At this time of year, when we focus on gratitude and gift giving, I have been pondering what I am thankful for. Several years ago, at a conference on giving, I was asked, “What is the greatest gift, besides Christ, you’ve ever been given?” As I scanned my mind, thinking about the various gifts people had given me, I blurted out “suffering.” While it may have sounded profound, I had no idea why I responded that way or even what my words meant.
But in the ensuing years, I have thought about my answer many times. Was suffering truly one of God’s greatest gifts? It has never felt like a gift, or at least not at the time. It usually has felt more like a punishment, or at times even like a sentence of death.
But in retrospect, I realize that suffering has been more of a gift than I imagined. It has deepened my faith and made God breathtakingly real. Through affliction, I have learned to cry out to God for help and comfort. I have become more prayerful and dependent on God’s Word. Adversity has truly done deep work in my life. Much deeper work than pleasures or success ever have.
While my later life has been marked by suffering, my late teens and twenties were marked by fun and achievement. My career dominated my life after college as I was constantly pursuing the next promotion. I got my MBA from the business school of my dreams where I met and married a classmate. We both had fulfilling jobs and life seemed wonderful.
In the meantime, God, while still important to me, took a backseat. I justified my on-the-go quiet times saying I needed grace in my temporary season of busyness. I justified my selfish spending saying that I was enjoying God’s blessing for my hard work. I justified reading the Wall Street Journal before I opened my Bible saying I needed to stay on top of the news for my job. And I saw nothing wrong with my choices.
Though I felt little need for God and found myself drifting away from him, I wasn’t worried – I just assumed he was blessing me. But more and more, the Christian life felt like rules. It seemed shallow. At the same time, I rarely felt satisfied with anything. Somehow, I always wanted a little more.
But entering my thirties, after several miscarriages and struggles in my marriage, I cried out to God from a very different place. This was the beginning of a more intimate walk with God. A faith with substance. A genuine desire to know God and not just check him off my to-do list. God used my adversity to forge a richer, more life-giving faith.
As I read about the life of Solomon, I see the truth of this principle underscored. Solomon was given everything anyone could want: wisdom, wealth, love, peace, power and prosperity. He “was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. (1 Kings 10:23-24). He extolled the beauty of committed love in Song of Solomon. He didn’t have to fight any battles and there was peace in the land throughout his prosperous reign.
Solomon had everything anyone could want. Yet Solomon himself said, “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure… And behold all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11). Solomon could not find satisfaction anywhere. One woman wasn’t enough for Solomon. He had at least a thousand, and that was still not enough. And ultimately these women turned Solomon’s heart away from God.
So why wasn’t Solomon satisfied? What more could Solomon have been given? Although Scripture doesn’t say this explicitly, I believe that the one gift Solomon was not given was adversity. In Kings 5:4 Solomon says, “But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune.”
Very few of us can say that we have not had adversary or misfortune. Yet the Bible records no adversity in Solomon’s life until after he turned his heart from God. No battles. No illnesses. No struggles. No fears. It may have seemed to be a blessing, but ultimately Solomon didn’t cling to God in love. He clung to his wives who led his heart astray (1 Kings 11:2-3).
Solomon’s turning from God was not because the Lord had failed to deliver on his promises. Not because the king’s life was so hard. Not because he found God to be wanting. Quite the opposite, Solomon appears to have fallen away from God because he didn’t see his need for God. He already had everything. All Solomon had to do was pursue pleasure.
Adversity does profound work within us. Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Peter says that trials test our faith and will result in praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Christ (1 Peter 1:6-8). David declared, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Paul states that affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). James says that trials produce steadfastness, which make us perfect and complete (James 1:2-4).
As I look at my life, I am grateful for suffering and even for the things in my life that I wish were different. Those are the things that keep me praying. Those are the things that keep me in the Word. Those are the things that have taught me obedience. Those are the things that keep me close to God.
Looking over your life, what events have drawn you closest to God? What keeps you on your knees? What makes you dependent on Jesus?
When have you been most distant from God? When have you been too busy to spend time with the Lord? When has the Christian life seemed full of emptiness and duty?
And now, as you look at your list, how does it change what you are thankful for?