The Bible instructs us to be consistently thankful. In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, the Apostle Paul said, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (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.
“How can I be thankful when…?” Various scenarios complete the sentence. “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 I’m in the middle of chemotherapy?” Throughout my years as a pastor, I’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 you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or feeling afraid because you’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 we’re also feeling sadness or fear or whatever else seems inconsistent with being thankful. For example, this will be my twenty-fourth 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.
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.
“But,” you may object, “you lost your father a long time ago. You still feel pain, but the wound isn’t fresh. What about people who are in the midst of suffering right now? Can they be truly grateful?” My answer is “Yes.” How do I know this? Because I’ve seen it time and again in my ministry. I’ve watched people in the midst of a crisis nevertheless be able to express authentic thanks to God.
When I think of gratitude in the face of suffering, I remember 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 Years’ 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: “Nun danket alle Gott, mit Herzen, Mund und Händen.” 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.
I’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 God’s “wondrous things” and “countless gifts of love.” The hymn acknowledges that we will sometimes be “perplexed” and suffer “all ills.” 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 “all praise and thanks.”
The ability to look beyond our immediate circumstances is itself a gift of God’s grace. If you’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 God’s gifts. Most of all, think about who God is. Meditate upon his mercy and love. The more you do, the more you’ll find true gratitude flowing from your heart.