Welcoming suffering for ourselves, why not for others?

I have two related problems.

(1) It seems like many saints ask God to send various forms of suffering to them. From fasting to intense temptations to physical torment, it seems like Catholic theology and practice revolves around the notion that suffering is redemptive and therefore good.

However, I am confused, because it seems like the corporal and spiritual works of mercy focus on the relief of suffering for others**.

Basically, if suffering is redemptive and good for me**, why isn’t it good for you** too? If I can ask God to send various afflictions and miseries my** way, why is it bad for me to send them your** way? This seems like hypocrisy to me.

Consider and example. We see a starving, lonely, homeless person. This is a daily reality for anyone who lives in a city. My instinct is to help the person. To pray for them (that God would miraculously help them), or to give them some food or money, or to talk to them. It seems like Jesus teaches us to do this. BUT, let’s say that I** am that starving, homeless person. Wouldn’t Catholic teaching encourage me to “take up my cross” and bear my suffering figuring that it is a good thing? Wouldn’t I be a saint, if, in that condition, I begged God to increase my sufferings in order to be justly punished for my sins or decrease the amount of time in purgatory for others or myself?

So, if suffering is a good in this case, wouldn’t it actually be bad for me (if I was not the homeless person) to relieve the suffering of the homeless person? Shouldn’t I be happy that God has chosen to send her or him many sufferings in order to increase her merit in some sense?

It seems to me like our theology of suffering causes a breakdown in our ethics, unless we embrace a kind of hypocrisy. You may not think it is hypocrisy, but imagine if the quality of suffering was changed to joy. What would you think of a person who said, “joy is good for me to experience and even commendable for me to ask for more of, but if I observe joy in other people, it is my duty to extinguish it!”

Replace “joy” with “suffering” and you have (what I take) as the discrepancy here.

(2). Many saints ask for God to inflict suffering and pain upon them for the love of others. This is undeniable. For instance, a particular saint may ask God to send her or him painful ulcers so that some other person may avoid hell. My difficulty here is that it seems more logical to just beg God to send more grace upon the person in danger of hell. Why the ulcers? How do they contribute in any way? If, after-all, God is completely in charge and will distribute his grace as he wills, why would a saint’s ulcers have any meaning? Is our God one who thirsts for pain and suffering in order to be appeased? Not only that, but it seems like the saint is even more loving and generous than God in this case, since God, for whatever reason, didn’t send enough grace to save the person from the danger of hell in the first place. This can’t be right?! If the saint loves a person enough to want to (illogically) take on physical suffering for a sinner in danger of hell, why wouldn’t God? If you answer, indeed, he has, then why didn’t he send sufficient grace to save the person without desiring/waiting for the intense gastrointestinal suffering of a third party?

I’m not sure this belongs to the “spirituality” sub-forum, but questions like these make it next to impossible for me to pray. My image of God switches back and forth between bloodthirsty villain, or incomprehensible, paradoxical, distant, universal “king” so it is quite difficult for me to have a good prayer life.

Any help would be appreciated, thank you.

You have made some excellent points. IMO these sorts of questions, and as well structured as you have presented them, indicate your mind is starting to question the simplistic, dualistic-only thinking that is so pervasive in the Church. You may be well on the road toward thinking like a mystic (or already there), blending dualistic and non-dualistic thinking the way our Savior taught us. I like your honest and clear description of your issues. :slight_smile:

In the homeless man example, I do see a reasonable rationale; I wish to be there for the person to provide some comfort if I can, but if that person doesn’t want it, I should take that as a sign that there is more to it than “see hungry man – feed hungry man” thinking. Maybe it’s their pride. Maybe somebody just gave him a sandwich five minutes ago. Maybe it’s part of their spiritual “desert” experience. Maybe they are mentally ill. The reason I can see for offering a sandwich is my perception that if the person needs it, they have no visible means of getting it other than by handout – which may be presumptuous but is probably true.

But I hear you saying that we offer worldly comfort (which I distinguish from “peace”) to others, even though we consider such worldly comforts in our own lives as taking us away from God. Why would we give comfort to the body, along with poison to the soul? :ehh:

That brings up another aspect though, in our favor, and that is that learning to accept gifts gratefully and graciously can be beneficial to the soul, whether it is a gift from God or from another person. Or should I say, “a gift from God, given through another person?” :cake: So there is another side to all of this that I’m sure you can see as well. :nerd:

Paragraph (2) in your post has so many twists and turns, that I might hold off a bit on specific comment. I think trying to understand this with human logic can be very tricky, and I think you’ve done a good presentation on how things we take for granted contain so many [bizarre] presuppositions that we typically don’t even think about these things.

