Suffering can be a good thing. Sometimes the Lord can allow us to suffer for our own good. Scripture reinforces this fact many times. "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2-3) "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
Although it is never pleasant at the time, suffering can be so good for us that the Lord will sometimes inflict it on us for our own good. "For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness." (Hebrews 12:5-10)
If we are honest enough, most of us can think of some kind of trial that we went through which, in retrospect, was the best thing for us. If we can't think of such a trial, it's usually because we're not thinking hard enough.
Our heavenly Father would probably rather not discipline us as St. Paul states above. However, being the fallen creatures we are, we usually need it. In fact one could argue that our tribulations and sufferings are practically necessary to enter heaven. "…through many trials and tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22)
This is not to confuse the events God must use to sanctify us with the saving suffering of Jesus Christ. He suffered once for us all. Rather, these tribulations can lead us to a growth in holiness.
One can easily imagine, and each of us may actually know: A greedy man made generous through the loss of money; A proud man made humble through some humiliation; A strong, and arrogant man made to love others through some debilitation.
The scriptures state this directly "…knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope,…" (Romans 5:3-5)
The fact that trials and tribulations can improve character is so proven that it is almost a cliché. Even many of our Protestant brothers and sisters have accepted this fact and acknowledge that the Lord may send some trials our way to improve us.
Now then, who can find someone today who has improved to the point of perfection? Will the person who has achieved utter spiritual perfection please raise his or her hand. Will the person who is completely perfect please contact us. No human, with the possible exception of the Blessed Mother, has ever achieved absolute perfection this side of the grave.
Yet we have the commandment from our Lord "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) Before we enter the New Jerusalem of Heaven we must be made clean since "nothing unclean shall enter it" (Revelation 21:27). Who would want to be around us, the way we are now, for all eternity anyway?
We are all sinners here on earth, and we all have a propensity to sin because of our fallen human nature. We will be perfect when we are in heaven. How do we get from the imperfect condition to the perfect condition? This is where purgatory comes in. We need purgatory to continue our growth in holiness. We need that spiritual discipline "that we may share His holiness". (Hebrews 12:10)
It only makes sense. There is no reason to expect that the processes of spiritual improvement will end when we die. Therefore, there is no reason to expect that the tribulations, the "discipline" as St. Paul describes it, will automatically cease and desist at the moment of death.
Far from being a harsh doctrine, purgatory is comforting. Whatever shortcomings we may have will be worked away, so that we may be presented "without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing". (Jude 24) Purgatory will most likely not be a pleasant experience, but then "all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:11)
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, November 2004.