How Can Suffering Be a Blessing?
We’ve begun the season of refinement, repentance, and renewal. Now we must delve more deeply into ourselves, asking the Lord to reveal to us who we are as He sees us. In His gentle way, He will guide us to understand patterns of sin or vice that have become deeply embedded into our behaviors. He will show us virtues He’d like for us to develop, maybe by way of detachment or patient waiting or confident gratitude.
Regardless of the specifics, we ponder the temptations Jesus endured those forty long days in the desert. He was alone to muse upon every detail of His life. Alone. In the desert. Hungry and thirsty and tired. The devil knew this well, and that’s why the temptations appeared – to test Jesus, just as they appear in our lives to test us when we are most vulnerable.
Lent makes us vulnerable. We come to a place in our interior development when we ask ourselves really important questions. And these happen when we are tempted, when we are deliberately silent, when we intentionally deny ourselves certain comforts or pleasures.
“Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” - Mark 1:15
Do you believe you are on the cusp of God’s kingdom? There is a sense of urgency in Jesus’ words in Sunday’s gospel reading, and rightly so. We cannot be complacent, lazy people. We must be vigilant, watchful, careful. It’s because God chooses to act when we least expect it. He stirs His Spirit in us when we’re just starting to let our guard down.
It’s not that God wants us to be neurotic. On the contrary, we are to be a peaceful people. But we have to keep our hearts receptive to the movements of God, because we don’t know when He will ask something of us – something we may not think we are able, or ready, to give just yet.
Live your Lent in such a way that every day you are watching and waiting for Him to say, “Now is the time of fulfillment. Now is the time to act.” Build your life around His kingdom. Seek it first, and every good gift and virtue will be granted to you. He promises this on the Sermon on the Mount, when the beloved Beatitudes are proclaimed. Only when you have a willing and open heart can God use you as His instrument to bring about the greatest glory.
“Temptations have the power to humble you.” - St. John Chrysostom
Just when we think we are capable of managing life without any help, those temptations knock us flat. They seldom give us warning and always have a way of creating some scene of embarrassment or humiliation. But, as St. Vincent de Paul aptly and succinctly put it, “Humility comes by way of humiliation.”
We can’t expect to grow in holiness if we believe the lie that every good thing we’ve accomplished and everything we are currently striving for is because of our own efforts. Nothing happens without God’s grace. We must return to total dependence on Him, and humility is a necessary prerequisite for this childlike abandonment.
It seems that, instead of succumbing to temptations when they happen upon us, we succumb to God in our weakness. We surrender to Him rather than the sin. We turn to Him in prayer – sometimes desperate prayer – and turn our thoughts away from the alluring desire that we know will lead to perdition. The basis of this is humility. Pray for it, and God will present opportunities for you to grow in it.
“When a person of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, they realize clearly that their greatest need is God, without whom they can do no good.” - Thomas à Kempis
The devil often tempts us in subtle ways. Of course, Jesus was tempted in a much more overt manner, with visions of kingdoms and riches and bread. But ours are often intentionally concealed as ordinary thoughts, so that we might not flag them as dangerous. The ways Satan tries to reach us is primarily through our thoughts and feelings.
Know that when you are restless, discouraged, doubting, confused, or afraid – these are the “bad fruits” of Satan’s attempt to tempt you. If you are prone to discouragement, know that the devil will prey upon this weakness. If you fear everything unknown, that is your means of temptation. Be aware of your own weakness, and give it to God each day.
It’s difficult to remove a tempting thought or emotion, and that is why we have to remember that we cannot do it alone. Our greatest need is God’s grace. Without it, we are doomed to acquiesce to our struggles and spiral into sin. Turn to Him. Do this daily, sometimes several times a day. When you are jealous, angry, even when you are exhausted and in need of rest or nourishment, turn to prayer. Then the window of temptation becomes an opportunity for grace to reside in you and keep you in God’s stead.
“Repentance does not cover up sin. On the contrary, repentance is truth. It tries to see things as they really are. Repentance is a gift…I have been born again. I begin again.” - Msgr. Romano Guardini
Too many people erroneously believe that Catholicism is simply an institution with too many rules, too much structure. Our Lenten rituals are merely outward signs, they say, with no real interior value. But we know that our choices today must reflect more than just self-restraint. They must reveal an inner truth that leads us back to God by way of acknowledging the reality of our sinful nature and tendencies.
This is repentance.
We strive for truth, which must begin within us. Lent points us directly inward, so that we must dig more deeply to see the thorns of vice that have become entangled in our hearts and revealed through sinful habits. Repentance dares for us to say, “Yes, I need to work on this” or “I didn’t realize I was struggling with this pattern of behavior for years, decades even.”
Repentance offers us hope, because we know that we can start over every day. God’s mercy allows this. We don’t despair during the dirges of Lent, because they bring us back to our Light-Source – a God who continues to beckon us, who invites us to draw nearer to Him by way of this painful pruning and purgation.
“True and perfect love for the crucified Lord so esteems conformity with him that it regards suffering for God as a very great gift and reward.” (St. John of Avila)
Few people regard suffering as a gift, let alone some type of prize or reward. Our natural inclination is to view greater esteem, worldly value or monetary success, and recognition as reward for our labors.
But we know that God operates much differently than we do. His thoughts exceed our own, and His ways are so vast that we cannot contain them in our finite minds. Many saints have undergone intense spiritual wrestling with the reality of increased suffering, some for many years. Like us, they asked, “Why must I bear more”?
St. Teresa of Avila famously said to God as she picked herself out of a mud pit she fell into, “If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few!” Perhaps the humor in her statement came after her emotions died down, but we can look at our own lives and admit the times when we’ve felt this way, too. How can suffering be a blessing?
This is truly a mystery we may not fully understand this side of Heaven. But we know that nothing is lost upon God if we simply give Him all. Some days, this is easier or more difficult to do than other days, but the point is that we make a habit to hand everything over to His care and providence, trusting that He uses all things for our good and His glory.
“Let the words of my mouth and the thought of my heart find favor before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” - Psalm 19:14
We know that words have the power to harm or heal. God became the Word Incarnate through the Person of Jesus, which is confirmation that words – especially His word – are incredible means by which we become the channels of God’s grace and goodness to the world.
That is why Lent is so valuable. We ask ourselves honestly if our spoken or written words have become weapons rather than a healing balm. And if so, we turn to the Lord with humility and remorse through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, with the solemn intention to amend our ways.
The Lord wants your words to bring about comfort to the stranger whose face is somber and laden with unseen burdens. Your words are intended to uplift a friend who is struggling with something you know nothing about but to which you can speak with confidence about his or her gifts and talents. When you whisper, “I love you” to your spouse or children, you are speaking the heart language with your words.
Words reveal our thoughts, too. They bring to light what is hidden in the dark, which is why we must take precautions to speak in charity – thoughtfully and slowly – so that our hearts reflect beauty and goodness and all that is pleasing to God.
“May the love of eternal life and zeal for spiritual wisdom surpass all other things, set on the highest pinnacle of your heart, so that when you spurn this life and its wisdom, you may deserve by happy exchange to be filled with the divine Spirit, who will urge you on to eternal glory.” - St. Peter Damian
A Lent done well (note: not perfectly but with sincere intention) will produce good spiritual fruit in our lives that is evident to others. The Holy Spirit will be alive in us, stirring with holy inspirations, thoughts, and desires. Our very being will be renewed in greater hope, deeper love, and abiding faith.
When we turn away from the world and all its allurements, we must remember to turn toward the One who calls us back, again and again, to draw from the wellspring that provides us with eternal wisdom and sets our hearts ablaze on higher things.