Finally, I think this is the perfect subforum for such a discussion. Thank you for an interesting OP. :tiphat:



Alrighty, let’s make one thing clear: suffering is always evil. No ifs, ands, nor buts about it. Pain is always evil, sadness is always evil, death is always evil, loss is always evil. The Christian faith has always been clear about that.

But we have also learned from our faith that suffering can also be holy and blessed:

Let us bless pain. Love pain. Sanctify pain… Glorify pain!

, no. 208The Way

What is the explanation for this seeming nonsense of our faith? It is this: Suffering is not holy nor is it blessed because suffering is good; suffering is holy and blessed because all suffering is God’s suffering.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh and I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Colossians 1:24

My pain is God’s pain, your pain is God’s pain, everybody’s pain is God’s pain. He acutely feels every pain of each and every one of us, because we are His Body, which has to go through suffering as His Head did (that is, Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church).

Now if you carry this metaphor further, this explains our instinctual need to help others in their misery: just as our hand may massage and treat the foot that has stepped unto a barb, we try to help someone else who is suffering, because in a way we can feel that pain when we see it.

But why would God want to share our pain in the first place, instead of removing it? Well, I think it’s all for God’s glory: God conquered death for us by making death our gateway to eternal life. Similarly, God conquered suffering for us by making suffering our salvation from it. Suffering itself saves us from it, because God shares it with us.

We all know how suffering is alleviated by sharing it. Soldiers in the same foxhole are comforted by their sharing of the horrors of war through experience and banter. Sick children are comforted by the sight of their parents suffering through worry and waiting. And so on. And thus, by remembering that He suffers with us through our suffering, our own suffering is thus alleviated. And this suffering can even be more alleviated when we realize from our faith that our own suffering can be united with Christ’s suffering in the Cross and thus be used to save the world. This is “redemptive suffering.”

Therefore, although yes it might not be prudent to alleviate that homeless person’s suffering in your example, it will always be right to share in that person’s suffering. It could take the form of sharing a meal, of just talking to that person, or even of just offering a fasting for that person.

But this could even be brought further. If it is true that God suffers for our account, and suffering is alleviated by sharing it, then it is true that we can offer to alleviate God from His own suffering by asking to share some of it. This is the case for those with the stigmata of the saints (wounds that correspond to Christ’s own in His Passion), and for those asking for affliction in exchange for somebody else’s salvation.

I hope I was able to help you, PumpkinCookie.

Good timing; I just saw a depiction of St. Francis asking for suffering and receiving the stigmata, in a YouTube movie about him…




chuckleOne of the many things I have learned in life, Alan, it is that that there is no such thing as good timing nor coincidence. :thumbsup:

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” – Albert Einstein. :wink:

(!) Consider the voluntary versus involuntary nature of suffering in your question. It is one thing to willingly take up our own suffering, it is quite another to allow our brother or sister to suffer without aiding them. The redemptive act of suffering is inherent in it being a willing, voluntary action.

Christ said to love one another. What is the way of love? If we love Him, we will keep His commandments- to love even our enemies, to love God, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We must live an active faith, Christ indicated how we will be judged. It directly contradicts the idea that we can live passively, not come to the aid of others-

Matthew, 25 31-

'When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.
He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand,
“Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”
Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”
Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”

And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.’ "

(2) A basic mystery of the faith is how Jesus’ passion saved us. Why was it necessary? Why not just cut straight to granting everyone the grace necessary for salvation?

Does Christ’s action in willingly taking on suffering indicate that there is something redemptive to all suffering willingly endured? Or is that feature of suffering unique to Christ? That suffering can be offered up for others eternal welfare? If we could suffer enough, could we theoretically obtain sufficient grace for everyone’s entry into heaven? Could we suffer enough to over-come whatever willing choices they made in embracing sin to drag, force them into heaven? If we can, why didn’t God choose that path Himself- simply suffer enough to force everyone into heaven.

Free will. God chose to invite us into heaven, not force us. He opened the gates, provided us an example, but leaves us to our choice. Embrace Him and love, or choose the opposite. He wants to be our willing choice, not a forced condition. Our willing suffering for another, even if it does result in God providing additional grace to a sinner, does not guarantee their salvation. It still will ultimately be their choice.

Just as the suffering one takes on for another isn’t something God is imposing. It is a choice. Men have always made sacrfices to God, whether it is in the form of their goods, or their labors, or their sufferings. All are attempts to acknowledege God as the creator, the giver of life, and our master. To please Him by raising our minds and hearts to Him and show our willingness to follow Him in whatever ways we can.

