In order to answer this question, I first want to look at two key teachings of the Catholic Church: on Purgatory and on suffering. Now, the answer I am going to posit is by no means official Church teaching on this particular question, it will be, for the most part, speculative; that is, it will be my best attempt at answering this question for you. However, the teachings on Purgatory and suffering, respectively, will be officially held by the Church, as I will be pulling from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture. First, suffering. The Church’s teachings on suffering are perhaps some of the most confusing and hard to accept. Nobody likes to suffer, and for good reason, it’s unpleasant. We were not made for suffering, we were made for eternal joy and happiness in a close and intimate, grace-filled relationship with God; so when something like suffering comes in, it seems almost against our nature to want to accept suffering as any sort of good. Often times, even, it makes us doubt the existence of God entirely. We ask ourselves, if God were all-powerful wouldn’t he be able to stop all suffering? If God were all-good, would he not want to eradicate suffering from the world? The conclusion we sometimes come to is this: since suffering exists, God is either not all-good or He isn’t all-powerful or he doesn’t exist at all. The answer is not an easy one to come to, but it is necessary to answer this question and it is necessary to answer it with clarity. Now, does the Church teach that suffering in and of itself is good? No. The Catechism says:
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death. (CCC 1500)
Suffering in and of itself is not a good thing, it is a consequence of sin that is now a part of our fallen, human nature. This isn’t to say that suffering cannot be used for our good, though.
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God. (CCC 1501)
Illness becomes a way of conversion; God’s forgiveness initiates the healing. It is the experience of Israel that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil, and that faithfulness to God according to His law restores life: “For I am the Lord, your healer.” The prophet (Isaiah) intuits that suffering can also have a redemptive meaning for the sins of others. (CCC 1502)
But why is suffering necessary? In Theology, there is something called the Divine Dilemma. You see, God is both merciful and just. Now, we are all pretty familiar with God’s mercy, it is what we are taught growing up. Jesus loves you, God will forgive you, God wants to be with you and won’t let anything prevent that as long as you’re willing to cooperate with His graces; and all of this is true, and I cannot stress this enough, all of this is true. However, the part that we don’t hear about nearly as much is God’s justice. It is only reasonable that a God who is merciful is also just, because without justice there would be no need for mercy. Now, what is justice? Justice is giving one what is his due. Just as a just judge must, by virtue of his occupation, pass sentence on a criminal for a crime he commits, so must God pass judgment on us for our crimes against Him. So, when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, God could not let that pass without consequence, because from all eternity God has ordained that the “wages of sin is death.” God in His justice could not let the sins of man go unpunished, but God in His mercy could not eternally banish man to death outside of Himself, because above all else, God loves each and every one of us. This is the Divine Dilemma. As a natural consequence of sin, suffering and evil became a part of our nature, and so it is with this fallen nature that we, as fallen beings, must live. What is sin? Sin is anything that we think, say, do, or desire that is contrary to what God Wills. There are two types of sins, as taught by the Catholic Church: venial and mortal. Now, for a sin to be mortal it must be a grave matter, you have to know it’s a grave matter, and there must be a full and free consent of your will. Venial sin, then, is any sin that is lacking in at least one of these three prerequisites. Venial sin can be forgiven through the reception of Holy Communion, while mortal sin must be confessed and absolved. Since sin is committed by a free and full consent of our own free will, the evils that come about from these sufferings are not because God has willed them directly, but as consequence of our own deliberate actions. Suffering is now necessary as a part of our nature. However, God, in His mercy, provides a way in which we can still be alive with Him in eternal joy and happiness; and this was by sending down the Second Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of the Father, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But, even Christ suffered, and it was His suffering that gives us the model of what this undeniable part of our nature should be.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Philippians says:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you should not only believe in him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear is mine. (Philippians 1:27-30)
And Saint Peter says:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of time in the flesh, no longer by human passions but, by the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2)
Christ did not regard His own Divinity as anything for Him to cling on to (Philippians 2:6-11), even though He had every right to. Instead, by fully assuming our lowly human nature in complete and total humility, He shows us how we, in our own human nature, ought to suffer in order that we might bring glory to our Father in Heaven. Just as Christ shares in our humanity so that we might share in His Divinity, so we must share in His suffering. Notice how God highly exalted His Son in His suffering, not because the Father loved the suffering His Son underwent, but because He loved the love that the Son showed forth in His suffering. It is only in light of God’s own suffering that our human suffering makes sense. For, if God Himself saw it necessary that He should suffer, who are we to think we deserve any less in that share? Suffering also only makes sense in light of the redemptive value Christ’s own suffering had. Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross, in the most brutal and inhumane fashion imaginable, not for His own edification, but for the expiation and remission of our sins, so that we may be admitted to the eternal joys of Heaven in full communion with our Heavenly Father. It is for this reason that our suffering frees us from the sins of our flesh and all sin, for when our suffering is united to that of our Christ, by virtue of His salvific work, those same graces are wed to our suffering and our sacrifice, and so frees us from our sinful desires and proclivities. The fact that God uses suffering as a mode in which we are able to draw ever nearer to Him is an attestation that with God nothing is impossible and that out of the worst evils God can work the greatest goods. As all things should be, suffering is a means in which we can unite ourselves to Christ in a deep and personal way until one day we are united entirely to Him. It is interesting to note that the very consequence of our own sinful actions, suffering and death, became the way that Christ won for us eternal life.
On one last final note, I want to look at a verse in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
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 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. (Colossians 1: 24-26)
Our suffering is not meaningless, brothers and sisters, for when we willingly accept our suffer with joy for the sake of Christ, to make up for what is lacking in His own Passion, we give it to Jesus; and anything given to Jesus is not given in vain, for the Lord will take that and multiply the graces and the blessings 10 fold, 100 fold, and 1000 fold, each according to his own.
For more information on suffering and the Christian understanding of it, a good place to look is the book of Job in the Old Testament, which I plan on doing an article on in the near future. God bless.