On Passivity vs. Activity in Suffering

When we are in pain, real pain, it becomes easy to fall into despair regarding our condition, especially when our suffering is long-term. What we are often told by well-meaning Christian friends is to “offer it up.” What does this really mean? At first glance, it appears that they are asking you to dismiss your suffering, which, of course, is impossible. The mere suggestion is liable to make you feel less than charitable towards your friend.

A friend of mine frequently offers the suggestion that we not “offer it up,” but that we “unite it to the cross.” He finds that “offering it up” is far too passive of a thing. Rather, we should actively donate our suffering, *give* it to Christ to be used for the purposes of someone else. Not only to make it not just something we endure, but to make it efficacious and redemptive, as Christ’s Passion is efficacious and redemptive for all of mankind. Because Jesus made His suffering efficacious specifically for each and every one of us, by name, we too should unite our sufferings to a specific person or intention, so as to direct the efficacy of our suffering. This is all great, and works to make the person suffering feel useful, because now instead of being a victim, they are able to work, actively. Suffering is no longer something which “happens to them,” but is a medium in which they can effect results through Christ.

But before I completely tossed aside the phrase “offer it up,” I decided to revisit it once more. After all, as my friend says, this is the phrase that Pope Benedict XVI uses. Perhaps there is something else to the use of the passive voice which is intriguing to the Holy Father. Allow me to speculate on this for a moment. For a person who is new to the concept of redemptive suffering, I am really taken by the concept of “uniting it to the cross,” to give the sufferer a means by which he can feel useful and connected to the community, instead of despair. However, the caution that I would add would be to not get so caught up in the concept of our own action in “uniting our suffering to the cross” that we begin to think that our action in willing this unity is the efficacious agent in this transaction. It is God, and not us, who is able to use our suffering in some way for the benefit of others. What we are doing, in essence, isn’t actually an *action* per se which renders aid, but a submission of the experience of our suffering which the Lord then uses. It is neither the selfishness of wallowing in our negative experience, or the pride in thinking that we are being personally effective which aids our brothers, but the willful, humble submission to the will of God. In this humility, this proper ordering of our desire for unity with God and with our brothers and sisters, are we able to make a true gift of ourselves back to the Lord and cooperate in His saving action. For this reason, I argue that the use of the passive voice is a good and legitimate use, not to show passivity in will, but to show docility to God.

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