Gratitude in the Midst of Suffering

 

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good

His love endures forever

Psalm 136:1 NIV

 

Those who know our story will not be surprised to learn that my wife and I have a lot to be thankful for.  A year ago, she was recovering from a double mastectomy and COVID19, and we were waiting for test results that would determine whether she needed chemotherapy.  Today, she is healthy, and her doctors are optimistic about her future.

Nevertheless, we are also acutely aware of how difficult gratitude can be.  Obviously, people in various places around the world are living under the threat of war, oppression, and/or persecution, but even in our own communities there are suffering, heart-broken people.  For example, we have a friend who, as I write these words, is facing the prospect of a terminal diagnosis.  We have no idea how long she will live, and our grief for her tempers the joy we feel about our own situation.

How can we “give thanks” without denying the reality of suffering?  How can we experience and cultivate gratitude in the face of existential threat and excruciating pain?

 

Beginning with the Character of God

 

Psalm 136 was likely sung or chanted antiphonally.  Its recitation of God’s works is bound together by the refrain “His love endures forever.”  But it begins with a call to thanksgiving—one that is predicated on the character of God.

The affirmation of God’s goodness had deep roots in Israel’s religious consciousness.  Indeed, God himself had affirmed it as His most important character trait (cf. Exodus 33:18-20).  In our psalm, the worship leader calls the community to remember this foundational truth and to react accordingly.

Why would this reminder be necessary?  The reason is quite simple.  Israel was a worshiping community that had experienced a significant amount of trauma.  If the people began with their own experience, they might lose sight of why they were worshiping God or even reject Him all together.  Their faith might be overwhelmed by the individual, collective, and generational suffering they brought with them into the sanctuary.

If, however, they began with an affirmation of God’s character, they would have the resources to reframe their suffering.  That does not mean that the pain would go away or that all their questions would be answered.  It does mean, however, that they would be able to see manifestations of God’s goodness that might have otherwise escaped their notice.

 

Remembering the Past

 

And that brings us to a second point.  Gratitude in the midst of suffering often requires us to remember the past.  After reminding the congregation of who God is (vv. 2-3), the psalmist recites a long list of God’s works.  Some of these deeds benefit all of humanity, while others benefit the worshiping community.  In either case, these recitations draw the worshipers out of the “here and now” and remind them that they belong to a story that is much bigger than them.

We can benefit from such reminders, too.  It is so easy to forget how good God has been to us in the past, especially in the face of acute, present suffering.  Remembering how God has blessed us, and how He has worked on behalf of all humanity, can calm the rage in us and draw us into a more positive emotional framework.  And when we open our hearts, we find that God is not simply interested in our praise.  He is also interested in our pain.

 

Anticipating the Future

 

The psalm also invites the worshipers to be more than prisoners of their present or spectators to their past.  The refrain that ties the psalm together invites them to anticipate the future.  Just as the community’s reflections on the past are to be shaped by their understanding of God’s character, so also their anticipation of what God will do on their behalf is to be shaped by the truth that God’s “love” is so persistent and rugged that it cannot be extinguished.  And this point is made even more emphatically by the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:31-39).

As Professor Lynn Cohick so eloquently pointed out during Carroll’s Fall Colloquy, the martyrs of the second and third centuries provide us with a powerful example of how anticipation of a future guaranteed by God’s love and goodness can reshape a person’s perspective on suffering (as well as that of the whole worshiping assembly).  It was the eschatology of the martyrs that gave them the strength not only to endure hardship as a good soldier (to paraphrase Paul’s words from 2 Timothy 2:3) but also to give thanks for the opportunity to suffer on Christ’s behalf.

Perhaps we find ourselves a little unnerved by the attitudes reflected in the church’s martyr literature, but these saints of the past have something important to teach us.  As we grow in our acquaintance with God, we become more confident of His goodness, and as we become more confident that He really is good, we are more able to rest in the knowledge that our present suffering does not have the final word.  Jesus defeated sin, Satan, and death, and we can give thanks in advance for what his victory means for us—even if we do not see it in our present experience.

Published: Nov 23, 2023

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