During an incredibly difficult season, I remember calling someone close to me to lament my circumstances, and they responded with something like, “you have to find a way to thank God.” I think I hung up the phone right then and there. Thank God? I wanted to yell at God. I felt trapped and suffocated by pain. I couldn’t see past the present moment, had no idea how I would survive the challenges I was facing. I imagined the path set before me changing significantly and the scenery draining of all color.
In western culture, it is common to feel like we need to avoid suffering at all costs, to believe that it has no meaning, and that pleasure is the highest value. These messages insidiously creep into our consciousness through social media, advertisements, movies, television, everything. Remember when COVID started, and it seemed as though people were engaging in a ‘who can quarantine the best’ competition? Yeah – we (in the western world) often don’t know how to deal with suffering or adversity. We are led to believe that if our life is going to be meaningful, it must go well for us – that is the only point of life because the best we can hope for is that we flourish and enjoy life before we die. If that is the case, why in the world would you give thanks when your life is falling apart? If that is the case, the majority of the world right now is losing the game. If that is the case, so many of our lives are meaningless.
In Psalm 73 (one of my favorite psalms), the writer wrestles with questions that often plague us when we’re suffering – I can practically hear my voice behind the psalm as I read it. Why do horrible people seem to live such comfortable lives? Why does my life suck; why is it so painful even when I am doing everything right? “Every morning brings me pain,” the psalmist writes (v.14)
Paul, one of the early messengers of Jesus, wrote a letter to the church in Philippi from prison as he was awaiting trial, and possibly execution. Did you catch that? He is writing from prison. His circumstances are bleak; in fact, he confesses it would probably be better for him if he just died – that is not something I imagine him flippantly confessing. Paul unashamedly wrestles through his sorrow in this letter. He encourages them not to worry about anything, pray about everything, and thank God for everything God has done (Phil 4:6). Again, why and how do we thank God while the ground beneath us crumbles?
In Psalm 73, something shifts when the psalmist goes into God’s sanctuary (v.17). In the presence of God, the psalmist’s vision expands and their heart overflows with praise. For Paul, suffering is not meaningless – it is a privilege. He focuses his efforts on one thing: becoming one with Christ. Elsewhere, he writes that suffering produces character, and character produces hope (Rom 5:4). Even though we might be tempted to focus on life here, Paul reminds the church that one day Jesus will return and resurrect their bodies (Phil 3:29).
Amid adversity, when the world around us seems bleak and our lives feel meaningless, as we draw near to God’s loving presence, we can rest assured that our lives are not meaningless – we embody meaning as the pinnacle of creation and the Divine’s beloved. When we wrestle through suffering, it can be difficult to understand where God is in the midst of it. As we grieve and lament, we often discover that God isn’t behind our suffering, but with us in the pit of despair. God grieves and laments with us, all the while working the unexpected plot twists into a story of redemption and using suffering to make us more like Jesus (which is the real point of life). Like Paul and the Psalmist, we find comfort in God’s loving presence, meaning in the mission of becoming more like Jesus, and hope in the promise of the resurrected life.
If you find yourself at a loss while trying to practice gratitude, consider instead taking time to sit with Jesus and bask is his love for you. Share your frustrations, fears, and pain with God through prayer, journaling, art, etc. You may try recounting everything he has done for you or meditating on the resurrection. What would it look like to allow God to meet you and gently lead you through lament to joy and gratitude?
Grace Spencer is the Lead Pastor at Reunion Oakville. Recently graduated from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in California, Grace wrote her interdisciplinary thesis called, Naked and Unashamed: Using restorative justice to develop a biblical theology of shame and equip the church for the criminal justice reentry crisis.
Grace is a gifted preacher and theologian.