This reading from Colossians is a bit perplexing, especially to those who do not perhaps understand Paul as the Church does. I can’t imagine how our Protestant brethren make sense of these words in verse 24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church[.]” On the surface, it sounds as if St. Paul is suggesting something incomplete in the suffering of Christ and his work of redemption. But of course, that’s not what Paul is saying here. It would be heresy if that’s what he meant. What he did mean, though, was that we, in our suffering, which is a share of Christ’s suffering, participate in the redemption of the body of Christ—of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. By taking up our cross and suffering with Christ, we take part in His sanctifying work.
One of the things I love most about our faith is that it makes sense out of human suffering. As Catholics, we believe that all things serve some purpose, even if we don’t know what it is. If that’s the case, then our suffering serves a purpose, and we can offer it for someone else’s benefit. Our suffering also shapes us into the people we are. I read an excellent story online in GQ of all places. It was an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian, who just took over the Late Show. Colbert is Catholic and was known on the Colbert Report to occasionally school people on Catholic theology, sometimes in less than reverent fashion. But his faith is no show.
He lost his father and two of his brothers when he was ten, and he speaks of it now in the most amazing terms. He said in that interview, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” He quoted J.R.R Tolkein’s response to his friend about his own suffering, “What punishments of God are not gifts?’”
What punishments of God are not gifts?
If our very existence is a gift, if the people we love in our lives our gifts, then what we suffer in loss must also in some mysterious way be a gift.
Sometimes you’ll hear atheists or agnostics complain about suffering. They say, “How could a loving God allow people to suffer with cancer? How could He allow all of the suffering around us?” The gospel gives us the answer. Jesus stands up in front of the Pharisees and heals a man with a withered hand. Now how exactly does this answer the question? Well, this man’s suffering was an opportunity to see God’s goodness and mercy in action. If the man had been whole, he would not have experienced God’s mercy, nor would anyone have witnessed. The Pharisees are like those new atheists. They can’t see the mercy of God at work in front of them. Yet it happens all the time. People come to the aid of immigrants fleeing persecution. People step out of their comfort zone and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. We see these acts of graciousness and mercy around us all the time. Where would we be without those who suffer? How could we act in mercy toward them if they were not in our midst? How would we experience God’s mercy if we ourselves never suffered and needed the aid of others?