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sermons Spirituality Suffering

Paul and Existential Gratitude

Our experience of life is such a mxi of joy and sorrow, pleasure and suffering. How can we be grateful when the world is so full of suffering? Can we be grateful for, rather than to, the universe?

A sermon preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on 11/8/21 on Ephesians 5:15-20 for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 15 (20)

How do I live? How do I live in this world with all its joy and terror, all its possibilities and disappointments, without becoming jaded? Worn out; fed up; resentful. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that “all life is suffering.”[1] I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that the basic nature of life is suffering, but life is certainly… difficult. Complicated. It certainly involves a lot of suffering.

Given the reality of suffering in our lives – what the holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl described as the “tragic triad” of suffering, guilt, and death[2] – how do we live? In a world of Ebola and COVID and climate change and increasing inequality and the rise of an increasingly totalitarian and belligerent China, how do we live?

In a world which is beset by grief and suffering, what on earth is there to be grateful for?

Paul[3] is no stranger to suffering. He is open about the trials and tribulations of every kind that he has suffered: rejection and even stoning by his own people, beatings from the Romans. He was often cold, hungry, thirsty. He was shipwrecked three times. And so on.[4] But in summing up how to live – in asking what the fundamental fact of his life is, the basic stance towards life which he commends to the Ephesians, and to us, all these years later, he names gratitude. He says we ought to be singing and “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20)

Gratitude gets a lot of airplay in our culture. If you google the health benefits of gratitude, you get something like sixty-two million results. The positive psychology movement is particularly well represented.

Even in the world outside the internet you can see evidence of how well accepted the idea of the importance of gratitude. In my daily planner, for instance, there’s a section each day to record my three gratitudes in the morning.

It’s everywhere.

So, the science seems clear[5]: we should all practice gratitude. Perhaps that’s all there is to say on the matter.

Or perhaps not. Philosophically and theologically, it seems to lead to some interesting questions. What does it say about our relationship to the universe as such? We can see how practicing gratitude might make life nicer, but is that just living in a sort of pleasant denial? Is it just wilfully closing our eyes to the reality of the universe for the sake of a happier life?

It’s easy to talk about gratitude, but what does it all really mean?

I have a deep loathing for the term “first world problem.” Actually, you don’t hear it so much at the moment – perhaps COVID has given us all something concrete to worry about. Of course, some things which preoccupy people aren’t really problems at all. Which TV show shall I binge next? Yes, this is a first world problem. You need a sense of proportion.

But when it comes to real problems – actual suffering – “First world problems” can be a temptation to try to deny problems by minimizing them. For instance, the frustration of living in lockdown – plans cancelled, social contact minimized, the emotional drain of it all – really is suffering. But we feel guilty about feeling bad: we feel as though we should be grateful for what we have and not complain.

However, this doesn’t really work. So instead of the one problem we began with – the difficult experience of living under lockdown – we now have two problems. The original one, and now also the feelings of guilt for complaining.

Suffering and gratitude can co-exist. Gratitude and complaining can co-exist. Just look at Paul and his list of disasters.

Gratitude, in the sense we are interested in, is not so much about what we say exactly as much as who we are. If we are fundamentally grateful people – if we are defined by what we might call an “existential gratitude” – it doesn’t remove all suffering, and it doesn’t mean we have to pretend everything is wonderful all the time in an irritating Pollyanna-esque kind of way. It means we are grateful people first. A grateful person is an open, attentive, brave person who has the sort of internal solidity to be able to trust that gratitude is the appropriate response to… what? To the universe?

One way of framing the question is to ask this: is the universe is worthy of gratitude?

On one level, the question is absurd. The idea that we might stand against the universe and define it as either “worthy” or “unworthy” just seems bizarrely out of proportion. It just kind of is, after all, and if it was not, then we would not exist either.

