This discussion is made up of four parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Framing the Discussion
Most of us – whether Christian or not – think it’s natural to thank God or to simply be grateful when we experience something positive. In fact, in our world today, saying “Thank God,” has become a common way of expressing gratitude for a positive outcome in our lives, even by atheists.
However, when it comes to the more difficult moments in our life – the uncomfortable and confusing ones – we often become angry, upset, or depressed. We feel as if some sort of injustice is going on. We question why something is happening to us. We wonder what we could change to make that bad thing go away. And we definitely do not thank God.
- Why is it more difficult to be grateful in times of struggle and suffering than in positive times?
- What might our underlying worldview be when we react to struggle and suffering as something that we should despise rather than be grateful for? What thoughts might be causing that reaction to take place?
Part II: Reframing the Discussion
You probably touched on this in answering the questions above, but most people don’t see struggles and sufferings as things to be grateful for because we don’t view them as good things. Indeed, why would you give thanks for anything that isn’t good?
Furthermore, we don’t give thanks to God for these things because we don’t believe they are from God. Most of us know that God is loving, compassionate, patient, and merciful. It doesn’t make sense then how things that are so uncomfortable, so hard to endure, and, so often, so clearly heartbreaking and painful, can be from God. After all, St. James tells us in his universal epistle, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). St. James doesn’t say that bad things are from above, just good ones. So why thank God for things that aren’t from Him?
Despite both of these very logical forms of reasoning, however, we as Christians know that we are supposed to be grateful for everything in life, both what we would call good and what we would call bad.
In his epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5: 17-18). Similarly, perhaps one of the most famous lines in the history of the Church are St. John Chrysostom’s final words, “glory to God for all things,” which he uttered after being persecuted and walked to his death as an old man.
The Tradition of the Church is clear, we should give thanks and praise to God for everything that we encounter in life.
- So how do we reconcile the two competing ideas in the section above? Is it possible to say that the bad things in life are not worth thanking God for because they are not good things and only good things come from God while also saying that we should thank God for everything in life?
- If we have to reframe our thinking here, what needs to change?
Part III: A Difficult Truth
You may have arrived at this realization on your own, but there are a pair of possibilities worth considering:
- That struggles and sufferings are not actually bad.
- That struggles and sufferings are from God, too.
If we think that it doesn’t make sense for evil things to exist in the world when the world is created by a loving and compassionate God, then we have a choice: we can either decide that God does not exist, or we can decide that evil does not exist.
In today’s world, most people probably choose the former. After all, it’s easier to decide that there’s no God in the face of struggle and suffering because it means that we can create our own meaning in life. We don’t have to live up to someone else’s standards, and we don’t have to endure that struggle and suffering if we don’t want to.
But the reality is that we do have to endure struggle and suffering even when we don’t want to. Even if we are the most selfish people in the world and do everything to look out for ourselves and avoid any difficulties in life, we are bound to be affected by some disease, natural disaster, unlucky outcome, or, simply, death.
So it can’t be that God doesn’t exist, but that evil doesn’t exist.
Of course, this is what the Fathers of the Church teach. They say that evil is not a thing, but actually the absence of a thing. It is the absence of good. And that absence is only felt and made real when our lives do not aim at the ultimate good: God.
- Take a moment to consider the gravity of the section above. How does it feel to be presented with the idea that evil doesn’t exist?
- If we have experienced great pain or suffering in our lives, it might be difficult to believe that evil does not exist. How would you as a Christian support the argument that evil does not exist?
Part IV: Finding the Reason for Gratitude
In truth, the section above is not explicitly Christian. Philosophers and great thinkers of other religions can and have arrived at the same conclusions about God and evil independently of any Christian theological foundation. However, there would still be something unsettling and empty about the section above if our discussion were to stop there, if we didn’t have the revelation of God to add to that philosophical reasoning.
In the Church, we recognize that God has not only created the world but that, out of his abundant goodness and love, He has also revealed Himself to the world and shown us the reason for the reality of struggles and sufferings which, though not evil, can still feel difficult and unnecessary.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus and his disciples pass a man who was blind from birth, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” and Jesus answers them, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work” (John 9:1-5).
In the context of Genesis, the meaning of this passage becomes clear. After we humans chose not to direct ourselves towards God, after we chose to forsake His work of bringing order to the world by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we started to drift away from God. We no longer participated in His glory and we stopped radiating His light. However, instead of giving up on us and allowing us to drift into evil (into the dark nothingness of the night) by becoming completely separate from Him, God instead granted us more light and more day. He gave us opportunities to transform our fallen experience into good by granting us struggles and suffering.
It is when we struggle or suffer that we are motivated to choose to put our trust in God and receive His power and grace once again. It is when others struggle or suffer that we can choose to share God’s powerful grace and love with the world by tending to the suffering of others.
And Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection shows us that that suffering is not in vain. In resurrecting and promising us that same resurrection, Christ shows us that our struggle and suffering can lead us back to a place where there is no struggle or suffering, especially when we choose to participate in that suffering like He did: by engaging in it on behalf of others.
- In light of this final section, why should we be grateful to God for all things?
- How did acknowledging the need for gratitude in life help you change your perspective on struggle and suffering?
- How does a new perspective on struggle and suffering help you be more grateful?