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.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Your last paragraph is powerful, Ellen. That type of thinking is monstrous indeed!

    You made three great points here, and got me thinking about James 1:2-3 & 12. (“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. … Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”) James doesn’t say we mistake trials for things we should enjoy because of what we eventually gain. He calls it like it is: these are TRIALS! He just tells us to take the long view.

    Paul says much the same in Romans 5:3-5. (“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”) He doesn’t sugar-coat it, but reminds us that God the Holy Spirit is with us in those hard times. That doesn’t mean the times aren’t hard, just that we are not in them alone, right?


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