Redemptive Suffering (part one)

The Mystery of Merit

The following text is taken from Fr John Bartunek’s two-part response to a reader’s question on the Catholic Spiritual Direction blog about the value of ‘offered up’ suffering. Father John begins by looking at the theological concept 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 judgement 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.

Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC

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13 Responses to Redemptive Suffering (part one)

  1. piliersdelaterre says:

    As I see it, Protestantism of all shades evolved through an antipathy to the unquestioned power of certain anointed people over the souls (& access to the scriptures) of the majority. Grace through the Sacraments could be withheld by such people, and the laity found them more & more wanting, sometimes scandalously so.
    Modernity (post naziism) has increased our anxiety for an individual conscience & fear of collective submission & obedience- we are all Protestants now. However, properly understood, the grace from the sacraments should give us the strength precisely to act as individuals against the pressure of collective conformity- like the martyrs and more recent heroes (e.g. the German nazi officer who cared for the Polish Jewish pianist, against all odds, & attended Mass in his uniform, thereby terrifying the Poles).
    The beauty and security of having our souls possessed by a holy, mature, transpersonal identity with God & others, has suffered as the pendulum has swung against much that Catholicism once gave to us. Only recently I realized that very many well-meaning modern Catholics are ignorant of the Catholic doctrine of Baptism of Desire. It is not easy to understand that God would afford such privileges only to Catholics who, despite receiving graces from the sacraments, are often not noticeably holy, compared to many people in other faiths. Technically people not touched by sacramental grace can be saved- by a holy desire- but not in & through participation in their religion per se (according to traditional Catholic Doctrine). This is a very fraught (& politically contentious) area. The need for Grace coming through the Sacraments (which are only truly given through the Catholic Church), is the sort of claim which, before long could result in prosecution in the European Courts!! Or indeed, start World War 3 (provided people care about it enough in the first place).
    It would be good to know more about Baptism of Desire, compared to Ecumenism…


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Jesus spoke often about merit

    … though funnily enough, He never seems to have spoken about self-inflicted pain as a road to redemption.

    Sins against one’s own body, causing suffering, are no different to sins against anybody else’s body, causing suffering.

    Where there is suffering, there you will find sin.

    Our calling is to keep on _despite_ suffering ; never to imagine that suffering itself can be some kind of masochistic virtue.


  3. Mimi says:

    “… though funnily enough, He never seems to have spoken about self-inflicted pain as a road to redemption.”

    That’s a bit tangential. Who mentioned self-inflicted pain? There’s no hint of that in the article. I presume you don’t consider such penances as fasting and abstinence to be “sins against one’s own body”?


  4. JabbaPapa says:

    I know it’s tangential 🙂

    Fasting and abstinence aren’t ; anorexia is. And, more generally, masochism.

    I have always been extremely uncomfortable with those suggesting that the mortal suffering of Christ during His torture and crucifixion should be viewed as positives ; they are tragedies, that we should more properly be ashamed of.

    The Christ was tortured, and He was murdered.

    His suffering was the product of sins, not virtues.


  5. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Thank you JP for your words above.
    Christ did not welcome suffering; His last words being “Father, Father why have you forsaken me?”. Clearly a cry against suffering.

    I find it deeply unsavoury when I learn of those who relish punishing their bodies.


  6. Gertrude says:

    Whippy: Since we all probably punish our bodies frequently during our life-times, I assume you are referring to ‘mortifying the flesh’ – much practised by some of the saints, and more recently Blessed John Paul II, and yes, Christ’s last words ( I think it was ‘It is finished’) that you mention above was a human response to suffering that Jesus, in his Incarnation, understandably would have pleaded. As JP says, they were not positives, but they did encapsulate His humanity.


  7. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Yes G

    We do punish our bodies, tho’ I was thinking of those who practise it deliberately. I remember at school being told of a ‘holy’ man who wore chains to mortify the flesh. Only when I was older did I realise the perverse nature of this. I read of Thomas à Becket who after his death was found to have a hair shirt covered in lice and filth. I find this grotesque. Self harmers end up in mental institutions.

    We have been given a body to care for, not for abuse on deeply suspect pretexts. Hatred of the body is at least, unhealthy. As you say, Christ’s sufferings encapsulate His humanity, and it was suffering He did not relish as the “forsaken” word shows. For others to value suffering is hubris of the worst sort. And isn’t there enough suffering in the world without gratuitously inflicting it on our bodies?

    I also feel there is a huge inconsistency among those who value suffering yet don’t see that this “mortifying” is a step on the way to suicide, a subject we discussed recently. “Mortify” has its roots in death of course.

    (You are right about the last words – I should have said ‘among’ His last words.)


  8. mmvc says:

    ‘“Mortify” has its roots in death of course.’

    Indeed, but in the spiritual context mortification is all about ‘dying to self’ and not remotely linked to suicide.


  9. mmvc says:

    The term (mortification) originated with St. Paul, who traces an instructive analogy between Christ dying to a mortal and rising to an immortal life, and His followers who renounce their past life of sin and rise through grace to a new life of holiness. “If you live after the flesh”, says the apostle, “you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live” (Romans 8:13; cf. also Colossians 3:5, and Galatians 5:24). From this original use of the term, we see that mortification, though under one aspect it is a law of death, under another and more fundamental aspect it is a law of life, and does not destroy but elevates nature. What it slays is the disease of the soul, and by slaying this it restores and invigorates the soul’s true life.
    (Catholic Encyclopedia)


  10. Gertrude says:

    Whippy: I think there is a difference between ‘self-harming’ which has its origins in mental disturbance, and ‘mortification’ as practised by the saints. It is not a gift that I would particularly welcome – but then perhaps I am far from that level of sanctity 😉


  11. JabbaPapa says:

    The thing is that the vocabulary of “mortification of the flesh” is both inherently confusing and has drifted away from its original meanings (which were confusing ones too).

    “The Flesh” is more properly understood here as our fleshly urges, our animal needs and desires, and the sinful behaviours that they can motivate. The confusion is produced by the fact that this same word refers to the physical matter of our bodies.

    “Mortification” OTOH has decisively shifted away from its root meaning of “ending/stopping/ceasing” towards meanings strongly associated with death (which was originally simply a metaphorical meaning of the root words).

    So, “mortification of the flesh” is therefore very hard to understand now as having originally been intended as : “putting an end to our fleshly urges, our animal needs and desires, and the sinful behaviours that they can motivate” … 🙂

    This is balanced in Catholicism by charity — charity is derived from the same word, flesh, and it can be understood as a Christian, spiritual caring for the needs of our flesh (as opposed to its more destructive desires).


  12. JabbaPapa says:

    The principle intended meaning of “mortification of the flesh” exists of course in the single word “Abstinence”.


  13. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Thanks MM

    It appears that harming the body frees the soul. They say.

    And it seems from what you report , that mortification is a ‘law of life’ and also a ‘law of death’.

    Ah yes.


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