Every person has the responsibility to avoid suffering as best as he or she can. This is suited to the dignity of the human person.
This means that upon being confronted by a difficult situation, one should consider the tools at one’s disposal.
If the manager at the local parish is being obstructionist, then consider, what are the various ways this can be countered? A telephone call? An email? A blog article? An email to the Archbishop? Consider all the ways.
If a friend is being confusing and difficult, then consider, what are the various ways this can be countered? A telephone call? Avoidance? An email? Consider all the ways.
If an injustice in the world is occurring, then consider, what are the various ways this can be countered? A protest march? A blog article? A letter? Consider all the ways (but please do not forget to honour one’s vocation in life – parents cannot steal from family life the time that is owed to family life).
If you have an illness, then consider what are the various ways this can be countered? Five hours of internet research aren’t required, but go ahead if you like. Medication? A visit to the physician? A home remedy? Consider the ways.
Nevertheless, there are two considerations or “limits” to the idea of avoiding suffering.
Limit One: you cannot sin when you attempt to avoid the suffering. The means – the method – must be legitimate, in the eyes of God. Therefore, this means that you cannot lie or steal, for example. I am not referring here to earthly legitimacy. It can sometimes happen that there are man-made laws which prioritize certain values according to the fashions of the time, but these ‘violations’ do not cause God to raise an eyebrow. Although God does want us to obey earthly authority, it is often the case that those in power make laws which have very little moral weight behind them. I think here in particular, about administrative bodies, which tend to lose sight of the ‘big picture.’ The smaller the issue, it seems, the more the temporary rule-maker(s) gets carried away. Have you seen, for instance, those ‘helpful’ signs about How to Wash Your Hands? How many steps? You could write a blog post in the time it takes to follow all those rules. (When you die, you’ll have nothing to show for your life, but at least you’ll have scrubbed hands.)
Limit Two: in the process of seeking relief from suffering, use the means which appeal to you in the moment. You are not under an obligation to use every ‘solution’ that is available on earth. For example, if you have a headache, it is not your responsibility to take medication if this does not appeal to you. If you have cancer, it is not your responsibility to pursue all the treatments recommended by the physician. Sometimes the treatments suggested by modern caregivers add to the suffering, because they feel invasive or extreme to the patient. You are not under an obligation to search out every remedy to every problem in your life, consulting every How To book under the sun and consulting every expert. Ask for the input of whomever you like if you want another point of view other than your own. Nevertheless, it’s your decision in the end. It’s your suffering – you decide how to proceed. Don’t feel pressured to choose A, B or C.
OBJECTION ONE: How can you speak about avoiding suffering when the church emphasizes the value of penance?
I do not discount the value or meaning of penance. It seems to me that there are three legitimate ways for penance to occur:
First way: It can be imposed by someone who has authority to impose it. I think here, for example, of a priest identifying a certain prayer as a penance during the sacrament of reconciliation.
[And here, I put in a strong recommendation that priests ask for no more than one Our Father. Many Catholics don’t know the Hail Mary well enough, and although it would be nice for them to learn it, this isn’t the time. That’s why I’d say that a good penance would be one or two Our Fathers and a Hail Mary if you like. I don’t think it is good for priests to get “creative” with their penances because these can be unwieldy and cumbersome for the penitent. It is unhelpful, for example, for a priest to tell a penitent to say three Hail Marys while meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation etc etc. The penitent won’t know whether he has completed the penance in a satisfactory way. Another example of an obscure penance is for a priest to tell a mother to “do something nice” for her family. What does that mean? Make an apple pie? What if she scolds her child while making the pie? Does that nullify the value of the penance? What if the scolding was a legitimate warning? The penance becomes far too blurry and it becomes burdensome for the person. The other bad habit some priests have is to “mix it up.” By this, I mean that one month, the priest will ‘give out’ 3 Hail Marys, and the next month, he gives out 5 Hail Marys to almost everybody. In this case, the penitent will think that his sins this time were notably more problematic than the previous time. Alternatively, some priests will vary the penance from one penitent to the next. This leads to problems because if family members or friends compare what they ‘got’ as penance, they will wonder why their own penance was more severe than that received by the others. The actual truth is that the priest thought that the mother was capable of carrying out a decade whereas a ‘mere child’ should be given something ‘easy.’ Dangerous thinking, because it is often the case that a child is far more spiritually developed than an adult – or even a priest.]
Second way: A person can be inspired to ask for a penance from a person with authority to impose it. An example of this might be a sister in a convent, who approaches her superiors seeking some sort of penance.
