One of the most destructive heresies the world has ever seen is called Pelagianism. It is still quite alive today. You hear it anytime you hear someone say that a person earns his or her way to Heaven or when people talk about being good enough to go to Heaven. The problem is that our going to Heaven is not about whether or not we are good enough, but how we express our love for the Christ who loves us.
What does Jesus teach: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” I can give all I have over to charity and even give myself over to back breaking work to help people. But if I am not loving God and neighbor then I am not doing the will of God. That by the way is a paraphrase of 1 corinthians 13. However, what this means is that I cannot really do anything to earn my way to Heaven. I can only seek to experience God’s love in my life and in return love God and neighbor more and more everyday. When I am trying to do that, then I am announcing my role as an agent of the kingdom of Heaven, not as someone doing a tryout for it.
There is a reason why this is important: Many people consider suffering as a form of earning our way to Heaven. You have heard the expression: “We all have our cross to bear” which is based on our Gospel reading, that too comes from the idea that it is through bearing our cross that we earn our way to Heaven. If we patiently bear our cross, we will go to Heaven because we earned it. This is a complete misunderstanding of our suffering as people of faith and of this Gospel.
First, we all know that suffering is part of life. We all know that each of us have suffering in our lives, we also have joys there as well, but suffering is a key element of life. It is what we do with it that determines who we are as Catholics.
Suffering is something we join to Christ for our mission as a Church: the salvation of souls. It is not about earning our way to Heaven, it is about joining in Christ’s mission and joining our suffering to His so that souls may be saved. In a sense it is a form of prayer.
It does not matter what it is, difficulty in work, disease, frustration, financial problems.
St Paul actually described it this way:
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 NABRE
We all have our crosses to bear, but we bear them in service to Christ, not to earn our way to Heaven.
Where does this come from? Check out the baptismal rite. When you were baptized in the anointing after the pouring of water, you were anointed in the ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king. Just as Christ suffered for our salvation so are we united in Christ’s work to further the work of salvation. Therefore, we become engaged in the process of redemptive suffering that all maybe saved. That is our work.
Notice something else, that mentality runs counter to that of our culture. Our culture is about avoiding suffering and there is nothing wrong with this. Obviously, we are not to go looking for suffering. But our faith is about self-giving and even total giving to others. It is about praying for others, it is about doing for others all in an acts of love of God and neighbor. That means even realizing that when we suffer, we can offer that for others as well.
What is most interesting is that sometimes we can find ourselves suffering from some reality and discover that we suffer just because we did say yes to Christ. Go back and read the words of the Gospels in which Jesus says that if you seek to follow Him, you will have difficult times. Expect them to happen. What is also interesting is that if you truly seek to have a deeper relationship with Christ, you may experience some unexpected suffering that is so severe you realize all you can do is rely on God, to pray for his assistance and then to offer that suffering up. However, that painful experience will lead you to know Christ in ways you never would before and why, because you used it to become a stronger disciple in Christ.
One of the most powerful teachings in the Old Testament is that the disciple suffers because it is in suffering he or she is purified. Sirach teaches that difficult trials are the fire that purify our faith as fire purifies gold. St. James teaches that we are to consider it pure joy when we suffer for the faith, we grow in endurance and maturity.
St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas taught that if people knew how much their sufferings led them closer to Christ, they would ask for more of them.
It is not that we seek suffering, but when we encounter it, we use it to draw close to Christ and we allow God to use it to draw us closer to Him so that we will serve him more.
Probably one of the best lessons on this very subject is none other than the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, a basic teaching for children and a powerful parable for adults. It is the one who allows him or herself to suffer in the name of love who truly comes to experience the fullness of love.
But this does not mean that suffering is easy. If it was it would not be suffering. There are times that suffering can bring one to his or her knees figuratively or literally and when that includes offering up prayers during this time one discovers the powerful presence of God in the whole matter.
But those realities lead us to serve Christ in many ways, not the least of which is enduring our suffering and then helping others who cross our path who experience the same thing