illnessI'm just recovering from a month of bronchitis. One could say it was all bad. And I'm very tempted to do so. But what does our faith teach us?

"Offer it up!" The Catholics say. But what does that really mean? It can sound so cruel and uncaring, unless uttered with love and received with deep understanding. Is the single mother, dying of cancer, with three young children, supposed to just offer it up?

The good news is that by imbuing our suffering with meaning and power through our prayer intentions, we can alleviate that suffering, to a degree, with the knowledge that we are literally helping God save souls.

Hell on earth is living with bitter, meaningless pain. Suffering imbued with meaning and prayer lifts us and others closer to heaven. But in moments of intensity, pious prayers can blow out the window, and all we can say is, "I can't take it anymore, God!" Help me, please!" or "^%%*@!"

It's perfectly okay to want to be healed, to want things to get better, and to work towards and ask God for this. God works through aspirin, too. Let us not forget how many times Jesus healed people in mind, spirit, and body, or his plea in the Garden of Gesthemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”

Yet when all means of healing and betterment are exhausted and suffering remains, the best we can do is use it well. When a priest came up to St. Pope John Paul II, because he had enormous pain in his knee and needed surgery, he said, "Holy Father, please pray for my knee," John Paul struck the priest in the face!—and said to him, "Don’t waste your suffering!" I'm afraid I threw a bit of my suffering away this past month. When my pain became intense, I admit, my only prayer was, "Make it stop, please!"

St. Faustina Kowalska, the saint of Divine Mercy, had the following vision. First she saw Jesus crucified on the cross. Then three groups of people appeared before her. Those in the first group, primarily made up of religious—meaning priests, brothers, and nuns—were fastened to their crosses. The people in the second were not fastened to their crosses but willingly carried them. The third group dragged their crosses behind them, discontented—no doubt, complaining. I'm embarrassed to say which category I usually fall into.

Suffering for God is spiritual power. It often comes before, during, or after an apostolic work, which helps souls get closer to heaven. God uses this suffering to effect glorious results through different ministries, especially when hardship is offered up willingly as a sacrifice.

When we "offer it up" and unite our sufferings with those of Christ, we are in that first group, the group agreeing to be fastened to our cross. But didn't Jesus still do the job? you might ask.

Yes. Our suffering is not ransoming souls, which Jesus already did. But it is "buying" precious graces to be used for suffering souls, sinning souls, bitter souls, dying, victimized, abused souls—souls on the brink of hell. The alcoholic who suddenly realizes the need to get sober, the child who finds her way out of an abusive situation, the bomb that wasn't dropped, the soul who repents on his deathbed—these are the gifts that grace "purchases." That is why saints who suffered constantly, like St. Padre Pio, or St. Catherine of Siena, or Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta were miracle workers. There is no such thing as cheap grace.

And for each hardship we give to Jesus, offered through our prayer, God repays us in a spectacular fashion. Think of how our hearts swell with awe and thanksgiving when a child makes a sacrifice for us out of love. Then imagine how much more our Father's Heart fills with tender love and gratitude towards us.

Copyright 2014 Christine Watkins