Go ahead and raise your hand if these words have ever escaped your lips or if you’ve ever thought them.
Your hand is raised, isn’t it? Of course it is, because at some point in everyone’s life, there has been a moment when we endure some test or trial, some agony or tragedy that we feel has been unfairly put upon us. It could be something as simple as locking the keys in your car when you’re already late for work, or something as life-altering as the loss of a loved one (see this amazing article by Angela) We wonder to what is its purpose and why God would allow something so annoying/painful/difficult/etc to disrupt the course of our daily lives and what we could have possibly done to deserve such a punishment.
We live in an age where every moment of our lives is expected to be perfection. If it isn’t, something is wrong. Worse yet, if that something – be it a job, a relationship, a faith structure, a person – is not exactly as we expected it to be and if it does not arrive in our lives at precisely the moment for which we intended, it is disposable. Perceived suffering is not acceptable. Any minute deviation from one’s prescribed plan of living is cancelled immediately and shouted down with the greatest of prejudice.
But here’s the problem: suffering – REAL suffering – makes us better. It makes us better wives, better moms, better daughters and sisters. It makes us better followers of Christ. It brings us closer to Christ. Suffering isn’t a punishment from God – it’s a gift.
I married my husband in 2010. We were both active and fit. We went to the gym and worked out together. I had some aches and pains here and there and I eventually had to stop the strenuous workouts because the joint pain was catching up with me and staying longer than I liked but I was otherwise healthy. I had a great job. He had a great job. Neither of us were Home in the Catholic Church yet so about a year into our marriage, we decided to attend a little non-denominational church. So on Sundays, that’s where we went. On paper, we were a modern American family; cute house, 3 kids, 2 dogs and not a care in the world. I was in my 30’s with a husband that genuinely loved me and was living a life I could be proud of for once in my adult life.
It was about the time I started quietly studying my way back Home to the Catholic Church that I noticed there was something physically wrong with me. I woke up one morning to agonizing shoulder pain. I took some over-the-counter NSAIDS and as I went to pick up my cup of coffee, I noticed that my left hand wouldn’t work – not that it hurt or that it was sore – it wouldn’t work! Now, my hands had done some weird things before; randomly swelling, hurting for no reason; turning red, turning blue – just really weird – but this was a whole different ball game. Panicked, I called my primary care physician, who worked me in. He did an X-ray; in case I had a pinched nerve. It may have been Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, except I’m right-handed and my left hand was just about useless. He called a Neurologist, who agreed to see me the next day. He ran a battery of tests and ordered an entire sheet of bloodwork – just about everything under the sun. He also asked me some really strange questions before sending me for an MRI – things about joint pain and nose and mouth sores (gross, right? I know); hair loss and fatigue, light sensitivity. I figured they were run of the mill questions for his specialty.
While waiting for the results to come in, I noticed I felt worse. It wasn’t just my hand that was useless and my shoulder that hurt but my whole body. I chalked it up to being stressed while waiting for the test results. My husband said I would be fine, that I was probably working too hard and pushing deadlines. The Neurologist called with results the next day and they were all clear. Emotionally, I was relieved but physically, I still felt horrible. I could tell in his voice there was something else.
My lab work was all over the place. All of the rheumatological markers were either sky high or way low. He re-capped those strange questions he’d asked me and said he already made an appointment with a Rheumatologist.
While all this is happening, I was nose-deep in the First Apology of Justin the Martyr, Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home and making notes about the Mass in the spine of a New King James Version of the Bible because it was the only copy of Scripture I had and I was spiritually starving. My pull to go Home to the Catholic Church was – at that time – putting a bit of tension on my marriage. Now, I have some strange medical thing happening that has yet to be diagnosed. I started feeling and thinking the way so many people think and feel in these situations – ‘why me, God?’
It was incredibly hard to see, but the onset of that suffering was the beginning of better things to come.
After that day, the symptoms never fully stopped. They would come and go – often for months at a time, but they would always come back – sometimes worse than before. I met with the Rheumatologist and after a lot more tests, a lot more visits and some trial and error with medications, I finally had a name for the issue.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. Most people just call it Lupus for short. Family members that are healthcare professionals were the easiest to break the news to; my immediate family – not so much.
I had to explain to my husband and my kids that I had an autoimmune disease that couldn’t be cured. I had to tell them my own body was attacking itself, for no reason, without any warning, completely at random. I didn’t have to explain how it made me feel – they’d seen it first-hand. In the two years it took to get from that first appointment to the ‘name’, my family suffered too. They’d seen me be fine on a Monday and unable to get out of bed on a Tuesday. They’d experienced me walking fine on a Wednesday and hobbling like my hips were broken on a Thursday. My family knew what it was like to see me doubled over in agony on a Friday and Saturday, but be right-as-the-mail on a Sunday.
The kids have seen me miss events because it may be too hot. I’ve had to stay home from outings because of pain. Over the years, we’ve had long stretches of time where it hasn’t been a factor and times when it won’t seem to settled down long enough for me to catch my breath. Being a wife and a mother with a disease that doesn’t care about your time, your relationships or your schedule can be difficult and I admit to there being moments when I still, in my weakness think, ‘why me?’.
But it’s at those moments I remember that suffering isn’t a burden, but a gift – a reminder that this life isn’t supposed to be the final destination. I remember that we aren’t supposed to be completely comfortable. I remember that nothing in our lives is perfect, save for Our Blessed Lord and it’s His example that gives me pause.
“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.”
– Luke 22:42
In suffering, I found my limitations yes, but I also found my strengths. I offered it up for conversions and in reparation. At one point, it forced me to look outside of my comfort zone, to find a position where I could work from home. This position was with a Catholic apostolate. Because of this work, I grew stronger in my Faith and was willing to walk with Our Lord in ways I hadn’t before. It was that strength and that walk that caused my Protestant husband to take a closer look at the Catholic Faith. Once he began to look into the Church, he realized the truth of Catholicism. Not only did my husband look into the truth of Catholicism, but my fifteen-year-old stepson started to fall in love with the Faith as well.
All too often, when we think of God’s gifts to us, we think of the good things – those happy moments where we land that job or dodge that traffic; maybe we get the promotion or a lab test comes back negative. We never imagine that sometimes the greatest gift the Lord gives us, in His permissive will, is the gift of suffering. In suffering, we unite ourselves to Our Lord and His Passion. We are reminded of our humanity and the reality that we will die one day. In suffering, we are motivated to prayer and humility.
Suffering is an opportunity – an open door. It’s a chance to give your absolute everything to God, to trust fully in Him. Instead of avoiding suffering, we should absolutely rejoice in it.
Smarter people than I have amazingly insightful things to say about suffering. Check them out here: