"How Can I Give Thanks When It's Tough?"
October 7, 2007 Thanksgiving Ps.100; Php 4:4-7
Thankfulness Not Always Easy
Do you ever get the grouchies? Does it seem that a lot of the time you're in a funk, or things aren't going your way, and it's unrealistic to be thankful? The Bible speaks as if our basic attitude should be positive, an 'attitude of gratitude'. For example, Psalm 100:4, "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name." Or Php 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" Note it doesn't say just 'sometimes', or when you've had a good night's rest, but ALWAYS. Or V6, "...in everything...with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Then there's the classic passage in 1Thess 5(16,18), "Be joyful always...give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." Sounds like that's really what God wants us to be like, doesn't it?
Perhaps it's easy to be thankful on a beautiful summery day in October when it's a long holiday weekend and the temperatures about 10 degrees above normal, when your family's together and happy and you've just eaten a huge delicious meal. It's not hard to "give thanks" then. But life's seldom that rosy. It may be more like these humorous descriptions from the internet, "You know it's a bad day when...
Seriously though, we do encounter tough times in various ways that make it hard to be thankful. Bills mount up and it may seem like we can't make any headway. Some have nagging health concerns. Or there's some relational friction that just won't stop. Perhaps it's as simple as feeling lonely or abandoned. Sincere Christians may be persecuted, ridiculed, or just treated as weird by non-Christians because their beliefs make them different than the crowd. So, what's the secret of being thankful in ALL circumstances - even in the tough times?
Take It from One who Knows
The Bible wasn't written by folks who had it easy, as if they floated through life on some fluffy white cloud. This advice to "give thanks...always" comes from real people who faced great challenges and suffering. Consider Psalm 100 for example. It's not specifically attributed to David as are Psalms 101 and 103, but it sounds very LIKE David: especially with its 'back-40' shepherding imagery.
Think about how tough David's life was. He wasn't born in a palace, but in a farming community. He was treated trashily by the most important people in his life. In 1Samuel 16(5-11), when the prophet Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice, David's father remembers 7 of his boys and has them pass before the prophet, but forgets or overlooks his youngest son, leaving David out with the sheep as if he doesn't count. In chapter 17(28), after hauling heavy food supplies to his brothers in the army fighting Goliath and the Philistines, David's oldest brother doesn't thank him but 'burns with anger' at him and calls him conceited and wicked for his interest in the battle. In chapter 18(10) David is called to provide some harp 'music therapy' for depressed and unstable King Saul. What does he get in return? A spear hurled at him! Saul tried to pin David to the wall not once, but twice, yet David eludes him. I don't think there would have BEEN a second time if it had been me! Dodge the spear once - and I'm outta there!
Then followed a period for maybe 10 years when David's a fugitive hiding out in the wilderness, on all the 'wanted' posters for no reason. After he finally becomes king, in 2Sam 12(15-18) his infant child dies. Later his own son Absalom conspired against him, causing him to flee again for his life, being shamefully cursed and pelted with stones on the way (2Sam 15; 16:6f). So although David could be considered Israel's greatest king, his life was no picnic. Many times he must have been tempted to despair, but instead he praised God in song and gave thanks.
Or, in the New Testament, consider the apostle Paul. Who is this guy who says "Rejoice in the Lord always"? Did he have a four-bedroom house in the suburbs and a cottage on Easy Street? Where was he when he wrote those words in Philippians 4? He was in prison! Check out 1:13, "It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ." In chains; and not just an overnighter, he's been in custody for so long the whole police force knows his situation! As if that weren't bad enough, he has enemies who are actually preaching in an effort to make things worse for him. 1:17, they are "supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains". So helpful! Yet is Paul hurt or sore by this shoddy treatment? V18, "The important thing is that in every way...Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.Yes, and I will continue to rejoice..." Even in such desperate straits, Paul found reason to rejoice and be thankful.
So, both David and Paul are not talking through their hat when they recommend we give thanks always; they knew first hand what hardship was. But they looked beyond their painful circumstances to God who was using them to showcase His glory.
