Every now and then I come across young people who are on fire for the faith. They inspire me. They give me hope. About a year ago I was speaking in Chicago and met an “about to graduate” law school student named Daniel Box.
After the talk, I went out with him, his wife, and a couple others to continue the conversation started at my lecture. Daniel struck me as a man entirely devoted to our Lord, and I’m happy to share one of the articles he has written. It’s a great reminder about the reality of the Catholic life, especially as we enter into Advent.
Keep an eye on him, as I think he’s going to do great things for our Lord. And you can do that by checking out his blog at https://edanielbox.weebly.com/.
The Reality of Suffering & the Hope of Salvation
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
It has been said that Christianity is not an electric blanket that coddles or warms a person gently to sleep. In reality, it is a cross that each and every one of us must bear.
Sacrifice, suffering, and death—these are essential in our journey toward salvation, and they are at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is an idea repeatedly found in the message of Christ: God’s prophets are almost always killed by the masses (Mt. 23:37); Jesus warns his disciples that, because they do not belong to the world, but instead have been chosen by God, they will be hated by the world (Jn. 15:19); and Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me” (Mt. 5:11).
Brothers and sisters, I am of the opinion that one of the greatest threats to the Church today is not simply the assaults that She endures from without, but a cancer that assaults Her body from within. And this cancer is the misunderstanding and distortion of the Gospel by believers of Jesus into a watered-down, “feel-good” narrative—a narrative of a God who is just a “nice guy” and who, because He is so loving and forgiving, makes no real demands on our daily lives; a narrative that says that we can all reasonably expect to make it into heaven, as long as we generally avoid doing harm to others.
But this is not the Gospel. No, the Gospel is a love story. And true love is always sacrificial. True love always involves pain and death, not because others—our spouses or neighbors—are so difficult to love, but because our selfish nature makes it difficult for each of us to escape our tendency to love ourselves inordinately. In other words, loving others necessarily entails the grind of constant self-denial, which is why St. Josemaría Escrivá explained, “As long as we walk on this earth, suffering will always be the touchstone of love.” Once one understands this truth, it becomes clear why so many today—Christians and non-Christians alike—fail to see the importance of sacrifice, suffering, and death in the Gospel: they fail to understand what love truly is.
Contrary to what popular culture would have us believe, love is not about me and my self-expression, my finding a companion, so that I can find fulfillment. Love is about service to another. Christian love emulates Jesus, who “hand[s] himself over for [His Bride] to sanctify her” (Eph. 5:25-26). Again, therefore, love is not self-serving, but is self-sacrificial. When the Christian loves and marries, he or she no longer lives for themselves, but for their spouse, looking out above all for their spouse’s wellbeing, even to the detriment of their own. Love makes demands on us. In fact, loves demands everything from us, because it demands that we hold nothing back. We know from Scripture that “love does not seek its own interests…it does not brood over injury…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-8). It never fails.
It is clear, then, that love is no schmoopy virtue for the weak or faint of heart. To be called to love is to be called to bold and tenacious virtue, because love requires self-sacrifice, perseverance, and living for another. In a word, love requires suffering and death, and cannot exist without these. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” says Jesus (Jn. 15:13). And because God is worthy of the greatest of love, He calls his followers to “deny [themselves], take up [their] cross daily, and follow [him].” We must suffer and die to ourselves, in order to free ourselves from our passions and vices and so to be able to love God without reservation.
In his spiritual masterpiece, Dom. Lorenzo Scupoli warned Christians to take seriously this struggle against the passions and in favor of self-denial, by saying, “The fight against the passions will last a lifetime, and he who lays down his arms will be slain.” We see, both in Scripture and throughout salvation history, that the holiest of men and women toiled in prayer and even subjected themselves to corporal pains up to the day of their deaths, and never dared to presume themselves to be a “shoe-in” for heaven (e.g. 1 Cor. 4:4-5). Who then are we to think and do otherwise?
The Bible tells us that Paul physically “pummel[ed] [his] body…for fear that, after having preached to others, [he himself] should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Paul—a person who healed others, who lived a life of celibacy for Christ, who traveled the world to spread the Gospel, and who was stoned, shipwrecked, bitten by poisonous snakes, imprisoned multiple times, and finally martyred for the faith—informs us that, even in the final days of his life, he continued to “work out [his] salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
- Brothers and sisters, what kind of suffering have we willingly embraced, in order to spread the Gospel?
- How regularly do we deny ourselves our desires—not just the sinful desires, but even the non-sinful desires—in an effort to train ourselves not to be ruled by our passions?
- Are there things in our lives that we might refuse to give up, even if we were to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him today?
- When was the last time you fasted during Advent (or anytime outside of Lent)? Jesus tells us that there are certain temptations that can only be eradicated through fasting (Mk. 9:29, Mt. 17:21).
- As Catholics, we know that we can offer up any suffering we experience for the salvation and conversion of others (see Col. 1:24, Rom. 8:17, 1 Cor. 1:5-6). How often do we actually do this? More importantly, how often do we seek out and pursue suffering, so that we might offer it up for others?
We all hate suffering. I pretend to be no better at it than anyone else. But because suffering is integral to love, and because love is necessary for salvation, suffering too in a manner of speaking is necessary for salvation. St. Thomas More summed up this idea nicely in words that he was fond of repeating to his children: we cannot “go to heaven in featherbeds.”
When we Catholics study Scripture and history, we should find ourselves humbled to discover a majestic spiritual heritage of holy brothers and sisters who were willing to give up everything for Jesus—even their own lives. We should find ourselves inspired to live out Jesus’ call that we “take up our cross daily” and “lose our lives” when we reflect on the witness of St. John the Baptist, for example, whose martyrdom we celebrated Tuesday in the Church; or when we reflect on Bartholomew’s being flayed alive; or Stephen’s being stoned to death; or Ignatius of Antioch’s being fed to the lions; Lawrence’s being grilled alive; Francis’ stigmata; Joan of Arc’s being burned at the stake; John of the Cross’ dark night; Fr. Miguel Pro’s being executed by firing squad; Maximilian Kolbe’s being starved to death at Auschwitz.
It is wrong—in fact, in today’s Gospel, Jesus identifies it as satanic—to think that suffering has no place in the Christian life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, when reflecting upon today’s reading, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” All of us, as Christian men and women, must die to ourselves, we must be martyred for the sake of this faith—certainly figuratively, but perhaps one day even literally. This is the cost of discipleship. Like John the Baptist, we must decrease, so that Jesus may increase (Jn. 3:30).
So ask yourself, today and every day, what kind of Christian will you be? And take refuge in the favorite Scriptural words of Pope St. John Paul the Great: “Be not afraid.”
E. Daniel Box
To learn more about Daniel and read more of his thoughts on the Catholic life, check out his blog at http://edanielbox.weebly.com/.
Also, if you want to hear more about the topic of suffering, check out Episode 15 of the Art of Catholic podcast titled “Exploring the Mystery of Redemptive Suffering with Jeff Cavins.”