Finding the blessings in adversity

Barney Zwartz reflects on the importance of finding blessing and hope in times of suffering.

“Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day,” the skipping girls used to sing as they jumped when I was a child (yes, long before screens). As we emerge from a cold and sometimes damp winter, I have heard that sentiment often around me.

Rain may be inconvenient, but it is a blessing – just ask Australia’s drought-wracked farmers. The Bible talks of the former and latter rain (spring and autumn) as part of the blessing God promises his people, while Shakespeare compares mercy with “the gentle rain that droppeth from heaven”. And rain can be both a metaphor for suffering and for release from suffering.

Everyone eventually faces suffering as an inevitable part of human existence. To be born is to know suffering. Or, as the Washington Post put it in 1983 (apparently the first reference), “Life’s a bitch and then you die”.

One of the gifts of religion – though not necessarily confined to believers – is to find blessing in adversity, to find consolation and hope. I’ve been told this is fake consolation but it seems to me that critics who believe there is no meaning in the universe save that which we construct ourselves should be happy that any consolation is possible.

Gratitude in suffering brings freedom and peace and perspective.

But, according to the Bible, God expects yet more of those in fellowship with him than simple acceptance: in all circumstances, he is owed gratitude. It may seem paradoxical or even perverse, but gratitude in suffering brings freedom and peace and perspective. It puts suffering into a broader narrative in which it is not the last word, even if it is the last event in a life.

The Apostle Paul, who explicitly instructs Christians to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God concerning you”, certainly knew about suffering. Five times he received 39 lashes from Jewish authorities, three times by Roman. He was stoned, shipwrecked three times, constantly on the move, often hungry, thirsty and cold.

“I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.” Eventually, tradition has it, he was beheaded by the Romans.

Yet the same man wrote to the Christians at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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.”

Times of turmoil have never diminished my gratitude to God because, as he promised, his grace is always sufficient.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.