St. Paul and “Rejoicing” in Suffering

“Brothers and sisters: Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…”

Colossians 1:24

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are missing the boat because you are missing just one detail about something? One detail can be so important- it’s the difference between a party and a surprise party!

For years I’ve struggled with the words of St. Paul to the Colossians: “Brothers and sisters: Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” Weekend before last, it popped up again in my life as the second reading at Mass. 

Sigh. This is a hard reading for me because I have apparently been asked to suffer, yet I certainly don’t experience the rejoicing in suffering like St. Paul describes. I mean, come on. How many of us are happy in our suffering and struggles? That’s not typically the case, and it’s very normal to dislike struggles. We want health and peace and happiness and butterflies and sunshine, not…suffering! I’ve often wondered how I am supposed to rejoice in something that’s awful! It just didn’t make sense.

I’ve often felt like it would be an easier walk for me if I could get to that mysterious place of rejoicing in my suffering, but I don’t like it or rejoice in it- I want to get rid of it. The best I can say is that I know I’m growing spiritually thought the suffering, but that doesn’t equate with rejoicing in it. It’s been hard for me to connect to those words of St. Paul’s in a complete way, and I’d venture to guess that I’m not alone in that. 

I’ve spoken to priests about this reading before and had grown in understanding that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was by no means lacking or incomplete, but it’s that Jesus desires us to participate in that suffering. I had that part, but in my mind, it kind of stopped there because I just wasn’t understanding the next part and because in my very limited human capacity, I could grasp how someone would want another individual to be able to understand what he/she is enduring. So, I was trying to accompany Jesus in His suffering (which is a good thing to do), but He wasn’t wanting me (or anyone else) to suffer to appease Himself. I wasn’t connecting with the next part and was in spiritual turmoil because of the detail I was missing.

Weekend before last, I was blessed to hear the homily of my spiritual director, and the inspired words he spoke about that second reading sparked something in my soul. He explained that Jesus desires our participation in His suffering so that we can participate in the redemption also. That’s the part that hadn’t been clicking for me. I’ve heard it before, even from this particular priest I’m sure, but I had never connected with it like I did during that homily. Light bulb moment (…finally)!

I knew my suffering was for a purpose, and I’ve been offering up my suffering for many years, but I had gotten into a difficult place where I often thought that God just wanted me to suffer so that other people could skip along in life. Not a great vantage point to have when you are working hard to see God as a loving father! I’ve seen my prayers for other people work, but my prayers for myself have gone largely unanswered, which has been diffictult. Of course I want Him to use my suffering to help others, as only He can do that, but it’s hard not to ask, “What about me?”

Apparently there is a role for my physical suffering to play in His greater glory, or else I wouldn’t still be in this situation. (Not that God caused it, but He is allowing it to happen.) However, I was forgetting the second half. He desires us to unite our sufferings to His so that we can participate in the redemption, so that we can participate in His glory. The suffering is not where it stops. He wants my participation in the redemption. Now THAT’S something to rejoice about! He doesn’t want me to suffer so that He can redeem all by Himself. He wants me to participate in the redemption with Him. I mean, what a humble and loving God that He and His son want us participating in the exciting part, in the glory, when they could have easily hogged that part all to themselves!

In my mind now, it’s kind of like enduring a painful and exhausting hike to the top of a mountain to see an amazing view- the hike is about more than the hike itself, yet you only get the fruits of that hike by enduring the hike. The point of the hike isn’t just to suffer through the pain. While building muscle is an important part of that, those difficult hikes have purpose even beyond that- the glory of the view. God wants us to enjoy “the view” (aka the redemption) with Him! He is so loving and giving that He desires our presence for the good part. 

So, I don’t know that it’s about loving the actual physical, emotional, or spiritual pain of suffering itself as much as it’s about loving the opportunity to use that suffering for redemption, knowing that God wants us participating in the redemption, and anticipating the good that will come from it. It’s also about savoring the opportunity to grow closer to God through that suffering, knowing that it’s never wasted, and savoring the fact that God desires our participation in the good part. We are invited to the party- He wants us there! I can connect with those things, so I wonder if St. Paul’s rejoicing came from not the pain itself, but from seeing the opportunities presented in suffering and knowing there was so much more to it.

How enlightened and spiritually wise St. Paul was, and what a wonderful saint for me to ask for his intercession. The comforting thing is that St. Paul wasn’t always so wise and spiritually mature- his life had previously been in shambles, but thanks to the grace of God, he turned things around to the point of being able to bring us to our knees with his words. How beautiful, and what hope St. Paul provides for us all. 

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