Nearly every country has a holiday or a season where we give thanks. Americans celebrate it on the fourth Thursday of November every year. The holiday harkens back to some of the first European settlers on North America, and how they gave thanks for surviving what became a deadly trip for many.
Thanksgiving has become a day for gathering with family and friends around a feast– usually turkey, mashed potatoes, and the like– to recall the good things we have. Like every family holiday, it’s not always fun. Family gatherings can be contentious when people are resentful. They can be mournful when we’ve recently lost loved ones. Sometimes, that crazy uncle just gets drunk and ruins the fun.
Sometimes, people just don’t have much for which they feel like giving thanks. Families break up. People live in poverty. Children get sick or even die. What is Thanksgiving when life is terrible?
It is difficult for us to give thanks at all times, even in bad times. But that’s what Christians should do. St. Paul writes, in Phillipians 4, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
He tells the Philippians to offer their requests, i.e. the things they want God to change, with thanksgivings. When they asked God to protect their families from the Romans who wanted to kill them, they were also supposed to give thanks. When they prayed that their children might be healed, they also had to give thanks.
God always gives us something for which we can give thanks. He gave us Jesus, who died and rose from the dead for us. Jesus, who is with us through joy and sorrow. Jesus, who forgives us when we sin and comforts us when we mourn. Because of Jesus, we have God’s grace that leads to eternal life. This is God’s true, most precious gift, a promise that whatever happens in this life, we will rise to a perfect life when Jesus returns.
That’s why Paul can remain content in all circumstances. He continues in Philippians 4, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” He knows that Jesus is truly all we need, and our present circumstances are always temporary. Good will come and go. Evil will come and go. But Jesus remains forever.
But even that way of looking at life divides the gifts that God gives us into things for which we should be thankful and things for which we should not. If all life is a gift from God, shouldn’t we be thankful for everything we get, the good and the bad. If all history is moving toward uniting heaven and earth in Christ, shouldn’t we give thanks for every moment that moves toward that end?
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, who taught at a University for two decades before moving to Ontario, Canada, to with with adults with intellectual disabilities. A prominent theologian, his words often move people to a deeper desire for spirituality . He once wrote this about gratitude:
To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.
All of life is a gift from God. Everything we have comes from him, both what we call good and what we call bad. God sends rain that waters crops, and he also sends rain that floods cities. He gives us fire to warm our houses, but he also sends wildfires that burn homes to the ground. He is there when a police officer protects the innocent and when a thug steals a purse. How can we give thanks for the bad as well as the good?
Some people try to answer this question by calling everything good. If God does it, then it must be good. Here’s how it might go. Say a little girl gets stabbed. That’s a terrible thing. But the knife helps the doctors find cancer early so it’s treatable. Then the stabbing must be good, right? Since all things work for the good, bad things lead to even greater good.
But that is just a way to rationalize away the bad that happens. We want to push away the idea that God might actually bring about suffering. When a girl gets stabbed, it’s bad, even if it leads to finding and treating a dangerous cancer. When bad things happen, they are still bad.
Nouwen suggests that we should thank God for bad things that happen to us. Life is a gift, and everything encompassed in that gift is a gift, even when it’s awful.
As he says, “that requires hard spiritual work.” It’s hard spiritual work to remember that sickness, though bad, is still a part of God’s gift of life. It’s hard spiritual work to remember that our good God provides difficult times as part of his gift of life. Nothing happens to us as a mistake. It’s all from him.
How do we do that? How do we develop that spiritual muscle? It begins with Jesus, of course. We know that God is good, because he sent us Jesus.
Jesus, himself, offered thanks in the middle of suffering. When he died on the cross, he cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” While that might not look like a thanksgiving, it is. Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. When someone quotes a portion of a passage, he wants us to keep the whole thing in mind.
Psalm 22 vacillates between complaint and calling on God’s goodness. It begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Then it quickly changes to trust in God. “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”
This tension is the heart of giving thanks for everything God sends us. God is good, and he brings about things that hurt us. So, we trust him. He is in charge, and he gives us what we need. Then, we can give thanks even for that which hurts us.
Comments will be approved before showing up.