By BISHOP JOEL M. KONZEN, SM, Commentary | Published September 4, 2020 | En Español
You might have heard the term “redemptive suffering” and wondered what it meant. Perhaps the best answer is in St. Luke’s Gospel, in a section of the 21st chapter where Jesus describes the coming persecution and tribulation. He says that, despite the opposition that his adherents will face, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” Another translation has it, “By your endurance you will win your souls.”
This is to say that those who cling to Christ will not be abandoned. They will, in fact, be rewarded. The persecution that Jesus spoke of was very much a reality in the early centuries of the church and has likewise been a factor in certain times and places since, even unto the present day. For us in the United States, our tribulation, though, is likely to be more personal than ecclesial. People suffer because of their physical or mental health, because of a family crisis, because of loneliness or deprivation of necessities.
But suffer they do, and in the process, the question inevitably arises, “Where is God in this suffering?” In other words, am I to be left alone, and will this only get worse? Jesus himself cries out to his Father from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” These pained words help us to realize the humanity of Jesus, because many of us have wondered something similar. Yet we so often hear Jesus advise us not to lose heart, not to lose sight of what he has promised and what he knew by virtue of his being sent by the Father.
Sometimes we encounter the term “the silence of God” in the context of human suffering. St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, and other holy exemplars experienced this silence, this seeming absence of God in their lives, after being very familiar with his presence before. This is the contrast between consolation in our faith and desolation. The latter sometimes appears, for a reason such as a difficult situation that we face, or seemingly for no known reason.
From the Nazi death camp, Corrie ten Boom wrote, “No matter how deep our darkness, He is deeper still.” And this is the message that we grasp onto at the times when we believe we have been left to suffer alone. As it says in Psalm 139, “even the darkness is not dark to you.” God remains faithful to his covenant, to all his promises, especially those we know in the dying and rising of Christ his Son.
Back to “redemptive suffering.” We believe that God does not cause suffering, but we wonder if he will relieve our suffering. What is redeeming about this experience? Can there be a purpose, a positive somehow that we might take away even from desolation? One answer is that the experience moves us from asking for a certain outcome—take this cup away, take this cross away—to a settling in with God, a reliance that is really basic, really a simpler if later kind of faith. I consign myself to your mercy and your grace, come what may. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Does this mean that I am then relieved of all fear? Not necessarily. But it does mean that I am not withered by a sense that I am in an inane and silent place. I am able to truly love God because I have little else to comfort me. I have cleared all else out of the way.
If these days of separation from others, from the Eucharist in some cases, or from a life without anxiety are causing you to wonder, “where is God,” He is there to “redeem” that empty space you’re in.