When I visit a suffering person, I sometimes don’t know how to act. I really can’t feel their pain. It seems like the person is bearing a heavy and unjust load, and anything I come in with is pretty light in comparison.
A person is in pain and I don’t feel like I’m much help. How can any good come out of the situation?
Suffering is a mystery that requires faith and humility. Any good that comes from it in no way “justifies” it. But love and goodness can be the fruits of suffering–whether from sufferers or those in contact with them.
A woman I know suffered a traumatic brain injury late last year and spent a long period in recovery, including 10 days in an induced coma. Also, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Ariz. in early January, she was in a similar condition. In both cases, thousands of people responded with prayers and words of encouragement. Some even experienced positive change in their own lives.
Through the Gospel, writes Bl. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Dolores, (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), Christ teaches us to do good when we suffer and also to do good to those who suffer.
In the messianic programme of Christ, which is at the same time the programme of the Kingdom of God, suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love”.
Suffering always involves an experience of evil and evil is a lack, limitation or distortion of good, Bl. John Paul states. “Man suffers because of a good he doesn’t share, from which he is cut off or of which he’s deprived himself,” John Paul writes. Therefore, suffering explained through evil always in some way refers to a good.
In taking on his own suffering, Christ destroyed this evil and replaced it with good as he accepted our sins with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin. Jesus himself is present in each suffering person, since his salvific suffering has been opened to every human suffering, giving us the opportunity to participate in the work of redemption.(Col. 1:24)
Love is released when a person offers their suffering to God and suffers virtuously by persevering through all that disturbs and causes harm, Bl. John Paul states,
In doing this, the individual unleashes hope, which maintains in him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him, that it will not deprive him of his dignity as a human being, a dignity linked to awareness of the meaning of life.
Also, when the suffering person is “gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and … almost incapable of living and acting, Bl. John Paul writes, “all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.”
It seems clear that the suffering person can bring good or love into the world, but what about those who aren’t suffering?
Bl. John Paul states that a suffering person unleashes love in family members, caregivers and even strangers—as it did in the Good Samaritan. Suffering can stir unselfish love that affects his heart and actions. It opens a sensitivity of the heart that has a unique emotional expression to it.
But this love can’t be forced, Bl. John Paul writes. “The eloquence of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and of the whole Gospel, is especially this: every individual must feel as if called personally to bear witness to love in suffering.”
Suffering doesn’t automatically cause love to grow but it does provide a challenge and an opportunity, writes theologian Peter Colosi, in his article, “John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering,” What the non-suffering person does for the sufferer isn’t as important as the fact that they do it with as much love as possible, according to the philosopher Max Scheler, who influenced Bl. John Paul.
A brain-injured woman in an induced coma may not be able to acknowledge our love or we may feel awkward trying to figure out how to love and serve a suffering person. But as Bl. John Paul points out, good—and love—will come from the situation if we allow the Lord to show us how to be the Good Samaritan.