Think of Him as a father. Trying to raise His children to know right from wrong, make good choices, and do things for themselves. Helping them based on how seriously they are about their goal. I am more likely to assist my child in something where they are making a serious effort themselves than with something that appears to be a passing fancy for them and they are not putting in much effort.

I wish suffering upon myself and comfort upon my brother because I am holy and righteous and special, whereas my brother is just some schmuck. Because of spiritual pride, in other words.

I strongly suspect that the Christian concept of redemptive suffering has been the facilitating agent behind far more neuroses and narcissism over the centuries than it generally gets credit for.

I guess I’m not very spiritual. I feel like enough suffering comes in the normal course of events that, while I do try and pick up my cross and offer it up, I don’t go looking or ask for additional burdens or suffering.



I can’t see anything wrong or any less spiritual with that :thumbsup:

My take, in part, is this.
There are a multitude of reasons as to why there is suffering.
God delivers some, we sometimes bring it on ourselves, sometimes it just happens.
Without even looking for it, it will happen.
Some can handle more than others.
Some can’t handle much at all.
Some can rejoice in it, some, not so much.
We are not supposed to grin and bear it.
Always, we can take to Our Father.
I think He wants us to delight in all He has given us. When we are in pain, He is in pain. I don’t think He wants us to suffer, but if we do, we should take that opportunity to let Him know how we feel. In doing so, He is really the one taking an opportunity of reminding us just how much we need Him.
We cannot complain about Him.
We can complain to Him.
Not every suffering is a cross.
And God will help us, though perhaps not in a way we understand immediately.
He will rescue us IF we love and trust Him

I am quite sure that many great saints have been made by following the “little way”, lived beautiful, humble lives without any grandiose self-inflicted suffering at all, and disappeared from life quietly, unnoticed and unrecognized.

I am flipping through the lives of the Saints, and I don’t know about little sufferings per se yet, but some lives were, well, more notable than others.

I have a personal theory that the greatest saints who have ever lived went completely unrecognized, by the Church, by their community, and maybe even by their closest loved ones.

as i learn more, i may be in agreement with you. Personally, I feel that the nurses who took care of my mother right up to her last breath were so wonderful I referred to their work as saintly.
They are a blip on most radar screens, but not mine.:wink:

I think you’re right. At times I’ve thought that the ones who do the exotic stuff – levitate or bilocate or stigmata or get thrown around in the cells by demons, or what have you, are actually venting imperfections. Kind of like a pressure cooker when it’s steamy.


I have my theories on why they may have had these imperfections and why those who get canonized in particular might be prone to them – both why they’d have the spiritual pressure built up and why they would “leak” it – but if they had advanced more toward God (and possibly even took a “desert” break from the Church :eek:) I think maybe their outward signs would go away and the saints would go back to stealth mode, instead of being so showy. :wink:

Jesus did showy stuff just to prove He was God, not for His own edification – or even ours, for that matter. So he’d prove His point, then move in and quit giving out signs to just anybody all the time. He wanted each and every one of us to become spiritual warriors. :nunchuk: He wasn’t trying to carry them; He was teaching them. :bible1:


Dear all,

Thank you for your attempts to help me.

Dear nuntym,

You suggest that all suffering is identical to God’s suffering. Is this is a one-way or two-way identity? I have never experienced God’s suffering, in fact, I have only ever directly experienced my own suffering and felt compassion for a few people over the years. Do you mean that God experiences everyone else’s suffering?

You say that suffering saves us from suffering. This seems like a direct contradiction. How can something you are experiencing simultaneously be preventing you from experiencing it? What if I said cancer saves us from cancer? Is that different somehow?

In your last paragraph you suggest that we can relieve God’s suffering by taking on more ourselves. But, if God experiences our suffering as you suggested earlier, then by taking on more aren’t we actually increasing the aggregate amount of suffering for God? Let’s say God’s suffering is quantity X, and you ask God to send X amount of suffering to you. But, now you experience X amount of suffering, but since you assert that God’s suffering is identical to all of our suffering, the aggregate amount of suffering has now increased to 2X.

How can this be good if suffering is evil?

Also, styrgwillidar, if suffering is only redemptive when willed, then why is the cross redemptive? Jesus made it clear by saying “not my will, but yours” referring to the cross that he would rather not. He is clearly a passive victim here, unable to stand under the force of God’s will. Indeed, it seems like most suffering is not willed, but merely “borne” by human beings. Are you saying all of the involuntary suffering is just pointless?

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.