When our eyes burn from weeping and our hearts ache with grief, choosing thankfulness over bitterness can be a downright fight.
Yet, Scripture explicitly commands us to give thanks in all circumstances.
When we’re in the midst of tragedy—the wounds are fresh and we’re just trying to figure out how to keep breathing—being told to be thankful can feel like a slap in the face.
My heart has broken to the point that I’m not sure it will ever recover and you’re telling me to be thankful? Really? Now?
If this is you today, you have my full empathy. Sometimes it is unbearably hard to keep going, let alone “give thanks in all circumstances.”
So without being fake and without disregarding the weight of anyone’s pain, how can we as Christians maintain a posture of gratitude during seasons of suffering?
A Chance to Grow
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” - James 1:2-4 (NLT)
At age 19, I hit rock-bottom in a battle with anorexia nervosa and severe clinical depression. I lost relationships, my reputation and the ability to function. The darkness grew so overwhelming that oftentimes I doubted whether I’d ever pull through to the other side. It took every bit of fight within me just to get through each day.
Eventually, after years of perseverance and extensive treatment, I reached a full recovery.
Throughout those years, my dietician encouraged me that in time the trial would transform into a blessing. She assured me that if I put in the difficult work, remained steadfast and refused to give up, I would one day look back on it all with gratitude. She promised that, when it was all said and done, I would be thankful for the suffering because of how much I would ultimately grow and gain from the healing process.
Looking back nearly ten years later, I can confidently say God transformed the darkest chapter of my life into one of healing and abundant blessings. He strengthened me in ways I never imagined possible, increased my reliance on him mightily, and prepared me for future storms. Although the healing process felt incredibly painful and hopeless at times, it is with a genuine heart that I now say, I truly am grateful for that season in my life.
We may not always be able to see beauty at work when we’re in the thick of darkness. But our God is a Redeemer and he is not limited by what our eyes can see.He brings beauty from ashes. He refines and he restores. It might not always be in ways we want. Refining is rarely, if ever, a comfortable process. But we can trust that, no matter the current pain, Christ’s redeeming work does not fail.
If we remain steadfast, God’s redemptive transformations work through even the darkest of situations—and for that we can always give thanks!
“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” - 1 Peter 5:10 (ESV)
When You’d Rather Forsake the Refining
With all that said, however, we may still face circumstances that cause this argument to feel stale at best. Sometimes there is pain so great, grief so deep, that we would gladly pass up the opportunity to strengthen our endurance if it meant skipping the suffering in its entirety.
One of the greatest blessings God ever gave me on this earth was a group of life-long best friends. The seven of us stuck together like glue. The bond we shared was an absolute gift. We walked through everything together. We may not have been related by blood, but we were sisters in every other sense of the word. We were each other’s intentional family, for better or worse, and nothing could change that. Ever. Until one of us got cancer.
We never saw it coming. When it did, we never imagined it would end with us laying our sweet Katie-girl to rest less than a year later.
The pain we witnessed and experienced wrecked my heart. I will never be grateful for the suffering our precious girl endured.
Yes, God’s redemption was absolutely at work creating beauty in the midst of pain and for that I will always be grateful.
But if I had to choose between having beauty brought out of these ashes or having my best friend alive and healthy, I would hands-down pick the second option.My human heart would rather have my beautiful friend next to me than have my spirit “strengthened and established.”
I share this with you, not to say this is the most spiritually mature way to handle tragedy, but to be honest that sometimes the argument that suffering produces endurance falls short under the weight of our pain. Sometimes the suffering we endure is so great that even if we do grow stronger through it all, even if we do find things to thank God for along the way, the loss is so devastating that nothing could ever make us grateful for the loss itself.
So how, then, are we still to remain thankful in all circumstances?
The Crown of Life
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – Jesus in John 16:33 (ESV)
Ultimately, the one thing I can always be grateful for—no matter what happens in this life—is Christ himself.
I don’t say this because it’s the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answer. I say this because it’s the cry of my raw and grieving heart.
Suffering is one of the few guarantees we have in this life. It’s universal. No matter who you are, your turn with suffering will come, likely multiple times. The trial itself may be hell on earth, and you may never be thankful for the actual suffering.
But regardless of how unbearable our earthly trials become, our God has overcome it all. He has defeated the grave, and he has promised a crown of eternal life for those who love him and persevere by his strength.
It is for this reason and this reason alone that we can genuinely give thanks in all circumstances.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” - James 1:12 (ESV)
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Kimberly Carroll is a military spouse, mother of two, and graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. She has a heart for the weary and broken-hearted, holds tightly to her eternal hope in Christ, and wants nothing more than for her life to be an outpouring of God's never-ending love to those around her. On her blog, Kimberly discusses mental illness, grief and the importance of never giving up. Follow her blog at https://kims88.