“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18).
“But why me?!”
Years ago I was warned that a good faithful, trusting Christian should not utter those words—at least as an expression of complaint or self-righteous incredulity—for they can convey thankless ingratitude toward God, not trusting in the good intentions of His mysterious will. Rather, as St. Paul exhorted the first generation of Christians, “in all circumstances,” the will of God “in Christ Jesus” for every Christian is always to “rejoice … pray … [and] give thanks.”
Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks.
Admittedly, at times and in many circumstances, this is easier said than done—especially if we find ourselves backed into a seemingly hopeless and impotent circumstance, either as the result of our own decisions, or someone else’s, or no one’s, such as with a debilitating illness.
“What have I ever done to deserve this?! I only wanted to do Your will. I thought I was hearing and following You! Why are You doing this to me?!”
Again, we need to be careful that these cries of near despair do not, in fact, pass into despair, for in such instances we give in to the temptation to distrust and reject the constant providence of God.
Yet, when asked as a sincere prayerful inquiry, these questions can be profound steps into spiritual growth and holiness: “Why me? Why are You allowing this to happen to me now at this time in my life?”
Before I was a Catholic, I had no place for suffering in my personal or preached theology, and I admittedly avoided the many Scriptures that speak of suffering. After becoming a Catholic—actually it took several years after becoming an informed Catholic—I not only began to understand the meaning and importance of, but more significantly, the necessity of suffering.
Throughout the New Testament we hear about the necessity of growing in holiness:
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:4).
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24).
For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thes 4:7-8).
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).
Generally, when I think of what a person needs to do to grow in holiness, the first actions require willful metanoia, or turning away from anything in our lives that pulls us away from God, aided, of course, by grace. There is a constant battle with temptation to fight against doing or thinking or possessing that which is evil.
But the great Catholic spiritual writers have always described this growth in holiness in stages, the first stages centering more on the willful turning away from external attachments to the world, the flesh, and the devil, with the later more advanced stages dealing more with purging the interior, the soul: our attitudes, motives, desires, passions, self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and especially our pride. A person can look perfectly holy and cleansed on the outside, but may be going through excruciating temptations and trials on the inside. This is where suffering comes in.
Ever notice how so many of the greatest saints died early after experiencing much suffering and pain? Why would God do this? Why He would allow St. Therese or St. Bernadette to go through such agonizing physical suffering? Is it that, though they had rid their external lives of most obvious attachments, God desired to give them every opportunity to grow in holiness, even toward perfection. Isn’t it because when we are in the midst of physical suffering we are most challenged to trust in God’s constant love and care, to believe that He has not abandoned us, to accept that whatever has befallen us, to believe it is somehow for our good will?
Another aspect of the spiritual life that I learned to appreciate after my Catholic conversion is the necessity of fasting and abstinence. The Church “imposes” this upon us as a regular portion of our spiritual duties, but the reason is specifically because God loves us and wants us to be prepared for the suffering that surely will come. If from the time we are very young we have fasting and abstinence as a regular part of our lives, disciplining and training our wills in the little restraints, then as we age we can face with courage and thankfulness whatever suffering comes our way.
All of this is clearly described by the NT writers:
“For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:6-14).
When we lie in bed in painful suffering, no longer able to take care of even our most basic needs, we need to ask God to give us the grace to avoid the temptation to demand, “Why me, Lord? What have I done to deserve this?”, and realize that every moment of suffering is a gifted opportunity to grow in grace. Rejoicing may be too much to ask, but yet, the reason many Catholics put a crucifix in every room is so that every glance can remind us that “by His stripes we are healed.” When Jesus faced His suffering, He first asked, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” but this was done in the relinquishing attitude of “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39). Called to imitate Him, we can indeed ask that God in His mercy and power relieve us of suffering, and this includes utilizing the means He has provided through medicine, counseling, etc. in accordance with the guidance of His Church; but always with an attitude of relinquished trust. As Catholics, we draw strength in the midst of our trials from the graces of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist
We can meditate on Scriptures, like the following, whenever we face trials, pain, and suffering that seems beyond our ability to cope:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom 5:1-5).
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:15-17).
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine (Phil 1:29-30).
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:4-8).
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:8-11).
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7).
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:11-13).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints (Col 1:24-26).
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:3-5).
“Why me?!” Because God loves you.
For a beautiful reflection on suffering, the CHNetwork encourages you to read Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) available at www.vatican.va.