Perhaps the most difficult thing about being a Christian is self-denial. We prefer to pass on suffering as someone else’s problem. We keep a distance out of fear of suffering ourselves. We don’t want someone else’s problem to be our problem. We can blame our self-centered culture for having this attitude, but this goes beyond culture. It’s primordial.
No one likes to suffer. This is an undeniable fact unless someone has a deep mental disorder. Even God, Himself, does not find pleasure in the suffering of His creation. So why does He permit it? What role does suffering have, if any, in our world, or in the context of human history?
The teacher, par excellence, on the meaning of suffering is, of course, our Lord, Jesus Christ. He shows us the way to salvation by his Way. When we deny our own wants, when we hand over our wills to the will of God, we will inevitably suffer, but this is the condition of discipleship. This is what makes a person a saint. Simply put, saints are those who can bear sufferings for Christ. A saint must be proven worthy to be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven, contrary to the popular notion that salvation is unconditional:
“For if before men, indeed they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself” (Wis 3:4-5).
Adam & Eve abandoned the will of God for their own wills, which is why the primordial sin is that of Pride. Pride is always rooted in self-worship. Pride seeks to make ourselves gods. It is pride that causes us to say, “I shall not serve!” It’s this rebelliousness not to serve that causes us to avoid suffering at all costs, to embrace pleasure over discipline, apathy over empathy, and build a utopia founded on compromise over the Kingdom of God that does not leave room for concession (cf. Mt 16:24-26).
This brings me to the notion of spectator versus participant. There were, and still are, two approaches towards our Lord’s Way: the spectator and the participant. The spectator keeps his distance. He is driven by personal convenience. He or she will take the path of least resistance. They may walk with Christ, but only to a certain point. Think of Pontius Pilate who found Jesus innocent but the political inconvenience of the mob caused him to carry out the sentence, or the crucified criminal that would have preferred salvation of the body over salvation of the soul. Neither one of these were willing to risk it all for Christ.
The participant is one who is willing to give up everything and join Jesus in his death. This is the expectation Jesus places on all of his disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23).
There were many who kept their distance and looked upon the Messiah nonchalantly as he hung upon the cross – soldiers, Pharisees, bystanders – as there are many still today who watch from the outside, abandoning the via crucis rather than risk career, reputation, or lifestyle. But in so doing, they reject the reward that comes with accepting such a suffering. St. Paul assures us: “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Rm 6:5). All of the saints who gave up their luxuries, honors, pleasures, and even their very lives, understood what Jesus demanded of them. They sold all their pearls to obtain the one great pearl of value (cf. Mt 13:45). For the true disciple, there was always only one option: be a participant. Jesus’ death showed us the way of obedience, the antithesis of Adam’s disobedience. Self-denial was always the only option. Will we choose convenience over sacrifice, the temporal over the eternal, the self over the Savior? I pray we make the right choice: “As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself” (Wis 3:6).