The Meaning of Suffering in Light of Christ's Passion

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 9 November 1988, the Holy Father showed how Christ's Passion changed the meaning of suffering for the faithful. "All human sufferings, united to that of Christ, complete 'what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body' (cf. Col 1:24).

"If a grain of wheat...dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).

The redemption carried out by Christ at the price of his passion and death on the cross is a decisive event in human history, not only because it fulfills the supreme divine plan of justice and mercy, but also because it gave new meaning to the problem of suffering. No problem has weighed more heavily on the human family, especially in its relationship with God. We know that the value of human existence is conditioned by the solution of the problem of suffering. To a certain extent it coincides with the problem of evil, whose presence in the world is so difficult to accept.

Christ's cross—the passion—throws a completely new light on this problem by conferring another meaning on human suffering in general.

In the Old Testament suffering was considered as a penalty inflicted on man for his sins by a just God. However, within this perspective, based on an initial divine revelation, it was difficult to explain the suffering of the innocent. This is an acute problem, the classic example of which is found in the case of Job. It must be added, however, that already in the Book of Isaiah the problem is seen in a new light. The figure of the servant of Yahweh seems to constitute a particularly significant and effective preparation in relation to the paschal mystery, in the center of which those who suffer in all times and peoples find their place alongside the "man of sorrows"—Christ.

Christ who suffers is, in the words of a modern poet, "the Holy One who suffers," the innocent one who suffers. This is so because his suffering has a much greater intensity compared with that of all other human beings, even of all the Jobs, that is to say, of all those who suffer without fault of their own. Christ is the only one truly without sin, and who, moreover, could not sin. He is therefore the only one who absolutely did not deserve to suffer. Yet he is the one who accepted suffering in the fullest and most resolute manner, and who accepted it voluntarily and with love. This indicates his desire, his interior urge, as it were, to drink to the dregs the cup of suffering (cf. Jn 18:11), and this "for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world," as the Apostle John explains (1 Jn 2:2). In this desire, communicated to a soul without guilt, is found the essence of the redemption of the world by means of the cross. The redemptive power of suffering is in love.

Thanks to Christ, the meaning of suffering changes radically. It no longer suffices to see in it a punishment for sin. One must discern in it the redemptive, salvific power of love. The evil of suffering, in the mystery of Christ's redemption, is overcome and in every case transformed. It becomes a force of liberation from evil, for the victory of the good. All human sufferings, united to that of Christ, complete "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body" (cf. Col 1:24). The body is the Church as the universal community of salvation.

In what is known as his pre-paschal teaching, Jesus made it known on more than one occasion that the concept of suffering, understood exclusively as a punishment for sin, is insufficient and even incorrect. Thus when some told him of the Galileans "whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices," Jesus inquired, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?... Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?" (Lk 13:1-2, 4). Here Jesus clearly called in question a view that was widely and commonly accepted at the time. He made it understood that the misfortune that brings the suffering cannot be understood exclusively as a punishment for personal sins. "No, I tell you," Jesus declared, and then added, "But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk 13:3-4). In the context, a comparison of these words with those that went before makes it evident that Jesus intended to emphasize the necessity of avoiding sin, because that is the real evil, the evil in itself. Given the solidarity that binds human beings among themselves, sin is the ultimate root of all suffering. It does not suffice to avoid sin merely through fear of the punishment that the sinner may incur. One must truly be converted to the good, so that the law of solidarity can reverse its effectiveness and develop, through communion with Christ's suffering, a positive influence on the other members of the human family.

This is the meaning of Jesus' words when he healed the man born blind. The disciples asked him: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:1-3). By giving sight to the blind man, Jesus made known the works of God which were to be revealed in that disabled man, to the advantage of himself and of all those who should come to know of the event. The miraculous healing of the blind man was a sign which led him to believe in Christ and introduced into the mind of others a seed of disquiet (cf. Jn 9:16). The profession of faith of the blind man who had received his sight manifested the essential "work of God," the gift of salvation which he received together with the gift of sight. "Do you believe in the Son of Man?... Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?...You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.... Lord, I believe" (Jn 9:35-38).

Against the background of this event we perceive in the light of the cross some aspects of the truth about suffering. A judgment that views suffering exclusively as a punishment of sin runs counter to love for man. This had appeared already in the case of Job's "comforters" who accuse him with arguments based on a conception of justice devoid of any opening to love (cf. Job 4 ff.). One sees it still better in the case of the man born blind: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn 9:2). It is like pointing a finger at someone. It is a judgment which passes from suffering seen as a physical torment, to that understood as a punishment for sin. Someone must have sinned, either the man in question or his parents. It is a moral imputation: he suffers, therefore he must have been guilty.

To put an end to this petty and unjust way of thinking, it was necessary to reveal in its essential profundity the mystery of the suffering of the innocent one, the holy one, the man of sorrows! Ever since Christ chose the cross and died on Golgotha, all who suffer, especially those who suffer without fault, can come face to face with the "holy one who suffers." They can find in his passion the complete truth about suffering, its full meaning and its importance.

In the light of this truth, all those who suffer can feel called to share in the work of redemption accomplished by means of the cross. To share in the cross of Christ means to believe in the saving power of the sacrifice which every believer can offer together with the Redeemer. Suffering then casts off the mantle of absurdity which seems to cover it. It acquires a profound dimension and reveals its creative meaning and value. It could then be said that it changes the scenario of existence, from which the destructive power of evil is ever farther removed, precisely because suffering bears its copious fruits. Jesus himself revealed and promised that to us when he said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). From the cross to glory!

It is necessary with the help of the Gospel to make evident another aspect of the truth about suffering. Matthew tells us that "Jesus went about...preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity" (Mt 9:35). Luke in his turn tells us that when Jesus was questioned about the true meaning of the commandment of love, he replied with the parable of the good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:30-37). From these texts it follows that, according to Jesus, suffering should impel in a special way to love of neighbor and to the commitment of rendering him all necessary services. Such a love and such services, carried out in every way possible, constitute a fundamental moral value which accompanies suffering. When speaking of the last judgment, Jesus set out with particular clarity the idea that every work of love performed on behalf of a suffering person is directed to the Redeemer himself: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me" (Mt 25:35-36). The whole Christian ethic of service, even social service, is based on these words, as well as the definitive turning to account of suffering accepted in the light of the cross.

Could not one find here the answer which humanity awaits today? It can be received only from Christ crucified, the holy one who suffers. He can penetrate the heart of the most painful human problems, because he already stands beside all who suffer and who ask him for an awakening of new hope.