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WHAT CAN SAINT PAUL TEACH US ABOUT SUFFERING?

Father Francis's picture
Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Gal. 6:14-18

Are you a marked person? If you wear a wedding ring it says to the world you have committed your life to another person. What does a scar from previous surgery say about you? It marks you out as one who has endured suffering and so will be able to sympathise with others who suffer poor health.

We all bear marks on ourselves from our journey through life. Some will have been deliberately chosen, like a wedding ring, but others result from the wear and tear of living, like a scar from an operation. Some of the marks are testaments of poor choices while others are signs of our best choices.

The great Saint Paul considered himself a marked man. He wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “The marks on my body are those of Jesus”. What were these? They may refer to the suffering he endured in the cause of serving the Lord.

There are people who think that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. They think of God watching their every move: do something good and He will reward you; do something bad and He will punish you. This is wrong. Jesus tried to quash this idea when He pointed out the man born blind whose disability therefore had nothing to do with sinfulness - neither that of his parents nor of the man himself.

Paul helps us to understand the value of suffering when he suffered the rejection by his own people, shipwreck, hunger, homelessness, scourging, imprisonment and death threats. In his letter to the Galatians he hints that his eyesight was poor, “see with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand.” Earlier in the letter he thanks the Galatians for their great love for him as shown by their empathy, making them wish they could take out their eyes and give them to him! Paul spent his first visit to Galatia in a sickbed, perhaps stricken with malaria.

If God provided a protective shield around good people who serve Him, why then did Paul suffer? The Christian martyrs give ample testimony to the truth that suffering is not a punishment from God. So where is God when good people suffer? He is right beside them, and within them. God knows suffering intimately. He endured it Himself on the Cross at Calvary. God does not abandon us when we suffer. He is very close to us. His promise is not that we will avoid suffering and pain in life, but that we will not endure it alone.

Paul found strength in his suffering by realising that his Lord had also suffered. In fact, much of Paul’s hardships and trials came his way precisely because of his call as an Apostle. Paul did not resent this suffering, nor did he feel that God had abandoned him. Rather, he interpreted his suffering as an extension of the sufferings of Christ. When he suffered rejection, he recalled Jesus' rejection from the hands of His hometown and nation. When Paul suffered physically he recalled how Jesus endured the Cross.

Paul looked upon his physical and emotional hardships as a result of loving Christ. If we claim to follow Christ we have to be prepared to accept the consequences. Great love always exposes the lover to the risk of being hurt. How much more so is this true for the one who is called to love a broken world! Carry the wounded and you will get blood on your clothes. Nurture the poor and you will carry the scent of body odours for days. Keep company with sinners to show them how precious they are in God’s eyes, and you will endure the scorn of polite society.

Francis of Assisi deeply contemplated the sufferings of Jesus and as a result showed the signs of Christ wounds on his hands, feet and side. We will be scarred simply by loving the world Jesus loves, bearing our own unique marks for Christ’s sake as we help to make up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Of course, Paul knew that Christ’s sufferings could have been sufficient to save our world, but it is good to think that through our suffering we can show solidarity with Christ and make our own small contribution as one of His followers.

Those marks you carry for Christ’s sake, whether they are emotional, physical or spiritual, brand you as one of God’s beloved children. So are you a marked person? I hope you are. I hope we all are.

Lord Jesus, give us the courage and the strength to continue to be one of Your followers, whatever the sufferings we have to endure.

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