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The Spirituality of Suffering and Gratitude

Joshua Choonmin Kang

A pastor's reflections on his experiences of intense suffering and how God used gratitude to bring meaning and healing through those sufferings.

Founding Pastor, New Life Vision Church, Los Angeles, CA
May 31, 2019

Translated by B.J. Jun

It was due to my own sufferings that I became interested in the spirituality of gratitude. A few years ago, I crossed a river of harsh trials in my life. Of course, I didn’t expect them. An uninvited guest called suffering suddenly knocked on my door and came in without my permission. It visited me without forewarning. From that moment on, for a few years, the darkness of death covered life with its shadow. Fierce storms of hardships hit me. The burden of life cruelly weighed down upon me. I felt my life caving in on itself. I sank into the despair of having lost everything. I lost the precious things to which I was clinging. I was misunderstood by people. I was criticized and even condemned by many. Finally I had to leave the community that I considered home. Like Jacob, I felt the need to flee under the moonlight. I had to leave everything behind.

I felt ashamed of myself. A monster called ‘shame’ harassed me. I was ashamed that I had disappointed the people who trusted me. I didn’t want to meet anyone at all. I felt like people would point their fingers at me as the failure. So I stayed home most of the time. On the outside, I appeared to be fine. But my emotions rocked heavily inside like a wild wave. Quiet anger and silent disparity permeated through my wounds deep within. Almost every night I had nightmares that I was being incessantly harassed by those who hated me. In my head, I heard the mocking voices of those who ridiculed me. I worried a lot because I didn’t know how to respond to those painful trials. It was during those times that God encouraged me to respond with gratitude to the trials. It was a very special grace.

Gratitude as a Means of Grace

The gratitude that God introduced to me was paradoxical grace. Words like pain, tears, descending, wounds, sufferings, loss, darkness, separation, depression, vulnerability, shadow, isolation and brokenness visited my thoughts. So I wrote one essay every week for a year on those topics. The paradoxical spiritual attitude called gratitude healed my wounded heart as I was writing. God touched me as I was writing about gratitude. Writing about gratitude cleansed the window of my soul that had been darkened by blame, resentment, and disappointment.

The spirituality of gratitude is the highest peak of Christian spirituality. Jesus’s spirituality was the spirituality of gratitude. Jesus, just before his crucifixion, shared with his disciples the last supper. He spoke a prayer of thanksgiving as he shared the bread and wine with his disciples. He faced the crucifixion with thanksgiving. He spoke a prayer of thanksgiving before performing miracles. He gave thanks and distributed the loaves and fish (John 6:11). Jesus thanked his Father before he called Lazarus back into life (John 11:41). Gratitude heals the sick and is God’s instrument that ushers in His miracles.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It is not difficult at all to give thanks when the environment is plentiful. But, it is difficult to give thanks when the circumstances don’t seem to inspire thankfulness. Paul spoke frequently of  gratitude in his letters from prison. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7).

The highest peak of the spirituality that is rooted in Christ is gratitude. Paul calls it abounding in thanksgiving. Paul stressed that we must abound in thanksgiving because thanksgiving is the fruit we bear when we are filled with the Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul encouraged us to be filled with the Spirit and to give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. In verse twenty, Paul urges the believers to give thanks “always” and for everything. Why? It must be because gratitude heals the wounds of suffering.

Gratitude: Turning Understanding into Healing

When we give thanks in the midst of hardship, our spiritual eyes open and we experience healing. We often experience healing through understanding. To gain understanding is to give meaning to the sufferings. As we give meanings to the sufferings we face, we don’t get stuck in the sufferings in pain, but appreciate it for the unexpected gains. In that way, we don’t ridicule ourselves by wasting the sufferings.

Sufferings are painful. No one is free from sufferings in this life. Jesus was sinless, yet even he  suffered (Hebrews 2:18). Every human being must cross a river of sufferings in this life. Sufferings bring wounds to our life. They bring pain. However, there is something more painful than the pains themselves: it is when we don’t find the reasons or meanings behind the sufferings. But we find the meanings of sufferings as we give thanks. As soon as we find out the hidden meanings of our suffering, we begin to experience healing.

