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“Offering it Up” – Redemptive Suffering Part I – The Mystery of Merit

May 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Prayer, Suffering

Q: Dear Father John, I was just listening to a radio show about redemptive suffering – they were saying that our suffering can have value if we “offer it up.”  Is there any more to this (uniting our sufferings to Jesus’) than just saying the words?

A: Before getting to the heart of this question, we have to peek at the presupposition.  It has to do with a theological concept called merit.

Part I: The Mystery of Merit

Merit is the right to a reward.  Someone who gains merit deserves a reward from others; they have earned something of value through their own efforts; someone else owes them a recompense as a result of what they have done.  A worker merits his wages; a football player whose performance launches his team to victory merits recognition as the most valuable player; soldiers who risk their lives for their country merit respect, and also social security when their time of active duty is up.

Jesus spoke often about merit.  In his Sermon on the Mount he encourages us to look forward to the reward that will be great in heaven.  In his parables about the final judgment he draws a direct correlation between how we behave here on earth and the reward that we will receive in eternity.  Our modern sensibilities, influenced by a Kantian worldview, are disturbed by the thought of doing what is right in order to receive a reward. Jesus had no such qualms: “Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it” (Luke 12:33).

In short, as Christians, our prayers, actions, and sacrifices serve as conduits, in a sense, of God’s grace.  And it is God’s grace that redeems fallen humanity, rolls back the forces of evil, enlightens sin-darkened hearts, restores hope to those in despair, fills us with joy, wisdom, and strength… God’s Kingdom flourishes, in individuals, families, parishes, and societies, when the flow  of grace is abundant.  To increase our merits is to do our part to increase the flow of God’s grace in, through, and around us.

Problem and Solution

Now for the tricky part.  On our own, we are absolutely incapable of obtaining supernatural merits.  This is because we are fallen, sinful human beings.  An unplugged lamp won’t give off any light, no matter how many times you turn the switch.  Similarly, original sin unplugged our souls from the source of grace – God himself.  When Jesus became man and offered himself in atonement for our sins, he plugged human nature back in to God, so to speak.  This was the redemption.  And so, anyone who is united to Christ through faith and the sacraments is now once again connected to the source of grace – they are living in the state of grace.  Only in Christ, then, can we merit: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

But that’s the amazing thing: in Christ, we can merit.  God has consciously chosen to give us the possibility of making a difference in his Kingdom.  We are not just along for the ride.  What we do and how we choose to live our ordinary lives can actually increase the flow of grace in the world, spreading Christ’s Kingdom and storing up treasure for us in heaven.  Jesus has not only saved us from damnation, but he has given us the possibility of becoming active, meritorious collaborators in the work of redemption.  Not because we deserve it, but simply because he generously wanted to give us that possibility: he wanted our lives to have real meaning, our actions and decisions to have eternal repercussions.  His love makes us friends and collaborators, not just his robots or spiritual trophies.

Though it may seem obvious, we should mention that no one can merit the initial grace of conversion for themselves.  The unplugged lamp can’t plug itself in, though once plugged it really is the lamp that shines.  A misunderstanding of this point helped fuel the fire of dissention that sparked so many painful divisions among Christians at the time of the Protestant Reformation.  We cannot save or redeem ourselves; we need a Savior, a Redeemer: Christ.  But on the other hand, once we have accepted Christ’s gift of grace, that very gift enables us to merit other graces for ourselves and for the Church.  This is a marvelous, wonderful, and underemphasized part of the Good News!

Now we are ready to tackle the question of whether it is enough just to “say the words” in order to win merit by uniting our sufferings to Christ.  We’ll look at that next time.

