If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.
LUKE 9:23 NASB
Life is misery. Anyone who tells you differently is self-deluded or lying. Granted, there are some who fortune has blessed with a pleasant existence, but this pleasantness is nothing more than a mental escape from reality. At first, it begins with some shallow entertainment then moves to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Finally, there is the emptiness. We can understand why a starving orphan in the third world would conclude that life is misery, but it boggles the mind when some self-indulgent celebrity millionaire comes to the same conclusion and offs himself. When the fortunate in this world's goods conclude that life is not worth living, what does that say to the rest of us?
The reason life is so miserable for so many people is not the presence or absence of worldly goods or pleasures but the absence of God. Man truly does not live by bread alone. People need God. There is no substitute for God. The vain pursuit of worldly things is the futile quest in search of a substitute for God. The most vivid and potent example of this futility is the drug addict. Drugs are the best things this world offers because they bypass all the channels to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. It's much easier to buy some crack than a mansion. Yet, we consider the addict to be the most miserable of creatures.
The least miserable of creatures is the saint. The saint has God. The saint loves God with the purest of loves. Yet, they suffer the most in this life. Often, this suffering may be self-inflicted through practices of mortification or simply comes as a consequence of refusing to play by the world's rules. To be a saint is to suffer in this world. Yet, despite this suffering, they are the only ones we can say are truly happy.
Life gives us a choice. Option A is to have all the world offers except God. Option B is to have God and suffer whatever this world throws at you. This choice is stark. It is the choice Christ presents to us when He tells us to take up our crosses. Some Protestants may try and soften this teaching or even deny it altogether with their prosperity heresies and being "too blessed to be stressed." But they are preaching a false gospel. St. Paul blasts this in 1 Corinthians 1:23 when he states bluntly that he and the others "preach Christ crucified." There is no Option C where you have both God and the good things in this world. Even those who are blessed in this life are called to give up those things.
This choice between God and the world may seem like a raw deal, but it isn't. Jesus clearly states in John 10:10, " The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." This abundant life seems like a cruel joke when you are suffering hardship and persecution. But the life of the world is not the life of the soul. When the soul is sad, no pleasure in the world can ever satisfy it. The end is death, and we witness this every time some poor soul opts for suicide. Conversely, when the soul is happy, no calamity can ever disturb this happiness. We witness this when martyrs choose Christ over life itself.
For most of us, the martyrdom is a smaller but daily choice to suffer. The suffering of Job was so acute because he did not understand why he suffered. But in the light of the cross, we have what Job lacked. We understand what Job did not. Job didn't get it. Yet, he still trusted in God. If Job could do it without understanding, we should be able to do it with understanding.
When I was a Protestant, I couldn't understand it. Faced with suffering, I lost my faith. My faith rested on the sand of Protestant heresy, and the winds and the rains came down on it. And my faith fell with a mighty crash. Protestants don't get suffering. I remember reading the work of evangelical author Philip Yancey on the issue of suffering. His answers were the most hollow thing I ever encountered in my Protestant days. The reason for this hollowness is because suffering has no value in Protestant theology. Yet, suffering is essential in Catholic theology. To suffer is to cease to be Protestant.
I escaped Protestantism by becoming atheist. Atheists will offer many arguments as to why there is no God, but they are all demolished until you are left with the last argument. Why does an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil and suffering to exist? The reasoning goes that God is either deficient in goodness or power. Or, He is simply not there. The atheist chooses atheism because he cannot abide the heresy of an impotent or evil God. This is why I became an atheist. I chose atheism because it was more real than Protestantism. But atheism is not reality.
Becoming Catholic was to encounter a reality more real than my stark atheism. When Marx calls religion the opiate of the masses, I have to laugh at the absurdity. This is certainly true of Protestantism but fails when it comes to Catholicism. I thought atheism was as real as it gets. But my introduction to Catholicism was an encounter with something that I can only describe as more real than real. This was Christ crucified.
Suffering was an essential component of Christianity. Heaven is for those who suffer. That suffering will either be here or in the fire of purgatory. Atheism produces numbness in your soul such that you feel nothing. Protestantism makes you sensitive to suffering but turns you into a wimp. Catholicism turns up the pain, but it gives you the grace to endure it. This is that abundant life Jesus was talking about.
There are prelates in the Catholic Church today who think that they need to soften the message a bit. They need to make it less stark and painful. They call this softening "mercy." God is merciful because He forgives. But the cross remains. We are to carry it. We have to choose to suffer. For the person with same sex attraction, this means celibacy. For the person in a bad marriage, this means fidelity. For the person in an illicit second marriage, this is repentance and abstinence. To cease suffering is to become Protestant. Any prelate who teaches this false mercy and preaches Christ not crucified is a Protestant in Catholic garb. They have rejected the cross and now teach others the same rejection.
To love Christ is to suffer in this world. But to not have Christ is to suffer in your soul. The soul is more important than the body. To be a living sacrifice is to choose the soul over the body. The choice is to either live in order to die or to die in order to live. I hate the world. There is not a day that goes by that I am not filled with horror and disgust at what this world offers. At its best, this life is simply empty. At its worst, life snuffs out everything except the light that comes from God's grace. The only way out of this life of misery is through God.
When you make the choice to carry your cross, you learn that its burden is light. That is the paradox of it all. This is why many martyrs could happily go to their deaths even cracking jokes along the way. I suspect that they consider the absurdity of being murdered by people who are themselves going to die. Legend has it that Pontius Pilate killed himself in Gaul during the reign of Caligula between 37-41 AD. He may have died under different circumstances. The one thing that is certain is that Pilate is dead. The people that kill us jettison us from a life that is a hell. I can handle being tossed out of Hell and thrown into Heaven. This is martyrdom.
You should feel comfort at this point in the essay. That is the beauty and the paradox of the cross. As painful as it is, it brings sweet relief to the soul. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. That is life. The only places in this world that I find happiness and comfort are in the sanctuaries of my parish and my home. The rest of the world can go to Hell, and it will. I just don't care. I have had what the world offers, and it doesn't amount to anything. I have made my choice, and I hope that I have helped you make your choice.