Third way: It can be self-imposed. In other words, a person can decide, out of the blue, to suffer in a special way. For example, a person can decide to give up sugar for her coffee.
I caution very much against self-imposed penance. The risk of increasing pride is so enormous with self-imposed penance that I think it is not worth it. And circling back to my opening sentence, suffering which is not resisted comes terribly close to self-imposed penance. Here’s an example: if a man goes outside with his umbrella, but he does not open it and use it when it is raining, then he is, in effect, doing a self-imposed penance. If a wife does not defend herself when a husband wrongly accuses her of telling lies about him to the family pet, and she is, at that moment, strongly desirous of setting the record straight, then she is doing a self-imposed penance. At other times, she may not have the energy or the inclination to argue. So she shouldn’t bother.
During those penitential times of the year, such as Lent and Advent, the Church may ask for a fast, but in modern times, these fasts are not severe. I do not count these as self-imposed. On Fridays, some Catholics are called to fast. But pay attention to the ages involved. It is not appropriate for a mother to require her growing and hungry 7-year-old child to ‘do without’ on Fridays – that child is not required to fast.
In case you haven’t heard what’s required in Canada and the United States, here we go:
A fast day is a day in which only one full meal is taken; the other two meals together should not equal a full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, are allowed. Catholics who have reached the age of 18 but are not yet 59 are obliged to fast.
The only fast days are: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
A day of abstinence means refraining from eating meat on certain “days of abstinence” specified by the Church. Catholics 14 years of age and over are obliged to keep this law. In Canada, the days of abstinence from meat are: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
All other Fridays, including the Fridays of Lent, are days of abstinence, but Catholics may substitute abstinence with some other act of piety or charity. Catholics 14 years of age and over are obliged to keep this law.
(I do not say that all self-imposed penance is problematic, because there are cases where, in the intimacy of the bond between Christ crucified and a gentle soul, special tokens of love and suffering are shared. But let me draw a veil over that, and speak instead of the general rule.)
OBJECTION TWO: But what about ‘offering it up’? And what about the beauty of suffering in general?
Although suffering is a way that we participate in Christ’s passion and death, we need never fear that God will deny us our portion of suffering, even if we avoid it as best as we can. As I said recently, God knows where you live. There are no shortages of unavoidable sorrows and burdens in this life. God will measure your heart and he will measure your willingness to suffer for him. He will adjust things accordingly. He will line things up so that you can participate as fully as you are able. You do not need to ‘help him out’ by standing in the path of an oncoming train (or an angry mother-in-law, for that matter). Trust me, he can send (‘allow’) suffering to descend upon you faster than you can even say, “Look, the grasshoppers are coming!” If he wills it, suffering will engulf you like a tsunami. You don’t need to go looking for it. On the other hand, if he doesn’t will it, you will walk through the crowd unrecognized and they won’t be able to push you off any cliff, even though they want to.
Having said that, nobody can console like God can. Nobody.
At one moment, you are 100% convinced that nothing on earth could be worth what you just went through. Then you find out why you just went through what you just went through and you are amazed at how it was entirely worth it, and you declare that you’ve barely suffered at all. The best analogy that I can give is the same as St. Paul’s, who referred to fighting the good fight and running the good race. You extend yourself to the breaking point and then even beyond, but then, near death, you discover that you’ve won more than that slice of gold silver or bronze that you thought you were trying for; indeed, the prize – unbeknownst to you – was half the planet. Panting, you declare that in that case, you want to sign up for tomorrow’s race, because you’re willing to go for the other half.
Something like that.
In other words, the short answer to the question is: Don’t worry. You won’t be deprived. God can ensure you get as much suffering as you need to give him glory and as much suffering as you need to become the person he wants you to be on this side of death and as much suffering as you need to be where he wants you to be in the afterlife.
God knows your heart, far better than you do.
God measures your heart, and many people who believe that they are ready to do anything for God are in fact not prepared to do anything at all. Conversely, some people who believe that they are more frightened than anyone else in the world of suffering may find, much to their surprise, that they can suffer quite a lot, because God knows how to console; one rests upon his broad and fatherly chest.
As for the Christian notion of ‘offering it up,’ well, I think this very much a beginner’s kind of mentality and it can be problematic. Anyone who announces that they suffered A, B or C, but that they “offered it up,” has probably already consumed their reward via earthly praise. God couldn’t use it, because they did it for show or for their own satisfaction. That’s why God will use the untainted things, that you didn’t even think were noticed by him. He’s creative, and he’ll use, to your credit, those many inconveniences and pains and sudden disappointments in life. He’s not limited to using the short list of items Earmarked By You. Thank God for that, ’cause you ain’t earmarking all that very much.
