Thanks and Suffering
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Thessalonians 5:18 is a verse that will be quoted by many a pastor as we move toward the Thanksgiving holiday. Clergy might also draw from the book of Psalms where the phrase “give thanks” appears some 20 times in the New Revised Standard Version. With the right language now in hand, I could easily continue with a rather fluffy piece with all the standard wishes for a happy Thanksgiving. No doubt I have followed that path before. This year, however, I want to recognize that giving thanks is not always so easy. It takes little effort to give thanks when all is well. Yet for those who suffer and struggle, the task is not a simple endeavor.
The loss of a loved one, a difficult diagnosis, the breakdown of relationships; such things can cause us to lose sight of the good in our lives. Despite such things, good remains. Even so, the words of thanks and praise which we seem to speak so easily in one moment become hard to find in the next. At times one might even question if God is worthy of thanks and praise at all. Some are tempted to doubt more than God’s character, but God’s very existence.
This crisis is nothing new, of course. We have wrestled with the reality of suffering for millennia. For generations we have asked, “Why?” and for generations theologians have sought to offer understanding. Yet in the midst of suffering, an abstract theological treatment does not often suffice. There are moments when a detached discussion of ideas is welcome. It is important that we have those conversations and I will offer some thoughts here in due time. But there are other moments in which no answer will satisfy. Despite one’s best intent, waxing theological does little to alleviate the suffering of another.
We would do far better to offer compassion to those who cry from the depths, rather than instruction. It is far better to lend one’s hand to support and comfort than to lend one’s voice to lecture. Understanding does not remove the reality of suffering, but the simple act of walking alongside another in the midst of it can make suffering easier to bear. This is our primary task as followers of Jesus.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis addresses the issue of suffering. He too seems dissatisfied with abstract answers alone.
When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.
Our theological framework is important. Equally so the shape and character of our lives. When those who suffer question the presence of God, our first task is to be God’s hands and feet in their lives. When those who suffer question the love of God, our first task is to embody that love ourselves.
In the face of human suffering, we live as if to say, “I don’t fully understand why this is happening, but I believe that God has sent me to you. I believe God has sent me to you to walk by your side, to sit by your bed, to hold your hand, and to mingle my tears with your own.”
If you are one for whom giving thanks is easy in this present moment, consider the words above. Into whose life might you speak them? I don’t mean for you to speak them in any literal sense, but through the living of your lives and the ordering of your days.
For those who are suffering, for those looking for God and struggling to find him, look again at those who are gathering by your side. Might they be God’s instruments? Perhaps God is hard to find because we tend to look toward far off places and fail to recognize him in those who so readily offer their love and care.
The question remains, however, how do we reconcile our faith in a good and gracious God with the reality of suffering in our world? I cannot answer this question exhaustively, but humbly, I offer a few thoughts.
I begin by differentiating between two categories of suffering. There is first of all, suffering related to human agency, free will, and choice. There are the obvious acts of violence, hatred, and warmongering. We are well aware of that these days. Systemic causes of suffering are also greatly influenced by individual human decision. We hoard resources when others have none. We consume products because they are cheap without thinking about the working conditions that made those prices possible. Too often the ease and comforts we enjoy, seek, and even demand are built upon the exploitation of others. Free will can be a dangerous thing but it is also a necessary thing if God’s highest hope for creation is ever to be attained.
That hope includes love; and love, self-less God-like love, requires human freedom. The love we see modeled in Jesus Christ, is a choice to act for someone else’s good even when it costs us to do so. Could God force us to choose what is right? Perhaps. But what then of love? It seems our best hope here is the transformation of the human Spirit, something at the heart of the Christian gospel.
The second category of human suffering includes tragedy, disaster, and disease. It is not always clear however, to which of these categories suffering belongs. A car accident is sometime the result of conscious human choice. Our health is influenced by our lifestyles. Current scientific understandings suggest that our climate is influence by human choices.
Even so, despite the best of choices, suffering happens. So long as creation remains in bondage to death and decay this will be inevitable. In one way or another this reality touches upon the lives of all.
We sometimes assume that if tragedy, disaster, and disease were removed from this world, we would live all our days in some sort of utopia, but without the transformation of the human spirit it is just as possible that we might find new ways to harm one another. There is something about the condition of our world that actually draws humanity together. At the same time, the challenges we face cause us to look beyond ourselves, to lift our eyes to the hills (c.f Psalm 121).
Scripture says that creation was subjected to futility in hope that creation itself will be set free. (c.f. Romans 8:20). From this verse and those that follow we are reminded that no matter the circumstances, God’s purposes for our world and souls are not thwarted, and that those purposes are good. Romans 8 offers many thoughts on the subject of suffering; among them, the assertion that whatever the nature of our suffering, it will not compare with the glory that is to come. What a comfort.
Suffering is a reality in our world, but there is no reason to conclude that God is indifferent or non-existent. We not only insist that God is, but that God cares deeply and is even now moving all of creation (including us) toward a good we cannot yet perceive. At the heart of this work is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In him we discover that God has not only NOT abandoned us but in love, God has actually stepped into this world to suffer alongside us. In Jesus, God suffers alongside us. The moment God took upon himself a mortal frame his fate was sealed. One way or another he would be caught up in this world’s bondage to death and decay. In Jesus, God makes this fallen world the very instrument of our salvation.
These arguments alone, do not answer our every question nor do they bring instant comfort. Yet they do make it clear that the reality of human suffering does not require the abandonment of faith, nor does it necessarily undermine the notion of a good and gracious God. They also bring into clarity our choices.
Either the world and our lives are marked with suffering and any hope we might cling to is an illusion, or hope is real and God is indeed present and at work in ways we do not understand. There is a stark contrast between these choices. It is the choice between utter despair and an eternal hope. I choose hope.
These are difficult issues. I don’t know why individual lives and the whole of history unfold as they do - “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6) - but I choose hope over despair. I do so even when hope’s horizon is beyond the scope of my vision. My hope is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the victory won for us. That victory is not a victory over our present sufferings (remember: In Jesus God suffers alongside us), but over the finality of those sufferings.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is in Him and Him alone, that one is able to give thanks in all circumstances.
I do pray you find yourself able to give thanks this season but also I invite you once more to look for those who are struggling. Look for those whom you might love and serve in God’s name. Perhaps through your doing so, they will rediscover reasons to give thanks themselves. Perhaps Paul would approve of my adaptation: Be a reason for another to give thanks, in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Yours in Christ,