Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church...
I have never really understood what Paul was saying there. How can anything be lacking in the death of God, Son of Man, on the cross?
Notations on that Scripture verse point out that Paul was not saying that Christ's death was insufficient. Certainly, I agree that was not St. Paul's intent, but it's quite a strange statement to make...
However, Paul was suffering, had suffered, and expected future suffering as a man who was abused and imprisoned many times for the sake of the Gospel, and as he experienced those trials, I have no doubt that he was thinking of all the new Christians for whom he felt his suffering had meaning, precisely because he had united it with Christ's.
Have you ever heard a Catholic say, "Offer it up!"? Catholics have a unique perspective. All Christians feel that Christ gave suffering incredible meaning in his passion, crucifixion and resurrection, suffering born of love that saved humankind and raised our humanity to heaven. But Catholics also believe that we can unite our own continual suffering here on earth to Christ, in fact that we can participate in our Savior's suffering for the Church, our family, for all of humanity.
Some may argue that God doesn't suffer; Christ no longer suffers. Christ's suffering ended with the resurrection. I don't know. Does he suffer in the same way as us? No. But I would argue that if there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who had no need of repentance, God's love is intense beyond imagining. And is humanity still suffering? Absolutely. Are we still harming others through acts of selfishness, pride, greed and cowardice? We're still sinning, yes. Do I think God suffers with us? That is an interesting question, and I think Elie Wiesel said it very well in a scene from Night. In it a young boy is hanged and dies a slow, agonizing death in front of assembled prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp. Wiesel wrote:
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"Where is God now?"
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
"Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows."
When I converted to Catholicism, the idea of giving suffering great meaning in Christ impressed me. If Christ took suffering and made it the tool of redemption, then we as Christians can make our suffering more than just a cause for complaint and pity. I believe wholeheartedly that every act of love and sacrifice becomes infinitely more powerful when united to Him. So even if we are having a bad day at work, the boss is blaming us for something beyond our control, we can offer it up for someone. If our children receive detention, instead of wasting energy on resentment, they can offer it up for the kid with whom they got in the fight that landed them there. If we have been in a car accident and are feeling physical and emotional pain, we can offer it up for any others involved and for those who aid us afterward.
I find this even applies to fasting. I am no good at fasting, frankly, but if I know I am fasting for the needs of another or in solidarity with another, it becomes much easier to keep that commitment, to make sacrifices and to pray more frequently. Why? I am offering it up.
In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
And I have strong faith in its effectiveness. Christ can do more with our big and little trials than we can. He can, quite miraculously, work them for the good of another - of many others, I believe, if we cultivate this habit of giving it fully and humbly to our Redeemer.