Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

Thankful for Suffering

Thankful for Suffering?

One of my favorite stories of the Apostle Paul happened in the city of Philippi. Paul went to Philippi to spread the Gospel, to teach people about Christ. He was in the town square where he usually went to teach and preach, and once again Paul got in trouble for preaching about the love and grace of Jesus Christ. He was arrested. Now remember, Paul wasn’t violent; he wasn’t an imposing figure; he wasn’t a large man - the many times he is arrested he always goes willingly. However, for some reason when he is arrested in Philippi they are so worried about him that they take him in chains to the prison - which was actually a dungeon. They take Paul to the most secure portion of this dungeon, which was down several levels underground where it is dark and damp and full of vermin. Not only did they lock him in a prison cell in the farthest part of the prison, they also attached his chains to the wall and put his feet in stocks. Now, what is your mood going to be? I’m sure I would be vacillating between anger at the over reaction to my crime and fear at where I was and misery over my circumstances. And I know I would be whining…… How uncomfortable, if not painful, it would be to be shackled to a wall, sitting on a hard stone ledge with your feet up in stocks……. Yet, the Apostle Paul sits in this environment singing praises to Almighty God. Just think about that for a moment.
During this time of November we think about what the scriptures teach us about GivingThanks. Today we address what is probably the hardest aspect of giving thanks - giving thanks in all circumstances. We know we are to say “Thank You” when someone gives us something nice. We know we are to say “Thank You” when someone says something nice about us or does something nice for us, We say “Thanks” to God when something great happens to us. But our focus verse today is the passage from 1 Thessalonians where Paul says “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Does God really mean that in every circumstance that we are to be thankful? How can we possibly be thankful when things go horribly wrong? How can we see the blessing in the midst of tragedy that comes into our life?
There are three approaches to this verse in Thessalonians. The first one is to put on some sort of other-worldly expression of thanks that totally ignores the reality of what is happening around us. It is the person who is smiling in the midst of tragedy saying, “well praise God and give thanks in all things”. They come off as just being weird or a little crazy or on some type of mood altering drug. The second approach is that in the midst of tragedy there is an obvious ray of hope that allows us to be thankful - like when you totally destroy your car in an accident but no one is seriously hurt. Certainly we can be thankful for that. But that is a pretty obvious example and we as people of faith are taught that we need to focus on the blessing rather than the tragedy - we focus on the fact that everyone is OK instead of the fact that our car is totaled. This instance represents that Biblical teaching that we are to focus more on what God is doing for you than it is on what has gone wrong. It remembers the words of Paul when he says in the book of Philippians that he has learned to be content in all situations. He has learned that because he keeps his eyes on the sovereign Lord whom he serves and not on his own expectations or his own desires or even his own comforts he can give thanks.
But what do we do when the tragedy outweighs the blessing? It is easy to give thanks when the car is wrecked and you are not. You and your passengers are worth far more than the car. But what if that hadn’t been the case. What if there had been loss of life in that car crash? What if you suddenly lose a family member you are close to in some type of sudden accident or horrific disease? What do we do with the loss of a child? How could anyone give thanks fire or flood has taken everything you own? How can you give thanks when you see a high school devastated by a shooting? What about the young woman or the young child disfigured from abuse? What about when we are betrayed or disappointed by someone close to us; someone we love dearly? Does God really expect us to give thanks in situations like that?
And as difficult as it is for us to understand - the answer is “yes”.
These types of situations are the ultimate test of our ability to trust God no matter what.
They bring us to the same place as Job - where we find the ultimate story for God’s call “To give Thanks in all circumstances.”

Job was a good man. God thought Job was a good man so he must have truly been a good man. He had everything that anyone would associate with a good life. He had a lucrative source of income - land and livestock; he had a large close family, he had vast wealth. He was happy and content and we would call him a ‘religious’ man. He was close to God and lived for God. And in a matter of days he lost it all. The land, the livestock, his hired help, his family. Everything….. and then he finds himself covered with boils - that hurt and itched so bad he would break clay pots and use the pieces to try and scratch. There wasn’t anything else bad that could happen to him - even his wife came to him and said, “Why don’t you just die?” So his support system is not even there - his friends stop by and tell him that this is all his fault. So lets just make Job feel as bad as we can. There were no “I’m sorry’s” or “I’ll pray for you” or “We’re here to help you” - just accusations and insinuation that Job has led some secret dastardly life that has finally caught up with him. And what does Job say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away - Praise the Lord.”
Praise the Lord? He’s sitting in an ash heap at the edge of town and has nothing left of his life and his friends are harassing him and he is in serious pain and he says, “Praise the Lord?” Job continues to say, “Even though the Lord slay me, still I will trust him.” What God wants us to hear is that there comes a point in our lives when we can’t find that bit of blessing in the hardship, when the pain far outweighs the good we can see. It is at that point that all we have left is to trust in a sovereign God - a God that we believe with our whole being is still present and is still in charge and who knows our pain.
When we gather for worship, we gather in order to worship God for who he is and for what he has done. We worship God for his character as much as the amazing things he has done. Giving thanks in hard situations must follow that same wisdom. Even if we find it hard or even impossible to thank God for some specific thing in our lives we can still give thanks for who God is. Paul did not say to thank God ‘for’ every circumstance, but ‘in’ every circumstance and this distinction is very crucial. It means that even when you can’t find anything about the circumstance to be thankful for, you can and you must, still thank God for being there; for being present; for being in charge; for being sovereign. That is what ‘sovereign’ means - that no matter what is happening we know without a shadow of a doubt that God is present; that God knows what is going on and that God has control of the situation. You can still thank God for his love and mercy, even in a time when it feels so distant. You can still trust God as Job did and as Paul did. That trust becomes evident in thanking God for who He is even when what is going on makes no sense, is painful and leaves you bewildered and hurting and just devastated.
We need to remember that God never tells us to do anything without promising us that God will, not might, God will, be there to hold us up. Philippians 4 says:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Where God wants us to be is that when tragedy strikes, the first reaction is to cry out to God. Not thanking him that the tragedy happened, but thanking him because we know that he is there with us and as we cry out in anguish and we cry out in pain and we even lash out at God, trusting he is there.
But God gave us something else that we can be thankful for - God gave us each other. God gave us a family of believers who are ever present in our moments of greatest need. Always remember that. God gave us each other to help one another, to support one another, to pray for one another, to just be God’s presence with one another. Never think, “Oh, I don’t want to bother others with my problems” or “I don’t think there will be those who will care I am in pain” or “I’ll just suffer in silence in the midst of all these people who care about me.” “I can’t give up enough of my pride to allow others to help me - even if God has told me to.”
God gave us each other so that we always have physical arms to hold us in God’s name. That is one of the greatest benefits of being part of this community of faith. There isn’t a person here who would not be available to help - or to pray - for anyone else here and by not taking advantage of what God has given us in this congregation, we deny the opportunities God has given us as his people to be thankful for one another and to be thankful that God has made us a part of this community of believers. I read this great statement somewhere, “The pews of our church are avenues that carry us to one another in our suffering.”
When Paul was singing his Thanksgiving songs in the dark, damp, dank dungeon, the guards and the others prisoners were amazed. And it was because of Paul’s thanksgiving that others in that prison became believers…….. Amen.