Letter of Pope John Paul II on the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 11 February
On the Redemptive Suffering of Christ (abridged from sections 14-21)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in
him should not perish but have eternal life." These words, spoken by Christ in
His conversation with Nicodemus, introduce us into the very heart of God's salvific work.
They also express the very essence of Christian soteriology, that is, of the theology of
salvation. Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound
up with the problem of suffering. According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives
His Son to "the world" to free men from evil, which bears within itself the
definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word
"gives" ("gave") indicates that this liberation must be achieved by
the only begotten Son through His own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the
infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason
"gives" His Son. .This is love for man, love for the "world": it is
The words quoted above from Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus refer to suffering in
its fundamental and definitive meaning. God gives His only-begotten Son so that man
"should not perish" and the meaning of these words "should not perish"
is precisely specified by the words that follow: "but have eternal life."
Man "perishes" when he loses "eternal life." The opposite of
salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the
definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God--damnation. The
only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive
evil and against definitive suffering. In His salvific mission, the Son must therefore
strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history.
These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the
basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only begotten Son consists in
conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by His obedience unto death, and He overcomes
death by His resurrection.
As a result of Christ's salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal
life and holiness. And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in
His cross and resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free
from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a
new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering; the light of salvation. This is
the light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News. At the heart of this light is the
truth expounded in the conversation with Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that
he gave his only Son." This truth radically changes the picture of man's history
and his earthly situation: in spite of the sin that took root in this history both as an
original inheritance and as the "sin of the world" and as the sum of personal
sins, God the Father has loved the only-begotten Son, that is, He loves Him in a lasting
way; and then in time, precisely through this all-surpassing love, He "gives"
this Son, that He may strike at the very roots of human evil and thus draw close in a
salvific way to the whole world of suffering in which man shares.
Christ goes towards His passion and death with full awareness of the mission that He
has to fulfill precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering He must bring
it about "that man should not perish, but have eternal life." Precisely by means
of His cross He must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in
human souls. Precisely by means of His cross He must accomplish the work of salvation.
This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character.
Christ goes toward His own suffering, aware of its saving power; He goes forward in
obedience to the Father, but primarily He is united to the Father in this love with which
He has loved the world and man in the world. And for this reason St. Paul will write of
Christ: "He loved me and gave himself for me."
The Scriptures had to be fulfilled. There were many messianic texts in the Old
Testament which foreshadowed the sufferings of the future Anointed One of God. Among all
these, particularly touching is the one which is commonly called the Fourth song of the
Suffering servant, in the Book of Isaiah. The Song of the Suffering Servant contains a
description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of
Christ's passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the
spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the
crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the cross. the crucifixion and the
Even more than this description of the passion, what strikes us in the words of the
prophet is the depth of Christ's sacrifice. Behold, He, though innocent, takes upon
Himself the sufferings of all people, because He takes upon Himself the sins of all.
"The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all": all human sin in its breadth
and depth becomes the true cause of the Redeemer's suffering. If the suffering "is
measured" by the evil suffered, then the words of the prophet enable us to understand
the extent of this evil and suffering with which Christ burdened Himself. It can be said
that this is "substitutive" suffering; but above all it is
"redemptive." The Man of Sorrows of that prophecy is truly that "Lamb of
God who takes away the sin of the world." In His suffering, sins are canceled out
precisely because He alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon Himself, accept
them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin; in a certain
sense He annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and
humanity, and fills this space with good.
Here we touch upon the duality of nature of a single personal subject of redemptive
suffering. He who by His passion and death on the cross brings about the Redemption is the
only-begotten Son whom God "gave." And at the same time this Son who is
consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man. His suffering has human dimensions; it
also has unique in the history of humanity a depth and intensity which, while being human,
can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who
suffers is in person the only-begotten Son Himself: "God from God." Therefore,
only He--the only begotten Son--is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in
the sin of man: in every sin and in "total" sin, according to the dimensions of
the historical existence of humanity on earth.
