Giving Thanks . . . for What We’re Not Thankful For
Good coffee and crisp fall mornings. That’s easy. My amazing wife of nineteen years and my three awesome kids. A no-brainer. The job that I am currently, totally jazzed by. Consider me a Texas gusher of gratitude.
Giving thanks for these gifts comes easily this year. But as valuable as it is to celebrate the good, the true and the beautiful things given to us by God All-Generous, what about the other stuff?
You know, the unspoken prayer request kind of stuff.
This question springs from one of those hard teachings of scripture that saves us from drifting away on a sea of sentimentality. Rather, it grounds us in the earthy, everyday reality of “everything.”
Here it is:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NKJV)
HOW CAN WE BE THANKFUL?
The phrases drop in there so fast you could easily skip over them. “In everything.” “With thanksgiving.” Really, Paul, really? There have been many times in my life when this exhortation gagged me like a horse pill going down.
How can anyone find something to be thankful for when:
- your parents are alcoholics
- your dad dies of diabetes complications
- your worst nature gets the best of you
- you fail at something really important to you
- your child is sick
- you’re trying to love someone with a mental illness
- you’ve disappointed your spouse
- your career hits a dead end
- you get lab results that are positive and the prognosis is negative?
In everything? Like the Exiles we cry out, “How, O Lord, can we sing our songs in a foreign land?”
And yet, what if we could? What if, this very Thanksgiving, you could somehow find a way to be thankful for what you’re not thankful for? Wouldn’t that be liberating?
SOMETHING TOO GOOD NOT TO BE TRUE
It’s a hard truth to master, but I’ve come to understand that Paul knew something too good not to be true. While there is definitely a time for our laments, he offers us a hard-earned spirituality of thanksgiving that cannot be dismissed as romantically giddy or dulled by the denial of heart-breaking realities. These words are neither some triumphalistic, escapist fantasy nor are they an exercise in calling black, white.
He gives us, simply put, a theology of the redemptive possibilities in everything. God is working through everything for the good of everyone in every place at all times. “The Lord is at hand.” He is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. He abides with us. Regardless of our situational experience of “blessedness” or “cursedness,” we are not abandoned, alone, or alienated from his affections. And since that is the ground of reality we stand on, we are safe. We can rest. We can hope.
When I think back on everything in my life that I have not been thankful for, I can see now some good that God has worked out of it, some way that those unwanted things and unwelcome people formed me into a more mature human being. Some things took a lot of time and a lot of adaptation, but don’t tell me this is all rationalization. This is reality, a lived-in reality that displaces my anxieties and gives me hope for the next situation I will find hard to be thankful for.
I’ve also learned that no amount of blessing-counting gives me the same kind of hope and peace as when I invite God to be “at hand” with me in the chambers of my heart where my losses, disappointments and grudgingly acknowledged ingratitudes live. By seeking God in my everything, and not compartmentalizing my life into the good things I talk about and the hidden resentments I might vainly repress, I am truly free to rejoice.
This deep truth was reinforced for me recently when my Bible study fellowship collaborated on what we called “The Gratitude Project.” The recurring theme in the stories of my friends was the gratitude they now know after God led them through an experience they were definitely not thankful for. Broken marriages. Illnesses. Job losses and relocations. On that storytelling day, we cried together and we laughed together and we gave thanks for the God we experientially know is “at hand.”
SO IF YOU’VE HAD A ROUGH YEAR
So, if you’ve had a rough year and the cultural platitudes of thanksgiving are ringing a bit hollow, take heart. Dare to believe that the Lord is, indeed, at hand in your actual, unfinished, messy life. In your everything. Dare to hope that one day, someday, all of the seeds of things you are not thankful for will produce in you a harvest of courage, creativity and compassion for others. And dare to rest. Rest in the peace that surpasses all understanding because Christ Jesus has overcome everything that threatens to diminish you.
As Brennan Manning says, “All is grace.”
Originally posted on November 24, 2011.