What is the Purpose of Suffering?
by Steven R. Hemler
Of course, no one wants or enjoys suffering and hardship. They are, however, an inevitable part of our temporal life on earth. I know this may sound funny, but difficulties and hardships can be blessings in disguise. They can be a catalyst for achieving new heights in our personal and spiritual lives.
In times of difficulty and hardship, we naturally turn to God and seek His help. If everything were always wonderful, do you think we would need God or seek Him? Probably not. C.S. Lewis once noted, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
If everything were always perfect, we would become lazy, hedonistic, and selfish. It is through life's suffering and hardships that we are given the opportunity to develop our trust in God and experience His love for us. For, He really does love and care for each one of us (see Matthew 6:25-33).
God wants us to embrace the truth that our problems, difficulties, and disappointments are storms on the sea of life that are not meant to sink us, but to sanctify us. Each "storm" is an opportunity to grow closer to God. As we grow closer to God, the more we love Him. And the more we love Him, the more we desire to serve Him and others. Then, the more we serve Him and others, the more like Him we will become.
Picture raw gold as it appears when mined from the earth. It is dull, dark, and clumpy. It doesn't glitter or shine. Its beauty is only potential. Only after it is melted and poured into a mold, does it make beautiful jewelry. In the same way, God carefully allows the trials of this life to be an opportunity to "melt me, mold me, make me" more into His image (see Hebrews 12:10). May we always remember and take comfort in the fact that: "Temporal trials are peoples' path to heavenly holiness."
We should keep in mind that every problem is a character-building opportunity, and the more difficult it is, the greater is its character-building potential. Swimming against the current makes us stronger.
However, this growth in character is not automatic. Many people become bitter, rather than better, when faced with suffering. Adversity can either make us or break us, depending on our reaction to the situation.
It helps to remember that God never gives us more than we can handle (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). We will never have to suffer more than we can endure, especially if we have faith and trust in God.
Also, we should remember that every trial, suffering, or hardship will come to an end. It surely will. In fact, if we have patience and trust in God's care, we are often able to look back on our past trials with thanksgiving and appreciation. Really. We are often given a real joy and peace (see Philippians 4:6-7).
Jesus' suffering and death on the cross set an example for us to follow. He willingly took up His cross and suffered for our good, so that we might be able to attain eternal salvation in heaven. This understanding (called "the redemptive nature of suffering" by the Church) has been an integral part of Christian discipleship for centuries.
Thomas A. Kempis wrote a book over 500 years ago entitled The Imitation of Christ. This book, which has become a Christian classic, describes the spiritual value of suffering and hardship. He writes, "When you are troubled and afflicted, then is the time to gain merit. You must pass through fire and water before you come to refreshment... Submit yourself to the will of God, and bear whatever shall happen to you for the glory of Jesus Christ, because after winter comes summer; after the night the day returns; after the storm comes a great calm... In the cross (suffering) there is the completion of virtue; in the cross there is the perfection of sanctity (holiness). There is no health for the soul nor hope of eternal life, except in the cross. Therefore, take up your cross and follow Jesus and you will attain eternal life. If you are his companions in his suffering, you shall also be partakers in his glory." The most difficult roads in life are the ones that most often lead to the most beautiful views.
God truly does love and care for each of us. Even the sufferings and hardships in our lives are signs of God's love and special opportunities for spiritual growth. May we always see the trials and difficulties of this life as opportunities to grow closer to God, to grow in our faith and trust in God, and to grow more one with Him in holiness. May this understanding always give us patience, hope, and peace as we face our daily trials.
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Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.