Redemptive suffering is the Catholic belief that human suffering, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can remit the just punishment for one's sins or for the sins of another, or for the other physical or spiritual needs of oneself or another. Like an indulgence, redemptive suffering does not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness results from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, which cannot be earned. After one's sins are forgiven, the individual's suffering can reduce the penalty due for sin.
- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
It is believed that Jesus freed mankind from the bondage of sin:
- "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." (Epistle to the Galatians 5:1)
Thus one may consider that God paid for mankind's freedom from sin in His human incarnation:
- "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." (First Epistle to the Corinthians 6:20)
The belief is that the price that God, in Jesus, paid for the redemption of mankind, is the Passion, that is, his suffering and agony that led directly to his Crucifixion. Christians believe that, as members of the Church, they are members of the body of Jesus Christ:
- "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another." (Epistle to the Romans 12:4–5)
- "Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of a harlot? God forbid." (1 Cor 6:15)
Hence, orthodox Catholic theology presents the belief that our suffering can be united to that of Christ and so in union with His Passion:
- "As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross." (Gospel of Matthew 27:32)
- "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Epistle to the Colossians 1:24)
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the "one mediator between God and men". But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, "the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to "take up [their] cross and follow (him)",[Mt.16:24] for "Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps."[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. "Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven".[a quote from St. Rose of Lima]
Life presents the ordinary human being with ample unasked-for occasions to practice redemptive suffering. However, religious practitioners in various traditions have found spiritual benefits from voluntarily bringing upon themselves additional pain and discomfort through corporal mortification. One extreme example of redemptive suffering, which existed in the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, was the Flagellants. As a partial response to the Black Death, these radicals, who were later condemned as heretics in the Catholic Church, engaged in body mortification, usually by whipping themselves, to repent for their sins, which they believed led to the Black Death. The Flagellants quickly developed a large following throughout Central Europe, as they undertook militant pilgrimages across parts of the continent.
The notion that suffering is or can be redemptive has been criticized, such as by self-described "aesthetic Catholic" George Santayana, who wrote that "If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved."