Suffering in Marriage

Catholic humor: “What are the seven Sacraments? Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick, Holy orders and….(wait for it) martyrdom (Marriage) 🙂 LOL.”

“Marriage is an adventure. Like going to war.” -GK Chesterton

Dr. David Anders, PhD

Francis de Sales is another saint and Doctor of the Church who warned against the danger of Catholic superstition. His great book Introduction to the Devout Life begins by dismissing superstitious forms of religious life. True devotion, he teaches, is not found specifically in the multiplication of prayers, fasting, self-denial, or gifts to the poor. True devotion, rather, is founded in love toward God and neighbor:

All true and living devotion presupposes the love of God; — and indeed it is neither more nor less than a very real love of God, though not always of the same kind; for that Love, one while shining on the soul, we call grace, which makes us acceptable to His Divine Majesty; — when it strengthens us to do well, it is called Charity; — but when it attains its fullest perfection, in which it not only leads us to do well, but to act carefully, diligently, and promptly, then it is called Devotion.34

…The Catholic Church saved my marriage by teaching us how to think about marriage, parenthood, and the moral life. The Church saved us by offering us grace in the sacraments. She saved us by proposing the saints as models of holiness. She saved us by sending wonderful priests to accompany us in our struggles, religious who served our family, and friends in the Faith who loved us. But none of that would have worked if the Church had not also taught us how to pray.

…The point of life is ennobling spiritual friendship with God and neighbor. We cannot possibly achieve that goal without a willingness to embrace suffering — even the suffering of an unhappy marriage.

…the Catholic Faith asks something of us that is far more mysterious and more difficult: The Church asks us willingly to endure some suffering even when there is no promise of tangible benefit. But what She does promise is that this suffering can be redeemed beyond time and space and in ways we cannot presently understand.

…I mentioned that some parts of Catholic tradition are applicable to anyone, but other parts cannot be accepted without embracing the whole Catholic worldview. The Catholic teaching on suffering is one of those parts that does not make sense without belief in God, the Church, the sacraments, and the Catholic plan of salvation. It lies right at the mysterious heart of Catholic spirituality. But it is also the Catholic teaching that is most sublime and elevating, and that has the greatest capacity to transform our lives.

How can willingly endured suffering radically transform our lives? Answering this question takes us into the core of the Catholic Faith — into the Eucharist, the communion of saints, penance, purgatory, indulgences, and all those beliefs and practices that non-Catholics find so difficult. It also carries us straight to Christ and to salvation.

Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). To appreciate fully the Catholic teaching on suffering, we must understand why Jesus died on the Cross and how the benefits of His death and Resurrection are communicated to us. We must understand how our suffering, willingly and faithfully endured, connects us to Christ. In so doing, we will also better understand our connection to Our Lady of Sorrows, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who also willingly endured suffering. She is the model Christian, who prayed, “Be it done to me according to Thy word” (see Luke 1:38).

Why did Christ die? We need to understand the depth of Catholic doctrine on this subject to appreciate the Church’s teaching on suffering. One of the most common questions I have gotten in my work in Catholic radio is this: “Since Jesus paid the penalty for my sins on the Cross, why should I have to do anything to be saved? Why should I have to suffer?”

Protestants and Catholics have very different ideas about the death of Christ, and the problem is that many, and perhaps most, people know only the Protestant doctrine. Growing up Protestant, I learned that my sin moved God to anger and that His wrath had to be appeased by blood sacrifice. My church taught that the Crucifixion was a vicarious punishment: God agreed to punish an innocent victim, treating Him as if He were guilty of my offense. In exchange, if I had faith, I would get off scot-free. All my sins are “paid for,” and there is nothing left for me to do.

Protestants use the theological term “imputation” to describe this exchange: God “imputes” my sin to Christ, treating Him as if He were guilty, and He in turn “imputes” Christ’s righteousness to the believer, treating him as if he were innocent. This is the core theological difference between Protestants and Catholics, and it is what grounds the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It is also what makes it very difficult for Protestants to appreciate the Catholic understanding of suffering.

If this is what Christ’s death means, then the Catholic teaching on suffering really does seem absurd. Even if I suffer for righteousness’ sake, the Protestant thinks, I can’t add anything to the death of Christ. Faith alone connects me to Jesus, and Jesus has already “paid it all.” Why should I bother? It is true that many Protestants have suffered heroically for their beliefs, but the theological dilemma remains. What can suffering do for me if I am connected to Christ by faith alone?

The Catholic Church understands the death of Christ differently. The Bible simply does not describe this ultimate moment as a vicarious punishment imposed by God. Scripture refers to the death of Christ instead as a sacrifice and a ransom, modeled after and in fulfillment of the sacrifices of the Old Testament.

…The heart of sacrifice is not vicarious punishment, but willingly giving up something of value. It was costly for the Jews to give up goats and bulls. It is even more costly to give up my pride, my lusts, or even my own self-determination. Mary gave up the right to direct her own life when she gave her fiat to the angel of the Lord. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come . . . not to do My will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). [Ed. so are we!]

…The death of Christ was not a vicarious punishment that satisfied the wrath of an angry God, but the ultimate act of self-giving, of martyrdom, and of testimony to the truth for love of God and neighbor. And therefore, it was infinitely meritorious.

How does the death of Christ benefit us? If it was not a vicarious punishment imposed by God, then what does it do for me? Let’s focus on three things that Scripture teaches on this subject: First, Christ’s death is an example to us; second, Christ’s death merits for us the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit; and third, we die with Christ in baptism and are born again with Him to new life.

…The Catholic Church sees the death of Christ as a mystical sacrifice that pleases God and transforms us. When we are joined to Christ through faith and baptism, we die and rise with Him; our hearts are changed; we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; our sins are forgiven; and we receive power to live a holy life in imitation of His. We receive salvation because we can now say, along with Jesus and His Mother, “Be it done to Me/me according to Thy word. I have come not to do My/my will, but the will of Him who sent Me/me(Ed. capitalization for the Lord).”

God redeems suffering that is willingly endured for righteousness’ sake. That is the message of the gospel and that is what the death of Christ means. The power of salvation that flows into us in the sacraments is the power to embrace noble suffering for the love of God.

How do we embrace that power and make it our own? Now we are coming to the real heart of Catholic prayer and the sacramental life — and the profound difference between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. The message of the gospel is that we “become Christ” (Ed. metaphor, not literally Jesus, but in imitation of Jesus). His life is not merely imputed to us; rather, it becomes ours, inwardly transforming us. And this can happen only through prayer. (Ed. cf Rm 8:26)”

Anders, Dr. David. The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony (p. 148-154). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.


34 Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, ed. W. H. Hutchings (London: Rivingtons, 1882), 2–3.