Dedicating a day for giving thanks is a wonderful tradition. The human heart is the same the world over—we are thankful for family, friends, food, and shelter. Some of us have the luxury to be thankful for jobs we love and comforts of living. What we typically do not include in our list of thanks is suffering. Yet this gratitude is common among Christians who came before us. They saw the suffering they experienced as a way to join Christ in his suffering. This is hard to get one’s mind around in our contemporary context. It is counter to the exclamation of our culture to do everything we can to make ourselves happy. Our lives are built around comfort. How can we be thankful for suffering?
I grappled with this theme for a number of years—especially while on retreat. Each year I go on an eight-day silent retreat. I stay on a college campus and meet with a spiritual director for an hour each day. I have dealt with many issues over the years. The days of silence allow God to dig deep into my heart. It is the most wonderful and difficult work I do all year. I am very committed to this practice.
Several years ago, I was struggling with difficulties in my employment dealing with gender discrimination when I went for my annual retreat. Within a couple of days, I sensed the Spirit’s prompt to discontinue my grappling with these issues. I was stunned. I had been dealing with this particular struggle all of my life and I was not willing to release it. It took three days of wrestling with God before I realized that God was not asking me to view the issue as unimportant, but to seek God first. I had been holding the struggle at the center of my heart rather than keeping God there. How freeing to let go and allow God to carry the burden.
This was not the only grace I received on this retreat. It was at this time that the concept of rejoicing in suffering was pressed in on me. It was one thing to be happy about releasing the burden to God. That was a big step! This invitation seemed beyond reach. How could I be thankful for the on-going struggle?
I pondered this for a couple of years. I sensed it was an important advance in my relationship with Christ and I began to see and hear the invitation all around me. I found that I could almost get there intellectually. When I was suffering for doing what was right, I could identify with the suffering Christ went through in his life. It made sense to feel thankful for that. However, when I was in the middle of suffering, my heart did not feel the connection to Christ that my mind was trying to create. And I certainly was nowhere near rejoicing. So, I continued to hold it in my heart and trust that when the time was right, God would reveal it to me if that was God’s will. I truly did want to fully belong to Christ.
In God’s faithfulness, I finally had the “ah ha” moment on my retreat last spring. I was again discouraged with my work situation when I went on the retreat. I had finished a rough year and as I met with the spiritual director on the first day, I gave him a synopsis. It seemed dark and dismal and I did not feel any relation to my Lord in what I had experienced. Again the question of joining with Christ in his suffering came to mind and we discussed the concept. The director suggested I begin my silence with the Stations of the Cross. He invited me to think about the suffering of Christ at each station and consider how my suffering was connected to the suffering of Christ.
The Stations of the Cross are fourteen stations that depict the suffering of Christ on the day of his crucifixion. For example, the first is his trial before Pilate when Christ experienced ridicule and shame. The second is Christ carrying his cross, etc. They are placed around the grounds of many retreat centers and churches. So, I dutifully went from station to station thinking about what Christ may have suffered with each experience. I wrote in my journal about his suffering and then let my mind drift to times that I had suffered in similar ways. It was on the fourth station that the light bulb came on. I sensed God’s gentle whisper saying, “Jackie, you are again putting yourself at the center!” I realized that connecting my suffering to that of Christ is not about Christ understanding my suffering. He does, of course, understand us in a special way as he came to earth and walked among us. But the heart of this concept of rejoicing in our suffering is that as I suffer, I get an inkling of understanding into what Christ went through on my behalf. This shed a whole new light on my distress. My relationship with Christ is not about what Christ can do for me, but about how I join into his work in this hurting world. I realize that the difficulties I experience in this life are part of living in a broken world. They do not hinder me from loving, but help me love in a more profound way. I come to understand the suffering of Jesus from the lens of my experience and can model my love for this world in a way that is informed by the love he has for this world!
The understanding about suffering came about six months ago. I cannot say that I have fully learned this lesson, but I do yearn for this way. I received a glimpse and I am moving in that direction. I am thankful that as Merton states, it is our desire to please God that actually pleases God.
Lord, thank you for your faithfulness with my inability to see beyond myself. It is my heart’s desire to have you at the center of my every thought and action. I want to be fully available for your use—in every moment and in every situation. To the best of my ability, Lord, I am yours.
Grace and peace to you,
 Merton, T. (1999). Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.