Why suffering? Because Love.
By Simone Rizkallah
This is the fifth of a series of seven meditations examining the Christian meaning of suffering according to the thought of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris.”
In the first part of his meditation, John Paul II unpacks suffering in light of man’s nature, the transcendent quality of man’s suffering in particular, the vocational quality of man’s suffering, the cause of suffering (namely, evil) and the biblical character of Job and its relationship to justice. In the second part, he transitions his meditation on suffering in relationship to divine love.
He writes: “Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the ‘why’ of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Paragraph 13).
It is precisely here, in examining the nature of suffering as being redemptive, that we also discover that what makes suffering redemptive at all is love. Love is what redeems, love is what saves everything and gives everything meaning. John Paul II writes that love is the “very heart of God’s salvific work” which can be summarized in this one line from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Love introduces a “completely new dimension” to the concept of suffering (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 14). While the Old Testament addresses suffering within the limits of justice, the New Testament, precisely because it extends justice into the realm of charity, moves suffering out of the merely temporal realm and into the supernatural. In this document, the Holy Father discusses suffering in all its various dimensions, but it is in this dimension of love in which the meaning of suffering is “fundamental” and “definitive” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 14). Simply put, the meaning of suffering is love. But not just any love, but the sort of love — divine love — which not only saves now, but forever. A temporal meaning of suffering is that “it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 12). But the possibility of being “saved now” is meaningful only insofar as the repentance and confession of an interior conversion disposes one to the possibility of the life offered in eternity.
In other words, the measure of the redemptive quality of our personal suffering (and therefore its capacity to be considered meaningful) is the extent to which we become good. How do we measure the extent to which we have been “rebuilt” in goodness? John Paul answers, the extent to which goodness is strengthened in our “relationships with others and especially with God” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 12).
Simone Rizkallah is the director of program growth at Endow Groups, a Catholic women’s apostolate that calls women together to study important documents of the Catholic Church. Endow exists to cultivate the intellectual life of women to unleash the power of the feminine genius in the world.
For more information visit www.endowgroups.org/study-guide-on-the-christian-meaning-of-suffering-salvifici-doloris/.