The Bible instructs us to be consistently thankful. In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, the Apostle Paul said, â??Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for youâ? (1 Thess 5:18). This sounds nice enough, until you find yourself in difficult, even painful circumstances. Then inspired biblical truth can feel like an insensitive platitude.
â??How can I be thankful when . . . ?â? Various scenarios complete the sentence. â??How can I be thankful when this is the first Thanksgiving since my mother died? Or when my family is in such disarray? Or when Iâ??m in the middle of chemotherapy?â? Throughout my years as a pastor, Iâ??ve often heard this sort of question, especially as Thanksgiving Day draws near. People would really like to feel grateful, but their life circumstances seem to make genuine gratitude impossible. They feel stuck in discouragement and despair.
If we take the Psalms as a model for prayer, then we should certainly feel free, even obligated, to share with the Lord our frustrations and disappointments. Genuine prayer is not putting a happy face on our true feelings. If youâ??re grieving the loss of a loved one, or feeling afraid because youâ??re facing a serious illness, you should surely share these feelings with God in prayer. Being thankful in all circumstances does not mean pretending or denying.
But it does mean that we must look beyond our particular circumstances. Gratitude comes when we look at the bigger picture, when we remember the multitude of ways in which we are blessed, even if weâ??re also feeling sadness or fear or whatever else seems inconsistent with being thankful. For example, this will be my twenty-first Thanksgiving without my father, who died of cancer in 1986. Every year on this holiday I think about my dad. I miss him. I wish we could watch football together. I wish he were there to carve the turkey. Mostly I just wish I could be with him. So, ironically, on Thanksgiving Day I feel more sadness than usual over the loss of my father. (Photo: my dad and me in days gone by)
And yet I also feel thankful for him. Although I wish I could have had more time with my dad, I treasure the time I did have. I thank God for the hours my dad and I spent playing Candy Land and Star Reporter; and for his subtle sense of humor; and for his solid example of Christian faithfulness; and for his support when I desperately needed it. I am able to offer genuine thanks for my father, without denying the sadness I feel over his early death.
â??But,â? you may object, â??you lost your father a long time ago. You still feel pain, but the wound isnâ??t fresh. What about people who are in the midst of suffering right now? Can they be truly grateful?â? My answer is â??Yes.â? How do I know this? Because Iâ??ve seen it time and again in my ministry. Iâ??ve watched people in the midst of a crisis nevertheless be able to express authentic thanks to God.
This year will be the first one since 1982 that I will be away from my extended family at Thanksgiving. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog recently, earlier this year my wife and two children moved to Texas. So this year we’ll be spending Thanksgiving Day 1300 miles away from the people who have always been part of our celebrations. I know we’ll miss them. But I also expect that the sadness of being away from our family will accentuate our appreciation for them. If anything, hard times can make gratitdue even more accute.
But what about suffering that is far greater than missing loved ones? Can one be thankful in such a predicament?
When I think of gratitude in the face of suffering, I think of Martin Rinkart. He was a pastor in the city of Eilenburg, Germany during the first decades of the seventeenth century. If you remember your European history, this was during the so-called Thirty Yearsâ?? War. Eilenburg, as a walled city, was often overcrowded with refugees. This often led to famine and disease. Conditions were so horrible in Eilenburg that thousands of people died, and, for a season, Rinkart was the only minister in town. During this period of time he performed up to fifty funerals in a single day. Over his lifetime he officiated at over 4,000 funerals. We can only imagine the horrific suffering Rinkart experienced.
In the midst of this ordeal he wrote several hymns. One caught on among German speaking people and, in translation, among English speaking people as well. What was this popular hymn? In the original language it begins: â??Nun danket alle Gott, mit Herzen, Mund und HÃ¤nden.â? In English translation the hymn is a Thanksgiving favorite:
Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices;
Who, from our mothers’ arms,
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in God’s grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God,
Who reigns in highest heaven,
To Father and to Son
And Spirit now be given.
The one eternal God,
Whom heaven and earth adore,
The God who was, and is,
And shall be evermore.
Iâ??ve always liked this hymn. But I had probably sung it fifty times before I learned about its background. Now it means so much more to me. Martin Rinkart was calling for thanksgiving, not in a season of plenty, but in the midst of want. He was reminding us to look above our pain and to remember Godâ??s â??wondrous thingsâ? and â??countless gifts of love.â? The hymn acknowledges that we will sometimes be â??perplexedâ? and suffer â??all ills.â? But by lifting our eyes above these immediate circumstances, we are able to give thanks to God. The last verse looks, not to the good things God has done for us, but to the very nature of our good God, who deserves â??all praise and thanks.â?
The ability to look beyond our immediate circumstances is itself a gift of Godâ??s grace. If youâ??re struggling to be grateful, ask the Lord to give you a fresher and truer perspective on your life. Allow yourself enough time to remember and reflect upon Godâ??s gifts. Most of all, think about who God is. Meditate upon his mercy and love. The more you do, the more youâ??ll find true gratitude flowing from your heart.