“Just offer it up.”
Some of us grew up hearing this phrase from our Catholic parents. Even if we heard that phrase repeatedly, we most likely didn’t understand fully what it meant. Certainly this is a foreign phrase to our Protestant brothers and sisters. It sounds strange—after all, what does God want with my broken arm or seven stitches in my knee?
In the midst of our pain and suffering, we really have two choices. We can draw attention to ourselves, or we can exercise our will and offer it up to Christ to use for his purposes. Many times we end up focusing on ourselves in our weakness, hoping for sympathy, relief—anything to make us feel better. Doing this draws attention to us rather than the greater good of humanity and Christ’s kingdom. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that hospitals are filled with wasted pain and strife, and I would add that many homes are, too. If it's all about you, then nothing beyond you is accomplished; lives aren’t changed.
Instead take a look at St. Paul’s perspective. He knew his pain and anguish were for others’ benefit, and that enabled him to rejoice through his pain (see Colossians 1:24). He knew he was filling up that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ. St. James picks up on the same theme when he says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4).
Remember that when you suffer you have the opportunity to be perfected. Once again, this is opposite of the way the world approaches pain. The world says pain is a setback—a hurdle that keeps you from becoming all you can be. But in the kingdom of God, emotional or physical pain are a catalyst to be and do all you were meant to.
Perhaps you have tried “offering it up” many times in the past, but you never felt like anything happened. Because you didn’t feel any different, you kind of gave up on the concept of joining your anguish with Christ. I know what you have experienced—I have been there. I found that what really made a difference for me was understanding what St. Paul said: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). The value of human pain when it is joined to Christ is a mystery, and a mystery is something that is appropriated by faith.
As Christians we do not allow circumstances or feelings to ultimately dictate or lead us. There are times we simply walk by faith by placing our trust in the principles of God’s kingdom. This faith walk goes from the natural dimension to the supernatural dimension. The consolation we receive is the knowledge that something marvelous is happening in our lives, even if we don’t feel anything or see the results we had hoped for. This is Christian maturity; this is walking as Christ walked.
Pain and anguish give you the opportunity to grow. Your trials give you a gift: the opportunity to become the person you always wanted to become. A holier person. A more patient person. A person who endures. A person who is kinder. A person who is more merciful.
A person who is pained has appropriately faced his or her less-than-ideal situation becomes docile in the hands of God and very gentle and kind to others.
The word passion is used to describe multiple things. When talking about the final hours of Jesus earthly life, passion expresses the events that occurred as he poured out his life on the cross. Passion is also used to describe the love between and husband and wife. Passion is associated with pain in both Jesus’s love on the cross and the love between spouses.
When a married couple are passionate about each other they are willing to endure much for each other as a demonstration of their great commitment. Fulton Sheen once said that there are three rings in marriage: the husband’s ring, the wife’s ring and “suffer-ring.” This is truer than we care to admit. Marriage is often the opportunity for a man and a woman to help each other grow in charity and character.
The common phrase “practice makes perfect” is very apropos. Practice is key when trying to perfect any discipline in life, but in this area, it might prove to be a lifesaving discipline.
When I was in high school, I struggled with math tests on a regular basis. My father, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, was a math genius and actually found mathematics fun. We did not share a common fascination here—I couldn’t find anything about it fun. I remember one thing my dad told me in the midst of my mathematical struggles. “Jeff,” he said, “If you study, practice, and really understand the material, you will not fear or dread tests; you will actually look forward to them.” He could have been speaking Latin to me at that point, because I had such a negative attitude about math, but he was right.
One of the reasons we do not do well with anguish is that we face our problems once they become big problems, such as a health issue or a relationship issue. We tend to put up with it and don’t address it—or I should say, “practice it?”
Many people would say the ultimate price for pain is death. That fear can immobilize us.
As eternal beings, the thought of dying shakes us to the core, but with the certitude of eternal life in Christ, we can face death courageously. Even so, death is not a part of who we were created to be, so it will always be seen as a foreign experience. Fulton Sheen put it this way: “If death were merely a physical must, we would not fear it; our fear comes from the moral fact that we know we ought not to die. We fear death because it was not part of the original plan laid down for us.”
Perhaps Bishop Fulton Sheen gave the greatest piece of advice I have ever heard regarding how to deal with anguish. He said, “Death can be robbed of its greatest fearfulness if we practice for it. Christianity recommends mortification, penance, and detachment as a rehearsal for the great event…. The basic spiritual principle is this, that death must be conquered in every thought and word and deed by an affirmation of the eternal.”
In the same way, the greatest way to prepare for “serious” pain and anguish is to practice it on a daily basis. If you practice “offering it up” on a daily basis with your less-than-ideal days, you will be better prepared to face and successfully navigate through your more intense moments. Essentially the daily life of a Christian should be composed of multiple opportunities to practicing suffering. Putting this into biblical language, “The daily life of a Christian should really be composed of opportunities to pick up one’s cross and follow Christ.”