Suzanne Nicholson ~ Suffering through Thanksgiving
This is the time of year when advertisements inundate us with images of happy families gloriously celebrating the holidays. Women in velvet dresses clink champagne glasses with men in suits and plaid bowties. Their beautifully decorated homes overflow with relatives who eat turkey and all the fixings from holly-themed china plates. You can almost smell the cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the air.
Thankfulness comes easily under those circumstances. It is effortless to live in the moment, to seize the day, when all is sparkly and beautiful. But when the current moment is rife with injustice, living in the moment is nothing short of cruel. A loved one murdered, and the killer avoids prison. A child trafficked for sex, with no one to protect her. A pension fund plundered, leaving retirees penniless.
How does one rejoice in the midst of injustice?
Scripture is full of stories of injustice. After Joseph saved Egypt from famine and brought his family under the protection of Pharaoh, time passed. The new pharaoh failed to remember that a Hebrew had saved the land; instead, he suspected the Hebrews of planning sedition (Exod. 1:8-10). The Egyptians enslaved those who had saved them.
Job’s only flaw was being so faithful to God that Satan took notice (Job 1:9-11). In the testing that followed, Job lost his business, his family, and his health. Despite his faithfulness, disaster ensued.
Sometimes even justified suffering seemed to come through unjust means. God punished Israel and Judah for their great sinfulness by means of the exile. But the prophet Habakkuk questioned how God could use the wicked Babylonians to discipline the people of God. He cried out to God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you are unable to look at disaster. Why would you look at the treacherous or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous?” (Hab. 1:13).
Habakkuk’s outburst reflects common themes in the lament psalms. Psalm 22, which Jesus began to recite on the cross, starts with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:1-2).
Even after the resurrection of Jesus, unjust suffering continues. In 2 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul recounts the numerous times he has been flogged, beaten with rods, pelted with stones, shipwrecked, and subjected to other horrors as a result of preaching the Gospel.
These injustices point to the “already/not-yet tension” in the New Testament. Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom by dealing with sin and defeating death. The fullness of the Kingdom, however, has not yet been realized. The Holy Spirit is at work in believers, transforming our lives and empowering us to be salt and light in a dark, decaying world. But until Christ returns to complete the process he started, we will continue to experience injustice in this life.
But the truth of Christ’s impending return is what keeps faithful men and women going. When we take a long view of history, our current injustices take on a different meaning. We look back at what Christ accomplished on the cross—a fact of history that can never be changed or reversed—and we understand that sin and death have met their match. We look forward to the fullness of the Kingdom and recognize that greater blessings are yet to come.
This is why Paul can write to the Philippians—while chained to a Roman guard!—that we should rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4). Earlier in the letter he told the church that he focuses on what lies ahead, pressing onward to win the goal of the prize for which God has called him (3:13-14). Paul’s reality is centered not on his chains, but on the promise of eternal life with God.
This does not mean that Paul somehow ignores his present pain or pretends it did not happen. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 he tells us that he had a thorn in his flesh that tormented him. Scholars have speculated on what this thorn might have been, based on hints in his letters—an eye problem? Arthritis? Some other physical deformity? Paul prayed three times for this thorn to be removed, and each time he was told no. Paul—who had healed the sick and raised the dead—was not given the power to heal himself. In Paul’s case, he needed to learn that God’s grace was sufficient to carry him through all weakness. His response: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). Paul defines his present and future by the power of God. In the current moment of pain, Paul takes a long view of history and rejoices in the ultimate victory of the God who overcomes.
This perspective is woven through the biblical narrative. The Hebrews experiencing years of slavery in Egypt cried out to God, who called Moses to deliver them. Job’s health and business were restored, and he was blessed with more sons and daughters. God promised Habakkuk that he would bring justice to the wicked Babylonians. And Psalm 22 reassures us that Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross is not the last word: the lament psalm remembers God’s past faithfulness and proclaims that God will triumph and all nations will praise him.
For those who are suffering injustice, the biblical narrative brings reassurance that God is at work in this world. While restoration may occur here and now, some injustices cannot be adequately addressed in this lifetime. For those who suffer in this way, Scripture proclaims that their story does not end here. Rejoice! The God of justice is coming.