So he will use the paper cut you just got, the stubbed toe, the parking ticket, the nightmare and the flying soccer ball that hit you on the side of the head. All of that, he will count as suffering you’ve done. And please note, God doesn’t wait for people to convert before counting, to their credit, each and every drop of suffering and pain in their lives. These he will use in the most creative ways.
In the first place, he’ll apply these drops of suffering to make up for your sins. If there aren’t enough drops, then he’ll gather some drops suffered by others to rescue your soul. In the second place – if you’re wheat and not chaff – he’ll use these drops to make up for the sins of others and to address wrongs more widespread and institutional in nature. By this I mean that God will use the sufferings of good-willed people throughout the world when he combats larger evils such as abortion, euthanasia, and governments which are hell-bent on ruining civilization. And of course, God uses every last drop of suffering left on the table to console the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Nothing goes to waste.
And in saying all this, please understand that God doesn’t NEED your suffering or the suffering of anyone else in this world. He can accomplish, if he wanted, everything that he wants without a drop of your pain. Nevertheless, he knows that it will add to your eternal joy to discover – usually on the other side of death – that when you suffered that car accident or that unfair slur on your name or that recurring nightmare, you were, in fact, contributing and playing a part in the Salvation Game. You thought you were on the sidelines, but you were right on the field, along with the rest of the saints. You participated. How shocked you will be! How astounded! How gleeful and entirely amazed you will be! You will wonder and be so full of delight when he shows you what he purchased using your ‘wallet.’ Oh, you’ll rejoice! Your heart will be glad and you’ll acknowledge his goodness and his wisdom.
But beware: you are most solemnly advised to try to stay on the side of being a credit, and not a debit in this Salvation Game. Don’t drag down the team. Don’t make the good players carry you. Pull up your socks and don’t make things worse. Fight sin in your heart and consider your motives. Intention is everything. Do you want good for those in your life, or do you want harm? Consider your motives. Why do you do what you are doing? Why? Why don’t you do what is good? Why do you do what you know to be wrong? Stop. Reboot. Change your ways. Go to confession and begin again. Better motives, better intentions. Try to get better, not just in your actions, but in the depths of your heart.
OBJECTION 3: But Jesus let himself be crucified and he told his followers to turn the other cheek.
The danger here is that it is all too easy to take a passage from the bible and oversimplify the issue of suffering. Christ was inspired in each of his actions during the Passion. He knew he was called to suffer by giving up his life. But consider, he was caught. He didn’t go looking for the soldiers; they came to collect him in the garden of Gethsemane. And the way the soldiers found him was by the betrayal of Judas. Christ didn’t ask for this; it wounded him greatly. The story goes on. Jesus didn’t ask to be tried and brought before rulers and questioned and mocked. He didn’t oppose them but he didn’t seek out the punishments he received. These were conceived in the black minds and hearts of the sadists around him. You know the story.
Similarly, when we Christians are told to turn the other cheek, it is not to be taken as never resisting or avoiding injury or injustice. If that were the meaning of the directive, then how can you explain the inspired behaviour of all of the saints throughout history? How do you explain the many escapes via basket? How do you explain the time St. Thomas Aquinas ran across the room with a red-hot poker from the fire (his conniving siblings had brought the pure man a whore to sideline him) in order to chase away, literally, temptation? How do you explain St. Thomas More’s using his brain to see if he could, somehow, escape signing when he knew signing was wrong? How do you explain St. Paul’s argument that he shouldn’t be whipped, since he was a Roman citizen? These actions weren’t wrong. They were right. The normal and proper way, fitting to human dignity, is to use our best efforts, with the caveats I’ve already mentioned, to avoid suffering where we can.
God will take care of the rest. He’ll either bless our efforts to avoid suffering and we’ll walk away unscathed, or he’ll allow the suffering and it will come, either flooding in or falling upon us a teeny drop at a time.
And if the suffering does come, we can keep in mind those phrases from scripture and all the praises of suffering we’ve read from the saints. These may help console us during difficult times (on the other hand, they might not – in which case, the suffering is greater.)
If the suffering does come, God will apportion it according to our ability to handle it and he will supply his grace and his strength to help us bear whatever he gives.
The main thing is, we are never meant to be afraid. All things happen for a reason. All events, considered good or bad by us at the time, are in his hands, and we are too.