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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Redemptive Suffering and Abuse

August 24, 2010 by  
Filed under Anonymous, Suffering

Dear Father Edward, does the idea of redemptive suffering apply only to physical suffering or does it also extend to submission to emotional/mental/spiritual suffering that comes from an abusive relationship? If I am the target of regular mistreatment by my husband and I offer it up, is this the same as redemptive suffering?

redemptive suffering and abuseDear friend, it sounds like your situation is very challenging. I will do my best to answer your question and I will pray for peace and resolution for you and your family. I would also like to ask all of our readers to join in prayer for you and all those who find themselves in these very painful situations.

The concept of redemptive suffering can certainly apply to suffering that is emotional, mental or spiritual. Each of us is a unity of body and soul, and suffering of the soul is every bit as real as physical suffering — sometimes more so. Emotional suffering includes situations like having to watch a loved one struggle with a terminal illness. Mental suffering can include cases of chronic depression. Spiritual suffering could include the “dark night of the soul,” where a devout person has a deep sense of loneliness or desolation, to the point of feeling abandoned by God. (In this last case the Almighty is actually purifying the soul.)

Quite separate from these is the case that involves emotional/mental/spiritual suffering in an abusive relationship.  An abusive relationship is unhealthy both for the one being abused, and also for the one who is abusing. Therefore, the truly loving thing to do is to find a way to end the abuse. This may involve seeking psychological or pastoral help for yourself and, if possible, for your husband. The abuse indicates that he likely has deep-seated issues that need attention and healing. Moreover, your own psychic (and physical) health faces risks from long-term exposure to abuse. Thus, a wife owes it to herself and her family to seek outside help. In the meantime, you should also do what you can to remove yourself and your children from harm’s way.

The Church is actually quite clear about this. The Code of Canon Law in No. 1153 §1 states

A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by a decree of the local Ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her own authority.” Regular  mistreatment is a violation of justice and charity; it is a wrong that should be resisted and, with the help of God’s grace, righted.

Do not think that this course of action is some kind of spiritual cop out. Taking steps to protect yourself and your family from current abuse, and actively seeking ways to help resolve the underlying causes of your husband’s behavior are not easy tasks. They will be painful on many levels, and that suffering – the internal suffering caused by the challenge of trying to right this wrong – will indeed be redemptive, as you unite it through prayer and the sacraments to Christ’s own suffering on the cross.

Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC

Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.

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Art for this post on redemptive suffering and abuse: Modified detail of Long Suffering, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Wonderful counsel, Father. I’m so happy you posted this. God bless you abundantly.

  • LizEst

    Thank you for posting this Father Edward. There are many who are unfamiliar with what the Church says regarding this type of situation. I know of clergy/religious that have counseled the opposite, advising the abused victim to stay with the abuser and “offer it up.” Your write-up is like a breath of fresh-air. God bless you for bringing clarity to this issue.

  • Guest

    Fr. Edward, thank you for this wonderful reply to this suffering sister. You have clarified the Church’s stand on such situations and what one can do to help themselves most appropriately. For sure, many will benefit from your advice. God bless you

  • Ralyge

    Great article. Very balanced. I would like to see more articles that address the spiritual and psychological overlap to determine God’s will in terms of a “healthy” solution. Gregory Popcack and John Eldredge are some of my favorite authors.

  • kara

    I feel for this woman. I did not truly understand the churches teaches on this subject,but after talking with my pastor realized I did have a choice. I found outside help to first bring myself to an understanding that this assault on my emotional person wasn’t what God would want. Although marriage vows state ‘for better or worse’, when the ‘worse’ is of someone’s own making it is not healthy to stay. By leaving my husband I forced him to make a decision about his own behavior. Although this step was very hard and very scary for me, it was very emotionally and spiritually uplifting as well. I felt God sending me in the direction he wanted me to go, for in the beginning all I wanted was a divorce. Now my husband and I are back together and working at our marriage. We are starting from scratch at trying to build a healthy relationship for us and our children. May the grace of God be with this woman and all those who suffer at the hands (or words) of others.

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