God, Gratitude and Suffering: The Basics

On this day in which we remember another September 11—a day on which too many people had to ask that terrible question, “Why?” “Why me?” “Why him or her?” “Why us?”—a few thoughts on the nature of suffering and gratitude.

1. Scripture advises us to be grateful in all things, not for all things.

From 1 Thessalonians 5— Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

The idea that “Everything happens for a reason” and that God orchestrates every circumstance and that we should thank God for the bad stuff because of the good that can come from it and that if we’re not grateful for every circumstance, even the sucky ones, then we’re being unfaithful? Yeah. Not Biblical.

And not so helpful either, especially to someone who is still clawing her way through the bad stuff and can’t even begin to imagine what good might come later on.

(Thanks to my friend Rachel Stone, who wrote so eloquently about the difference between gratitude in all things and for all things in several posts last week about our attitudes toward childbirth in the U.S.)

2. “All things work for the good of those who love the Lord. That doesn’t mean that all things are good.” –  John Swinton

From Romans 8:28 — And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

This summer, I attended the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A highlight was an evening session in which we got into an important discussion about how we perceive disabilities—as gifts, as burdens, as just the way things are. Many people said many wise things during that conversation (and the rest of the Institute), but this line from Scottish theologian John Swinton was the wisest.

3. Perhaps it is true that God does not give us more than we can handle, but the world (luck, circumstance, cruel people, natural disasters) often does.

The cliche “God does not give you more than you can handle” is, I believe, a misreading of 1 Corinthians 10:13 — “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”

But more important, the idea that the terrible things people have to bear, from unemployment and infertility to cancer and dead children, are given by (that is, are gifts from) a God who weighs what each of us can handle and doles out suffering based on the heartiness of our constitution, is beyond ludicrous. It is monstrous.

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