Back at the beginning of November, I wrote about how my pastor had told a story about being thankful in the midst of difficult times (“Changed by Thankfulness“). I was struck by his illustration, and I decided to let it shape a spiritual discipline for me in the month of November. So, during November, while everyone was posting “30 Days of Thankfulness” on Facebook, I decided to talk to God and thank Him for difficult things in my life each day. Here’s what I learned:
Gratitude Doesn’t Mean Having Bad Theology
As several readers pointed out in the comments on the original post, being thankful for hard things is kind of a dicey subject. Someone mentioned sadomasochism. Another reader cautioned against “calling evil good.” In other words, can we really be thankful for true evils like sin and injustice? No, and we shouldn’t. We can freely hate the things God hates.
As I talked to God about these kinds of truly bad things, I found myself asking, “God, show me what I can be thankful for in the midst of these circumstances” — not the evil itself, but the good that He would bring out of the bad.
Sometimes We Should Thank God for Nonsensical Things
I also did a lot of thinking about how sometimes it’s hard to tell when a circumstance is truly bad and when it’s something we would give thanks for, if only we could see into the future. Our perspective is limited because we’re stuck in this thing called “time,” and God is outside it.
A story that was forefront in my mind so many days in November was the story of Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie in Ravensbruck prison camp during World War II. (Corrie recounts it in her book The Hiding Place.) After a dehumanizing stay in the quarantine barracks upon arrival, Corrie and Betsie are transferred to their permanent “lodging” in the camp. Barracks 28 is stinky, overcrowded and severely under-appointed for the number of women living there. The smell of sewage and rotting straw sleeping pallets is bad enough, but then they discover something even worse: The barracks are infested with fleas. As Corrie and Betsie pray, Betsie insists that they thank God for everything — even the fleas. Corrie can hardly bring herself to do it.
During their time in Barracks 28, Corrie and Betsie end up leading dozens of women in a powerful Bible study, thanks to a Bible they were able to smuggle in upon arrival. With fear and awe, they continue to hold the study, despite the punishment they will surely face if caught by the guards. Much later, Betsie learns why the guards largely leave them alone: They won’t enter the barracks because of the fleas.
So November had me asking God, “What are the fleas in my life?”
What are the things that seem only bad right now, but if I persevere and trust and thank the Lord, they will be true instruments of His goodness to me? Since there’s no way I can know that from where I stand, I want to be open to thanking God for things that don’t make sense right now.
Just Talk to Him
The final thing I realized through this new discipline of thankfulness is that I can — and should — talk to God a lot more about the things that are hard for me. Somewhere along the way, I had fallen out of the habit because of a bad application of some good theology.
I hold strongly to the idea that, while we can’t choose our circumstances, we can always choose our actions and our attitude in response to them. That’s a solid belief, I think. But it’s not OK that as I lived it out, I spent less and less time talking intimately with my Lord about circumstances that were really painful. I adopted a kind of grin-and-bear-it mentality, forgetting that my heavenly Father cares deeply about me and wants me to pour out my heart to Him just as I see His people doing in the Psalms.
So the thing I’m most thankful for, after this season of a strange kind of thanksgiving, is having been reminded just how much God loves me and wants me to bring Him every care of my heart in prayer. It’s not burdensome for Him, and it increases my intimacy with Him.
How has God shown His love for you in the midst of a difficult circumstance?