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If you are suffering (and you probably are), this book can help

Suffering man

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John Burger - published on 04/14/24

Augustine Institute author wants to balance philosophical explanations with practical suggestions for living through tough times.

Suffering is part of everyone’s life. It comes in all shades and varieties: illness, disability, pain, loss, depression …

Every news website today is replete with people’s suffering from around the world. Some regions of the world seem to have an unfair burden of suffering.

But most of the suffering that people endure is much less dramatic, and might not even be thought of as suffering: relatively small annoyances that stem from the rudeness of neighbors, the impatience of our own temperament, or simply the ups and downs of daily life. 

Catholic spirituality has a lot to offer on not only the reasons for suffering but the ways in which we can fruitfully respond to it.

Dr. Mark Giszczak, a professor of Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute Graduate School of Theology, lays that out in a new book, Suffering: What Every Catholic Should Know. Giszczak draws heavily on the wisdom of Sacred Scripture and centuries of Catholic theology to help readers understand the most basic question: “Why is there suffering, and why would an all-good, all-loving God allow it?”

“Once we take up the tradition of Christian biblical theology on this topic, we get some new insights, new perspectives, new ways of coping with the most pressing problems,” Giszczak said. He admits that it would not take suffering away, but the theological insights can help one to live with it.

Not just theory, but practice

But he has found that some books on suffering are steeped in the philosophical and theological, and wanted his contribution to the discussion to contain ample “practical strategies for living.” With a focus on surrendering one’s life to God, Giszczak shows how one can practically follow in the footsteps of Jesus by offering suffering for the redemption of the world.

The book is part of the Augustine Institute’s What Every Catholic Should Know series, intended for the average faithful Catholic who wants to know more about Catholic faith and culture. The series covers a wide range of topics, such as literature, mercy, salvation, and the character of God.

Giszczak (pronounced “geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver. He received a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He has been on the Augustine Institute faculty since 2010. His books include Wisdom of Solomon (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series), Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture, and Bible Translation and the Making of the ESV Catholic Edition. He writes regularly on his blog,

Giszczak spoke with Aleteia about his book.

What got you interested in such a dismal topic?

Dr. Mark Giszczak: Ha! Well, I think suffering is normal, not dismal. Everyone suffers. While dramatic things like heart attacks and tornadoes might be what we think about, in reality, everyone around us has ongoing losses, griefs, pains, and sufferings all the time. We’re all trying to figure out how to cope, and we all need as much help as we can get.

For me, it started with teaching about St. Paul’s understanding of suffering. He viewed himself as a suffering apostle, commissioned by God to bring the gospel to the Gentiles through his suffering. Jesus even says of Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16 RSV).

When my students came to understand St. Paul’s life and teaching, it really gave them a new perspective on suffering. I decided to teach a summer intensive course on the Theology of Suffering to further explore the topic. It turns out that a little bit of theological thinking about it goes a long way. A book cannot take away your suffering, but it might help you understand it more completely.

What did you learn in doing your research and in meditating on this subject while writing the book?

Dr. Giszczak: Suffering presents us with a choice. We can kick against the goads, run away, seek out a place of comfort, or we can turn and face it, accept it and allow it to redirect the story of our lives. Our straining against the inevitable problems of life often causes us more grief than the problems themselves. I call the first approach “the false road of comfort,” where we seek to mask the pain, run from our problems and distract ourselves from grief. A little comfort-seeking is fine, of course, but it never really gets to the root.

The second approach I call “the true road of acceptance.” That is when we engage in the grieving process and allow ourselves to finally accept the reality of our situation. Once we arrive at acceptance, we can grow through our suffering rather than let it forever drag us down. The Bible is full of examples where God finds a way to bring good out of evil circumstances. We need to believe that he will do the same in our own lives.

Your book is directed to Catholics, as the title indicates. Can non-Catholics benefit from it as well?

Dr. Giszczak: The Catholic Church has developed a rich theology of “redemptive suffering,” wherein our sufferings can participate in the project of redemption. We can spiritually unite our sufferings to those of Christ in order to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). While my book investigates the problem using the tools of Catholic theology, other Christians and even non-Christians can benefit from thinking through the theological problem of suffering. In this way, the book is very practical. I get into specifics about what tasks we need to undertake when confronted by suffering, what spiritual obstacles we face in suffering, and ways to grow by choosing little doses of suffering on purpose in the form of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The lessons of the Church’s teaching on suffering are very valuable for working through all that life throws at us.

Book cover for Mark Giszczak's Suffering

More and more, we find states and nations moving to legalize assisted suicide. Proponents are convinced that there needs to be an “out” in case a person’s suffering becomes unbearable. What are they missing about suffering?

Dr. Giszczak: The Church is very clear on this: we cannot cause death to alleviate suffering – “Thou shalt not kill.” Suffering is an inevitable reality of human life, but we must affirm that life is good even in the face of suffering. The goodness of life trumps the sorrow of pain.

The Church approves of the use of pain killing medications to alleviate suffering, even when they diminish consciousness, and their use will shorten the patient’s life. 

Suffering can bring about spiritual growth if we let it, and we need to let it. That means that our individual sufferings are not some sort of optional spiritual exercise, but a mandatory part of human existence. We need to grow through our sufferings. Euthanasia denies this spiritual mandate that every human being bears. 

Are there any – current or recent past – public witnesses of a good response to suffering that people can look to? 

Dr. Giszczak: Two beautiful examples stand out to me: Ven. Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Thuan was a Catholic archbishop imprisoned for his faith by the communist authorities for 13 years, from 1975 to 1988. He would celebrate Mass in his solitary cell on the altar of his hand with just three drops of wine, one drop of water and a few breadcrumbs. In this way, he stayed close to Jesus in the Eucharist even in the most desperate circumstances — offering his sufferings as a spiritual sacrifice in union with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

Mother Teresa was another shining example. She not only lived a life of extreme poverty and spiritual discipline, but she willingly took on additional sufferings above and beyond the strict rule of the order she founded. In the sweltering heat of Calcutta, she chose the room above the kitchen, the hottest in the motherhouse, as her own. Whenever she arrived at the Home for the Dying, she took it upon herself to clean the toilets right away. She was always looking out for the needs of others, not for herself, thus illustrating for us what it means to be conformed to the sufferings of Christ with cheerfulness: what people remember about Mother Teresa is her smile. 

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