Unwanted suffering, undeserved crosses have, I am sure, been laid on the shoulders of every human being in one way or another. Physical disease or handicaps, mental or emotional suffering, anxiety, loneliness, boredom. They always bring with them the question, “Why?”
In the Scriptures, believers have grappled with that question for many centuries. Some Old Testament authors tried to answer it by saying that if there was only hardship in a person’s life, it was sent as a punishment either for one’s own sins or for those of one’s parents, family members. Later, in the Old Testament, others began to stress the notion that God sends suffering not only as a punishment but also as a test, to prove the strength and the loyalty of his people. St Paul in the Second Reading today, says that God, because he loves us, disciplines us the way a loving father disciplines his children.
But of course, it is Christ in the Gospel who begins to show us how suffering is redemptive. St Luke pictures one of the Apostles asking him a reasonable enough question, “Will there be lots of people in Heaven, or only a few?” And, as so often happens in the Gospel, Christ doesn’t really seem to respond directly to that question.
Rather, he uses it as a springboard for something more to the point. He ignores, really, the question of numbers and focuses rather on the way, “I tell you, many will try to enter the Kingdom but won’t make it.”
Demands will be made of those who hope for a place in the Kingdom. Those demands may well be, from time to time, burdensome. The door, after all, is narrow. There is a very definite set of virtues, values, a very definite style of behaviour, that must be followed if salvation is to be realised.
Some of those virtues and values may be fairly difficult. In fact, from Christ’s words, some of them will call for a good deal of effort. Patience, persistence, forgiveness, humility and a host of others don’t spring into our personalities easily and automatically. They must be practiced, over and over, sometimes fairly gruellingly so.
Christ teaches that if discipline is to have meaning, to be redemptive, it must be self-discipline. That means that the purpose, the redemptive value of any hardship, deserved or undeserved, that we may bear in our lives does not depend on anything outside of ourselves. Suffering is never explained by asking, “Where does it come from?” Rather, it is explained by asking, “What must I do with it?”
If we are able to use the hardship that does come into our lives as an opportunity to grow in self-discipline, in whatever virtue the situation demands, be it patience, persistence, forgiveness, creativity, initiative, whatever, then that hardship will be redemptive for us. We will pick it up and carry it through the narrow door into the company of the Father.