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: Having marveled at the amazing truth that Jesus not only redeemed us, but through his grace has desired to give us a real, consequential role in the building up of his everlasting Kingdom through merit, now we are ready to tackle your question. If we are in the state of grace, our prayers, virtuous actions, and even our sufferings can become a source of merit. When we unite them to Christ (“offering them up” as you put it in the question), they become pipelines of grace extending from the heart of Christ into our hearts and through us into the Church and the world around us. That said, we also must remember that the diameter of the pipeline is not fixed. It depends upon four factors. Growth in spiritual maturity depends to a great extent on the interior discipline required in living out these four factors.
First, there is the amount of sanctifying grace present in my soul. The more I am filled with grace, the more merit my prayers, virtuous actions, and sufferings will have when I offer them to God. The more grace I am infused with, the higher the wattage on the lamp of my soul. This is because grace is what makes us more like God, more united to him. A kind word from a stranger can be pleasant, but a kind word from someone dear to me is much more meaningful. The Christian who prays regularly, receives the sacraments regularly, and makes an effort to practice all the Christian virtues, rooting out sinful tendencies and avoiding sin, is more united to God. They are in a better position to merit. As the Bible puts it, “The Lord keeps his distance from the wicked, but he listens to the prayers of the upright” (Proverbs 15:29). And lest you think this is just an Old Testament anachronism, here’s St. James making the same point in the New Testament: “…The heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully” (James 5:16). What goes for prayers goes also for virtuous actions and sufferings.
United to the Vine
Second, there is our union with Jesus. This is closely related to the first factor, but it is less formal and more relational. It’s a question of being aware of our union with Christ. We are members of his mystical body, and so he is always with us. The more conscious we are of this union, the more meritorious all of our actions become. When we are working on a project with another person, the beneficial synergy happens more fully and dramatically if we are in constant contact with that person along the whole process. Our project as Christians is to build up Christ’s Kingdom in our hearts and in the world around us. If we try to do the work on our own and then check in with the Lord at the end of the day, that’s good. But it’s much better if we work side-by-side with him throughout every phase of the project. This is the spiritual discipline of living in the presence of God, and it turns even the most mundane tasks into meaningful encounters with God. If I am habitually living and working aware of Christ’s presence in my heart, then saying the words “Lord, I offer this up to you” resonates deeply in my soul, opening up a wider flow of God’s grace (merit) through that offering. St. Paul encouraged the Christians of Colossae to practice this spiritual discipline: “…Whatever you say or do, let it be in the name of the Lord Jesus, in thanksgiving to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
To Want or Not to Want…
Third, there is our purity of intention. We can “offer up” our sufferings, using them to gain merit, for many different reasons: because we don’t want to go to hell; because we want more glory in heaven; because we want our sufferings to win graces for others who are in need; because we want to show God that we love him no matter what, even if he permits suffering in our lives; because we want to conform our lives more perfectly to Christ… The same variety of reasons can be present in our prayers and virtuous actions. We can obey because we don’t want to be punished, or because we recognize that the virtue of obedience is pleasing to God and glorifies his wisdom; we can exhaust ourselves to earn a decent living because we are afraid of being labeled a failure, or because we recognize that God has given us a mission to provide for a family and thereby be a mirror of the Father’s goodness… The default setting for our interior intention is usually self-centered. But with God’s help and constant effort on our part, we can make it more and more mission-centered, Kingdom-centered, Christ-centered. Of course, usually we have more than one intention, e.g. we work for the satisfaction of a job well done, but also to benefit the world around us and to make a living, and also to glorify God. Multiple intentions are natural and normal – human beings are complex creatures. But the more we can consciously renew our supernatural intention, stirring up the reasons for doing things that are based on the wisdom of our faith, the bigger pipeline of grace we can become. This factor applies even to the littlest things we do, as St Paul makes clear: “Whatever you eat, then, or drink, and whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Going from Cold to Hot
Fourth, there is the factor of fervor. You can have 20 kids in a math class, and every single one of them can be working on an exercise. But not every single one of them will be putting their whole heart into it. You can have 15 kids at baseball practice, but not all 15 will be giving their all for the whole two hours. Just so, we can all say the words, “Lord, I offer this up to you,” but we will not all say them with equal fervor; the more meaning we pour into them, the more merit we can acquire. When sufferings come our way, for example, we can accept them with different degrees of fervor: reluctance, patience, gratitude, joy. As long as we accept them out of faith, we will merit – we will help increase the flow of grace in the Church. But if we accept them with a greater degree of faith (e.g. “Lord, you are giving me a chance to unite myself more closely to Christ on the cross – OK, Lord, help me to share his love as I share his pain!…”), there will also be a greater degree of merit. Jesus stressed this factor when he identified the most important commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). He said all. The implication is that we can love with different degrees of totality.
Sanctifying grace, union with Jesus, purity of intention, and fervor are four factors that help determine the degree of merit that our prayers, virtuous actions, and sufferings (sacrifices) can win for ourselves, the Church, and the world around us. So, to answer the original question, there is much more to uniting our sufferings to Christ than simply saying the words, though that is the necessary catalyst.
I hope this hasn’t discouraged you by giving the impression that the spiritual life is overly complicated. It really isn’t. In fact, knowing that one simple action (a prayer, a headache, an act of service, an honest word, a chore) can either open up a trickle or a torrent of grace is a jewel of wisdom. It should fill us with optimism and enthusiasm. We don’t have to convert nations or face lions in the Coliseum to do something glorious for God! Nor do we have to learn complex yoga techniques in order to develop spiritual maturity – we just have to dig deep into our soul before, during, and after our normal activities, and activate our faith so as to plug them into our Christian mission of building Christ’s Kingdom. (By the way, the easiest way to do that is to grow in the habit of “praying at all times” [1 Thessalonians 5:17]. When we do that, the four factors kick in and intensify automatically.) This is less glamorous than becoming a martial arts expert, because it is largely interior and invisible (to everyone except you and God), and therefore requires more discipline. As St Paul put it, we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
But the good news is, as always, that we are not alone. God, Mary, the angels and the saints are all eager to help us, if we just give them the chance.