 

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • lucindabyrne

    I am an American teaching English in Taiwan. I have been in Asia for over two years and find it very difficult because not too many catholics here that I can find. Most people are buddhist, so close relations are very difficult because I am catholic. I feel like I am drifting farther away from the church, being in a buddhist country. Is there an email or contact I can talk to on your website? Someone I can email or talk to? Please let me know. Thank You,

    Lucinda Byrne

    • Theresa B

      Sometimes I feel like I drift away too and I am always searching for deep friendships with people who are serious about holiness, which seem to be hard to find. I stay close to the Sacraments and read Zenit and I am happy to have found this blog, just today! I will pray for you. Please feel free to e-mail me if you want someone to talk to.

      • lucindabyrne

        Theresa,
         
            I just received your email. Thank You. Where are you from? Are you from the U.S.?
        I am American and teaching English in Taiwan, so it is very difficlult to have close friendships. I hope to hear from you,
         
                                     Lucinda

        • Theresa B

          I Teach first grade in California. Very different than your situation.
          I can understand how it might be difficult to form close friendships.
          I am alone alot but I feel very close to Jesus. Do you have a place
          to go to Mass. The Mass and spiritual reading are my lifelines.

          Theresa

          • lucindabyrne

            Theresa,
             
                 There is a catholic church, but it is one and a half hours away by bus. I am trying another job so I am in the city and it will be easier to get to church. What city in California are you?
             
                                                  Lucinda

          • Theresa B

            Lucinda:

            I live in Salinas California it is near Monterey and Carmel Area. Do
            you know about the Magnificat magazine? It is a very good Catholic
            Spiritual aide. It has morning and evening prayer, daily Mass and a
            meditation from a saint for each day of the week. I have been using it
            for over 10 years. I think a yearly subscription is about 35 dollars.
            I hope you can get closer to a Catholic Church. Keep in touch.

            Theresa

    • Dhart

      Hello Lucinda
      I am a Catholic 67 year old who would be happy to try and assist you in strengthening your faith. It must be very difficult for you when all you see around you is people of another faith.
      Do contact me if you wish.
      God bless
      Daniel Hart

      • lucindabyrne

        Daniel,
         
             Yes, I am still in Taiwan and it is difficult to get to church because I am so far in the country side. I am trying to get a job in the city so it will be easier to get to church. Yes, it is very different here. I want to come home, but I worry about job options. So I need to save more money before coming back to the U.S.
             What state are you from? I am from Pennsylvania. But when I come back to U.S., I want to settle down in Texas. Thank You for your reply.
         
                                                Lucinda Byrne

    • Ruthhballard

      Dear Lucinda,
      I must say that the Holy Spirit musthave had a hand in directing me to this site. I didn't know it existed prior to this evening. I lived in Taiwan as a teen, and attended the American school. I can certainly talk to you. Although I wasn't a Catholic at that point in my life (I am now), I certainly understand the difficulty of being Christian in the Taiwanese culture. Also, I taught English for awhile– so we have much in common. Are you on facebook? How should I contact you?

      • lucindabyrne

        I receivied your message.

         

            I am not good with face book so th e best way to reach me is through emai. My email address is

                           lucindakatrina@yahoo.com  I hope to hear from you. Thank you.

         

                             Lucinda

    • judeen

      have you asked your self why did God send you there? like so many of the apostels, and saints.. sent to places where there was little to no fatih.. God must trust you in a deep way… ewtn has masses.. also find a freind to pray with.. on phone or internet… read Paul.. and how he over came things.. remember God love those people too.. talk to them with love.. find the sameness and build on that .. like paul

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  • judeen

    over and over the scripture talks about being right with God for God to hear and answer your prayers…. also. for 1 person who loves God can save cities of people.. amos .. is one mose .. another… being humble.. is more important than doing everythig right.  one can take on sorrow for others , for Gods glory .. so that they may cry and heal and come to God.. all done in the passion ,death of Jesus Christ offered to God the Father where all blessings flow – scripture.. Jesus is the only meteater to the Father. not even mary can do this..  i kno of over 7 people who has some form of stigmata.. people who suffer joined with the passion of Jesus for souls… it is very common. yet no one knows of it

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