From the beginning people have been bad and deserve to be punished. In fact, we all deserve hell. Still, God didn’t want to send everybody to hell so he sent Jesus to earth and punished him instead. Since Jesus was God, he could take it. After that people who believe in Jesus, don’t complain and do what they were told can go to heaven. That sums up what I believed about Jesus, suffering and redemption when I was a kid. It was how disobedience and punishment were handled at home and at school. Whenever things were hard, someone: parent, relative or teacher told me to just offer it up – that is, tell God to add it to Jesus’ sufferings that were keeping us all out of hell.
I was in graduate school before I realized that my way of thinking about suffering and redemption wasn’t the only Catholic way of seeing things. There are and have been lots of ways Catholics understand how Jesus “freed” us from sin. As long as we respond to Jesus’ demonstration of God’s absolute love for us and unite ourselves with God’s work of making creation just and loving, we’ve got the message regardless of how we explain it.
What do we make of suffering in our faith then? It’s like suffering in other aspects of life. Parents don’t fixate on the suffering of being a parent. A parent’s suffering doesn’t make their child thrive. Suffering doesn’t make a student a successfully educated person. A lineman’s suffering doesn’t win games for an NFL team. Suffering isn’t the mechanism of success. Suffering is simply a cost of doing business. It’s not beneficial in itself – not for parents, NFL linemen, Christians or for Jesus.
We’ve merged the ideas of suffering and sacrifice to the extent that we have equated Jesus’ sacrifice with his suffering. If Pilate had interviewed Jesus and decided not to calm a few Jerusalem power-brokers by executing a threat to their control, would Jesus have been any less a revelation of God’s love. The foundation of our faith and the essence of Jesus’ sacrifice is God’s love for us that he revealed.