Christ suffers voluntarily and suffers innocently. With His suffering He gives the
answer to the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering not only by His
teaching, that is, by the Good News, but most of all by His own suffering, which is
integrated with this teaching of the Good News in an organic and indissoluble way. And
this is the final, definitive word of this teaching: "the word of the cross," as
St. Paul one day will say.
The prayer in Gethsemane becomes a definitive point here. The words: "My Father,
if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you
will," and later: "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your
will be done," have a manifold eloquence. They prove the truth of that love which
the only-begotten Son gives to the Father in His obedience. At the same time, they attest
to the truth of His suffering. The words of that prayer of Christ in Gethsemane prove the
truth of love through the truth of suffering.
His words also attest to this unique and incomparable depth and intensity of suffering
which only the man who is the only-begotten Son could experience; they attest to that
depth and intensity which the prophetic words of Isaiah in their own way help us to
understand. Not of course completely (for this we would have to penetrate the divine-human
mystery of the subject), but at least they help us to understand that difference (and at
the same time the similarity) which exists between every possible form of human suffering
and the suffering of the God-man. Gethsemane is the place where precisely this suffering,
in all the truth expressed by the prophet concerning the evil experienced in it, is
revealed as it were definitively before the eyes of Christ's soul.
After the words in Gethsemane come the words uttered on Golgotha, words which bear
witness to this depth unique in the history of the world--of the evil of the suffering
experienced. When Christ says: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?", His
words are not only an expression of that abandonment which many times found expression in
the Old Testament, especially in the psalms and in particular in that Psalm 22(21) from
which come the words quoted. One can say that these words on abandonment are born at
the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the
Father "laid on him the iniquity of us all." They also foreshadow the words
of St. Paul: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin." Together
with this horrible weight, encompassing the "entire" evil of the turning away
from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of His filial union
with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which us the
separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through
this suffering He accomplishes the Redemption, and can say as He breathes His last:
"It is finished."
In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but
also human suffering itself has been redeemed. Christ without any fault of His own took on
Himself "the total evil of sin." The experience of this evil determined the
incomparable extent of Christ's suffering, which became the price of the Redemption. The
Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah speaks of this. In later times, the witnesses of
the New Covenant, sealed in the Blood of Christ, will speak of this. These are the words
of the Apostle Peter in his first letter: "You know that you were ransomed from the
futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or
gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or
spot." And the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Galatians will say: "He
gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age," and in the
first letter to the Corinthians: "You were bought with a price. So glorify God in
With these and similar words the witnesses of the New Covenant speak of the greatness
of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering of Christ. The Redeemer suffered in
place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also
called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is
called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been
redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human
suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become
a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.
This discovery caused St. Paul to write particularly strong words in the letter to the
Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ
who lives in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me." Faith enables the author of these words to
know that love which led Christ to the cross. And if He loved us in this way, suffering
and dying, then with this suffering and death of His He lives in the one whom He loved in
this way; He lives in the man: in Paul. And living in him to the degree that Paul,
conscious of this through faith, responds to His love with love--Christ also becomes in a
particular way united to the man, to Paul, through the cross. This union caused Paul to
write, in the same letter to the Galatians, other words as well, no less strong: "But
far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world
has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
The witnesses of the cross and resurrection were convinced that "through many
tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." And Paul, writing to the
Thessalonians, says this: "We ourselves boast of you..for your steadfastness and
faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is
evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of
God, for which you are suffering." Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is,
at the same time, to suffer for the kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before
His judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this kingdom.
Through their sufferings, in a certain sense they repay the infinite price of the passion
and death of Christ, which became the price of our Redemption: at this price the kingdom
of God has been consolidated anew in human history, becoming the definitive prospect of
man's earthly existence. Christ has led us into this kingdom through His suffering. And
also through suffering those surrounded by the mystery of Christ's Redemption became
mature enough to enter this kingdom.
Excerpted and abridged from John Paul II's letter on the Christian Meaning of Human
Suffering, Salvifici doloris, 11 February 1984.
View the complete
text of Salvifici Doloris from the EWTN Online Services ftp site.
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