Gratitude opens our spiritual eyes. We can see things we have never seen before as we give thanks. When we are hurt, we think about the people who hurt us because of the pains they gave us. We become slaves to them as we keep thinking about those who hurt us. Getting hurt by others is painful in and of itself. But what’s more painful is that we become slaves to those who hurt us.

Blame, resentment, hate, and revengeful thoughts for those who hurt us make us blind. We can’t understand the mystery behind the sufferings when we are blinded by those thoughts. Pain hurts! But not all pain is bad. Think about Jesus’ pain. His pain on the cross was linked to His glory. No pain, no glory. The blood that came out of Jesus’ wounds became the precious instrument of God’s grace that cleans our sins away. If it were not for Jesus’ wounds and blood, there would be no forgiveness and healing available. When we are spiritually blinded, we can’t see the beauty hidden in our sufferings. The spiritually blind cannot see the benefits hidden in sufferings. We can’t see God’s mysterious blessings hidden in the sufferings. Gratitude opens our eyes and enables us to see the things we have not seen before. It enables us to see the benefits hidden in them.

Inner healing comes through understanding. Gaining understanding is an eye-opening experience that broadens our perspective. As our spiritual eyes open, we become able to see the sufferings from God’s point of view.  This allows us to discern God’s deep and beautiful will for us in the sufferings. I experienced my spiritual eyes opening as I responded to my sufferings with gratitude. I could interpret the painful incidents that visited my life with a biblical perspective. Our interpretation and response to the problems are much more important than the problems themselves. We gain wonderful understanding as we interpret painful incidents and respond to them with gratitude.

Through gratitude, I could feel God’s hands that never left me alone during my hardships. The experience of my past was re-created through gratitude. I also experienced that the language of gratitude healed my wounds. The language of gratitude brought beautiful color to my dark past. The language of gratitude brightens an otherwise dreary path.

Gratitude: Turning Wounds into Pearls

There is a saying that ‘an oyster that has never been wounded will not produce pearls.’ When we give thanks, we not only experience our wounds getting healed, but also wounds turn into pearls. Gratitude has power to turn out scars into stars. It heals our wounds and produces precious gem stones from the scars. Gratitude is our receptive capacity. We embrace our wounds as we give thanks. When we embrace the wounds, we also embrace the precious gemstones hidden in the wounds. We all know how oysters produce pearls. Only when an oyster is wounded, pearls are formed. As the oyster embraces the wound by coating it over and over, a precious pearl is formed.

No one appreciates sufferings naturally. Who would love getting hurt? But if we hate and avoid sufferings, and consider wounds as curses to be spit out, no pearls can be formed in our life. No wounds, no pearls. We must remember that the size of the wounds determine the size of the pearls. Hating wounds and considering them as a curse is just like hating pearls and considering pearls as a curse. If pearls are precious, then the wounds that produce pearls are also precious. It is all about how we perceive our wounds. How we view wounds determine the future of wounds. When we embrace our wounds, we embrace the pearls they will produce. Just as the spring is hidden in the winter, there is a potential pearl hidden in every wound. As we embrace the winter, we also embrace the spring in it. Though they are not visible, the winter is filled with the beautiful flowers that will bloom in the spring. Blessed are those who can see the spring in the winter and the beautiful flowers in the midst of the winter season.

In order to heal our wounds, we must first embrace them. It requires great courage to face our wounds. We should not run from the suffering when trials visit us. Avoiding the sufferings will not solve the problems. Solution comes through confrontation. Of course, there are kinds of sufferings that we can avoid. For instance, we should take a pain reliever when we have  a headache. However, the most significant sufferings in life cannot be solved by taking medicines. Instead, healing begins as we embrace the sufferings.

There is meaning in sufferings. Suffering must be painful. Winter must be cold. Summer must be hot. Pain must be painful. Bigger problems occur when we try to avoid them instead of embracing them. Suffering comes to us, bringing pain. But if we welcome the sufferings with open arms, the sufferings will be fruitful. Sufferings are painful, but if we embrace the painful sufferings and enter into them, mysterious things will happen. Just as the eye of the storm is very calm because the strong surface winds never reach it, likewise God’s shalom is not the absence of problems. Shalom is peace that exists in the midst of problems.

