1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus
In a few weeks, we will celebrate a holiday that is a yearly reminder for us to be thankful. At our house, this means we gather with loved ones, eat special foods we don’t normally indulge in, and nap on the couch between Grandpa and Uncle Chuck. It’s easy to be thankful on a day like that.
Flashback four years and my life reads like a card-catalogue of doom. Miscarriage, suicide, serious illness, death, hospitalization, mental illness, and a child custody battle filled my plate. Instead of fellowship with family and friends, I felt alone, even in a crowded room. If I had been given a plate of delicacies at the time, I couldn’t eat it because food tasted like sawdust in my mouth. A nap was out of the question because my sleepless nights were filled with worry and anxiety.
How is it possible to be grateful under circumstances like that? Okay, maybe we can mumble through some thankful words like my kids do when they get socks for Christmas. But how do we experience genuine gratitude when our world is falling apart?
Gratitude in suffering comes from a deep trust in God
When I was in the midst of my trials, my devotional times were spent almost exclusively in the Psalms. I was drawn to them because the psalmists so often experienced tough times and were honest about how bad things were. I could relate to someone whose “heart had turned to wax” and whose “eyes grow weak with sorrow.” It felt like David could read my mind when he wrote in Psalm 13, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?”
But I don’t think the fellowship in suffering is the only thing that drew me to the Psalms. Almost invariably, the psalmists would turn their song of lament into a hymn of thanksgiving. Psalm 13 may have begun in the pit, but it ended with, “I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation.”
Here’s just a few of the psalms that turn grief into gratitude:
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” “In the congregation I will praise You.” (Psalm 22)
“My life is consumed by anguish.” “Praise be to the Lord.” (Psalm 31)
“My tears have been my food day and night.” “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42)
“I am in the midst of lions.” “I will praise you O Lord, among the nations.” (Psalm 57)
“Men hotly pursue me.” “I will present my thank offerings to You.” (Psalm 56)
“The waters have come up to my neck.” “I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving.” (Psalm 69)
The psalmists knew that the God of their good times was the same God who was with them in their bad times, and so they were able to express genuine thanks even in darkness. When their circumstances made them see everything through the lens of pain, they meditated on past blessings to remind themselves of the truth of God’s goodness. And when it seemed like God had abandoned them, they trusted in His promises and chose to wait to see them fulfilled.
Practicing gratitude leads to gratitude
On the advice of a wise mentor, I began to compile a list of reasons to be thankful. I ended each day by adding at least one thing to the list, and even on the worst days, I was never left without something to write. I found that looking for God’s blessings in your life makes you see more and more of them. I noticed things that I would have been blind to if I had allowed myself to wallow in my pain. I began to realize that everything wasn’t a disaster. My trust in God grew as I recognized His provision for me.
Gratitude in suffering is not natural, but it is necessary
Most of the time, gratitude was a choice…it didn’t flow naturally from my circumstances. The feeling just wasn’t there. But I don’t think God is commanding a feeling when He tells us in Ephesians 5 to, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” He is commanding an action, a decision to trust Him despite what we see around us. And the command isn’t a burden. It is actually a blessing, because what we think about shapes who we become.
If we allow our sufferings to drown us in self-pity, complaints, and doubts, our minds develop thought patterns along those lines. But if we deliberately think on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure…” (Philippians 4), then our minds will be freed from the burden of anxiety and we will experience the peace of Christ.
I think, for many of us, 2020 resembles my own “dark night of the soul.” COVID, unemployment, racial tension, business closures, fires, political chaos, and riots have made this year one of the worst in the minds of many. This is the perfect time for us to do the work of giving thanks. The Lord is near. We can and should rejoice. If gratitude is difficult in your present circumstances, allow the gratitude of others to encourage you by delving into the Psalms or listening to worship music. Meditate on God’s promises and His past blessings. Keep a list of reasons to be thankful.
Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Make the choice to rejoice.
I will say it again: Rejoice!