Perhaps a better way of asking it might be to ask whether the universe is somehow hospitable to us. Or whether it is, on balance, more good than evil. Because the universe, nature, is profoundly ambivalent.

Near Darebin Parklands where we sometimes go to walk Daisy, there is a new housing development with the usual bloviating sign. This one says, “be nurtured by nature.” It always makes me laugh in a slightly dark kind of way. If COVID has taught us anything it is that nature isn’t just beautiful sunsets and ocean waves, it’s mutating viruses as well. It isn’t just “nurturing” – it is also disease and death.

Nothing as complex as nature could be just “good” or “bad” from a human perspective. The thing that brings us life is also the thing which cares nothing for us as individuals and would just as soon have a bunch of virus particles as a person.

So perhaps the relevant question is whether we can be grateful “for” the universe – but not “to” the universe. Is there is something trustworthy underneath it all? Is there something – or, better yet, someone who we can be grateful to? Something that can handle the ambivalence of nature, in which gratitude and lament can co-exist? Some ultimate reality which deserves our unconditional “yes” and gives us the courage to face the world as it actually is, rather than how we like to pretend it is?

Can we be grateful “for” the universe, rather than “to” it?

Paul says that we should “give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the Christian claim, right there. Whatever is behind the universe is not some impersonal force, not some nameless “ground of ultimate being”, nor the “unmoved mover” of ancient philosophy. Not even time, chance, and necessity. Our startling claim is that whatever is behind the universe is more like a person than like a force or mathematics or some universal principle.

And, even more startlingly, we believe that this person has reached out to us, has come into the world. God, in Jesus Christ, somehow, in a way which we cannot begin to understand, has become an actual human being, who walked around in Galilee some two thousand years ago – a long time ago, yes, but in actual history, not in the never-never time of myths and legends.

God reaches out to us in love through Jesus Christ.

Paul’s strong recommendation is to take concrete steps to fill our hearts and minds with this good news. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together with one another, and also in our hearts.

The point, from a Christian perspective, is that God is knowable. This is not to say that we can ever speak adequately about God, nor that we can know God completely. But, then again, we can’t even know ourselves completely, and it is impossible to speak adequately even about the simplest inorganic particle, given that the whole universe rests on mystery.

Our contention is that this mystery has revealed itself to us.

God has acted through history – in the covenant with Abraham, leading his people out of Egypt, and out of exile in Babylon. Through word and deed God has revealed Godself, all leading up to Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God. This is the answer to the urgent question: what is God like?

What God is like, it turns out, is healing, redemptive, witty love, kneeling at the feet of his friends washing their feet. God is someone who endures the worst things that the world can come up with – betrayal, public humiliation, torture, and death, and can look on the faces of those who are killing him and pray for their forgiveness. God is the one who raises Jesus up on the third day and sends his spirit amongst us. God is the one who gives us the bread which leads to eternal life.

God is the one who has proved Godself ultimately trustworthy.

And that means that gratitude is not naïve. It does not mean wilfully trying to pretend that we live in a world without hardship, because God has in the person of Jesus endured great hardship – for our sake. Suffering can become meaningful because it is part of God’s big story in the world.

It means that gratitude is something we can build our lives on. We can – and should – be grateful in our day to day lives because, ultimately, God is the giver of all good things. We can trust that the universe is worthy of gratitude because we have come to trust the one who stands behind it.

Even in the face of suffering, God is good, and that is something we can base our entire lives on.


[1] Or at least that’s one, possibly too simplistic, way to state it. I don’t think it means “there are no pleasant experiences in life.” Read a more well thought through view here.

[2] You should definitely read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

[3] Or, rather, “Paul”, either the man himself, or a skilled Paulinist. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians.  Cf. Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 4). SPCK. Kindle Edition and Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition and many, many other commentaries.

[4] Read the full list at 2 Corinthians 11:23-28

[5] For instance: 14 Health Benefits of Practicing Gratitude According to Science (positivepsychology.com)

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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