We must no longer be afraid of trials as we enter into them on our own. Trials often do damage in our lives, primarily because we are afraid of them. But, if we confront them and embrace them, the sufferings and trials are no longer scary. Gratitude is an instrument of God’s grace that turns the sufferings we saw as our enemies into blessings that we can embrace as friends. This is the power of gratitude.

We see the beauty of scars in nature. The Grand Canyon, for instance, is basically a big scar in the earth. Water erosion hurts the earth and produces the scars on her surface. But one moment standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon reminds us all that scars can be extraordinarily productive and beautiful. I once visited Iguassu Falls in Brazil. The guide explained to us that the falls were formed by earthquakes a long time ago. Scars and wounds as results of earthquakes produced the amazingly beautiful Iguassu Falls.

Gratitude is really a mysterious power. Just as Henri Nouwen once said, “The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.” When our brokenness is put under the light of the blessing, our wounds are healed and those wounds are now turned into holy instrument that God can us to heal other wounded people.

Gratitude: Turning Sufferings into Teachers

When we respond to our sufferings properly, those sufferings become our teachers who help us to become mature. The best way to respond to sufferings is to consider the trials as learning opportunities. God wants us to grow in maturity and be conformed to the image of Christ. God welcomes us just as we are. He loves us as we are. But He doesn’t want us to remain as we are. He wants us to mature into the measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). God wants us to be conformed to the image of his son, Jesus (Romans 8:29). God uses sufferings and trials in the process of making us to be more like Jesus. Although Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Sufferings are God’s instrument of transformation that change us and help us to mature.

It is not wise to waste sufferings. Instead, we must allow God to use them as instruments for our spiritual growth. Suffering is intended to be a teacher. I make my sufferings my teachers through gratitude. Whenever sufferings come to me, I ask myself ‘what are the lessons from these sufferings?’ and try to learn from them. Through sufferings, I learned what life is all about and who we are as humans. I also learned the depth of the Word of God from the sufferings I went through. I experienced God’s hidden and disguised blessings, which come from His invisible hands. There are reasons and lessons for every suffering. It is a mystery that sufferings are like teachers. They can leave us when we have learned their lessons well. But they stay with us as long as we need to learn those lessons. When we encounter similar difficulties again and again, they are intended to have the teaching effect of many homework assignments in the life of a student.  Most students despise homework assignments; but it is through the repetition of these assignments that the student becomes a master.

Sufferings are not the only teachers in our lives. We can also learn from things like blessings, success, and achievements. We learn through encouragement. But the deepest learning often comes from suffering. We learn from our failures. We learn from our loss and even from our sickness. There are various tastes of life. The deepest taste of our life comes from the taste of sufferings. Deep understanding also comes through sufferings. An intimate relationship with God is also often experienced through sufferings. Sufferings also bring unity. Sufferings may weaken us, but they can also help us to be united with God more closely. We bear abundant fruit when we are united with God.

One of the lessons I learned as I went through my season of sufferings was the mystery of darkness. Going through sufferings was like going through a dark tunnel. Darkness deepened the sufferings. But, all of sudden, I realized that darkness was also a part of God’s creation. We can’t know the beauty of brightness unless we are acquainted with darkness. I also learned that life itself grows in darkness.

A mother’s womb is dark. But a life grows beautifully in that darkness. Underground is dark. But a seed sprouts in that darkness and sends its roots deeper into the darkness. It is in the darkness that life begins and sprouts. Roots grow in the darkness. Real growth is growing deeper down. And it grows from within. It grows out of darkness. For that reason, I believe that darkness is one of God’s instruments that helps us to grow by sending our roots deeply down to God. Sufferings make us learn how to love even the dark times of our life. Just as a wounded oyster produces beautiful pearls in the darkness by embracing the wounds, God wants to make our souls bright as precious treasures in the darkness. I have now become a person who is thankful even for the sufferings. Suffering with gratitude is a wonderful gift from God.