Suffering as redemptive

October 29, 2007 at 6:55 pm 4 comments

In a Bible study on suffering last weekend, we discussed the purpose of suffering and why God allows “good” people to suffer.

Repeatedly, the discussion leader suggested that suffering is redemptive. I know the redemptive nature of suffering is important in Catholic theology, but the idea really made me curious.

Is it actually true that suffering is redemptive? If so, in what sense?

Now, I can see that suffering is educational (which the discussion leader also acknowledged). After all, suffering shows us what not to do, and it is a powerful way to communicate the consequences of transgression.

But redemptive? How is suffering redemptive?

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. babychaos  |  October 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Interesting question… If it brought the sufferer and another person closer together, would that be a kind of redemption… say in a marriage for example? It can strip away the niceties and leave you having to be honest in a way that nothing else can! Tricky….

    Cheers

    BC

    Reply
  • 2. Hugo  |  October 30, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    John Paul II dwelt on the redemptive power of human suffering in His apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris.” In it, he quoted 2 Cor 1:5: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor 1:5). In our experience of suffering, we recapitulate the death and resurrection of Christ, and thereby further share in the fruits of the salvation He gained. Christ Himself viewed our participation in His suffering and death as vital to salvation: “If any man would come after me… let him take up his cross daily” (Lk 9:23). Of course, this process mirrors the baptism by which we were first saved (cf. Rom 6:3-6;1 Pe 3:21).

    John Paul issues a key qualification though: “Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.”

    The letter is a dense, however awesome, read. Might be worth a google.

    Reply
  • 3. Stephen  |  October 31, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    This is a difficult topic. Not only Roman Catholics, but also Jews teach that suffering atones for sins. For example, if someone dies with an outstanding “debt” of sin, the pangs of dying might atone for the individual.

    Every Protestant bone in my body cries out against the idea. Protestants say that Christ has suffered on our behalf, and paid the debt in full (cf. the cry from the cross in John’s Gospel — “It is finished!”), so that no further suffering is required of us. We contribute precisely nothing to our salvation.

    On the other hand, Christ’s suffering plainly is redemptive. Is there any sense in which the Church might suffer redemptively on behalf of the world, making our small contribution to God’s plan of salvation? For example, what about a missionary who dies testifying to Christ? “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Is such suffering not redemptive? — for the world, if not for the missionary’s own sins.

    And here’s a text to make a Protestant’s head spin around backwards:

    “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24, ESV).

    “What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? What the —?

    Reply
  • 4. Jamie  |  October 31, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    BC: If it brought the sufferer and another person closer together, would that be a kind of redemption…

    Interesting. In this case, it’s not the suffering itself that is redemptive (or salvific); it’s only redemptive because it draws people nearer together. I can see how this might be true.

    Hugo: Thanks for the thought-provoking response. I’m curious, though: You suggest that human suffering is redemptive because it mimics (or participates in?) Christ’s suffering. But the automatic assumption is that Christ’s suffering is redemptive. I’m not sure I understand why it’s redemptive even for Christ. As I said in my post, I know that Catholics heavily emphasize the salvific nature of suffering, but I’m not clear on why this is.

    Stephen: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Is such suffering not redemptive? — for the world, if not for the missionary’s own sins.

    Ok, this makes sense. I think you could be right. Out of curiosity, do you think Christ’s suffering is redemptive in this same sense, or in a different sense?

    “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24, ESV).

    “What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? What the —?

    Hmm. I’ve never thought of that before. However, if the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, as you suggested, and if therefore our suffering contributes to the redemption of the world, then apparently God has some part for us to play in His plans. Perhaps that is what is means by Paul’s statement that there is something lacking in Christ’s afflictions. He may just mean that our affliction is important (in addition to Christ’s) because it is part of God’s method of redeeming the world.

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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