace of humiliation. “
That sounds pretty fun, doesn’t it? Sign me up. Who wants that? Yeah, that, me. No, I know that doesn’t sound great, right? But here’s what Sirach is teaching us, lots of things, cleave to Him and do not put heart, be patient in changes that humble you, all that’s really good advice, don’t be hasty and time of calamity, but the thing I want to pull out is a mental script, it’s a story to tell yourself that in times when the furnace of humiliation is hot, when you find yourself in fires of purification, maybe of things that you’ve done that are causing it or things outside of yourself that are causing them, remember the words of Sirach, “For gold is tested in the fire and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.” You don’t throw garbage into the fire to purify it, you throw garbage into the fire to destroy it. When you feel that fire, when suffering is around you, one of the things you have to say is, “Lord, you see me as gold.”
The Lord disciplines those He loves, He purifies those He loves, He wants us to be more holy, He wants us to be more united with Him. So, in times of calamity, one of the things we have to tell ourselves is like, “I’m gold, the Lord sees me as gold, the Lord cares enough to help me grow.” And that doesn’t mean that all suffering and certainly not all suffering is His direct will, right? Remember, there’s two different wills in God. There’s the permissive will and the perfect will. The permissive will being that of what He allows and the perfect will of what He directly initiates.
And so there’s plenty of suffering that was not the part of the perfect will of God, but in the permissive will of God. And in those moments, it can be very, very difficult to see, Lord, why would you let this fire rage around me? But any time there’s a fire raging around you, it is an opportunity to double down on patience, double down on trust and double down on a deep conviction that I am seen, that I am known, that I’m loved, that I’m valued, and that my Father will provide everything I need in order to navigate whatever is in front of me. There is no circumstance, there is no suffering, there is no trial, there is no tribulation that the Lord cannot provide a way out of, that The Lord will not leave you orphaned in. Every situation, every trial, every tribulation comes with it the grace necessary to respond, to grow and to be united to Him.
And in those moments of deep fear, in those moments of deep, where are you God, in those deep moments of questioning, drawn near to Jesus, because even Jesus in the moment of His greatest trial and tribulation says, “Lord, if it’s possible, take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours.” Jesus is obedient to the Father because He loves the Father and the Father loves Him, and we who are baptized into the body of Christ are baptized into that same relationship with a father who desperately loves us, and we need to grow in desperate love of Him. Suffering is a mystery, it’s also a blessing, it’s also a trial, it’s also confusing, it’s also a pathway, it’s so many things.
But friends, don’t be afraid of what might come, hold fast to the Lord, hold fast to the cross, cleave to Him and do not depart so that you may be honored at the end of your days. God bless you.
About Pete Burak
Pete Burak is the Vice-President of Renewal Ministries and the director of their young adult outreach called id. He is a 2010 graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, and has a Master’s Degree in Theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Pete is a frequent speaker on discipleship and evangelization, and he is the co-director of Pine Hills Boys Camp. He is the co-founder of the Millennial Church Conference, a monthly columnist for Faith Magazine, the host of the Spirit-filled Leadership Podcast, the host of the television show G2G: Glory to God, and a member of the USCCB Young Adult Advisory Committee. Pete and his wife Cait have 5 children.