Rejoice in the Lord's Qualities
What would your typical person on the street suppose Thanksgiving is about? Maybe a harvest festival - expressing appreciation for crops, sheaves of corn and big round pumpkins. Others might say it's more general, saying thanks for material prosperity or even family, as we tend to gather with the relatives. But that's not the focus of thanks-giving in these passages. The Bible leads us to give thanks first of all for who God is in Himself; not His gifts, but His love, protection, and care - regardless of what financial state we happen to be in at the moment.
Look closely at Psalm 100 and you'll see vv1,2, and 4 are all just invitations to praise and thank God. The 'meat' is in vv 3 & 5: here God's qualities - half a dozen of them - are what's celebrated.
First, v3, "Know that the Lord is God; it is He who made us..." Give thanks to God for being your Creator, He made you, without Him you wouldn't exist. You're not an accident, some random combination of chemicals at the tail end of millions of years of statistically improbable reactions and mutations. The Lord has a purpose for your life, you're His workmanship, His prize crafting. He made you the way you are for a reason - don't get down on yourself! With your co-operation, the Holy Spirit is sanctifying you into a beautiful sister or brother of Christ. Appreciate that God made you.
Second, he "made us, and we are His; we are His people..." You're in relationship and responsibility to Almighty God. Believing in Jesus as Saviour involves giving ourselves over consciously to Him as Lord, in charge of our lives and decisions. Self has to get off the throne and kneel before Him. "We are His" - belonging to Him, He claims us for His own. Paul notes in 1Cor 6(19f), "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body."
We are His...4:5 says, "The Lord is near." That MAY refer to Jesus' Second Coming; but for believers it may also refer to God's presence, being close at hand. Jesus promised, "Surely I am with you always..." (Mt 28:20) Closer even than that, Paul talks about believers as being "in Christ" and even says that "Christ lives in me" (Rom 8:1; Gal 2:20). You can't get closer than that! We give thanks that the Lord is near.
Third, we thank God especially for His loving care. The Psalm says, "we are His people, the sheep of His pasture...His love endures forever." (Ps 100:3,5) The primary duty of a shepherd is to care for, or look after, the sheep. Isaiah 40(11) describes God as doing this with the greatest care: "He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." Interesting that the Holy Spirit through Scripture chose the imagery of sheep instead of, say, cattle or goats. Sheep are rather helpless and vulnerable livestock, and not the brightest! They require more care because of their fragility.
When our family was together last weekend for an 'early' Thanksgiving, we saw a picture of love in action when Keith and Darcie coached 3-month-old Isaiah during his morning 'tummy time' on a blanket. He's not even crawling yet - kind of in the pre-crawling stage - but if Keith puts his hands against Isaiah's feet, he'll shove himself ahead an inch or two...not even in a straight line. Isaiah's just starting to be able to hold his head up - you'd see him pushing with his arms, getting his head up to look around - then, WHUMP! Down his head would come on the carpet when he didn't have the strength to hold it up any more. So young and weak, so helpless - but Dad & Mom were right there, helping him, cheering him on, loving him with their time and attention. So God cares for His people-sheep, gently leading.
Fourth, v5 notes that "the Lord is GOOD..." There's nothing evil or sinister or mean in our heavenly Father, no shadows or darkness in Him. He is absolute goodness; not a shred of anything to recoil from or be suspicious of. That's actually a common refrain in the book of Psalms, "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good..." (Ps 106; 107; 118; 136) He's supportive, we can come to Him for anything: Php 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." His goodness supplies our need; we just need to ask Him.
Howard Hendricks writes, "My children have taught me many things about theology. When they were quite young we had a scholar visiting our home. After our meal, we were ready for our customary time of family worship, and we invited the man to join us. When it came time to pray, the kids, in typical childlike fashion, thanked Jesus for the tricycle and the sandbox and the fence and so on. Our guest could scarcely wait to take me aside. "Professor Hendricks," he began, very much the lecturer that he was, 'you don't mean to tell me that you're a professor in a theological seminary and yet you teach your children to pray for things like that?" / "I certainly do,' I replied...."You're on the road a lot. Do you ever pray for protection?" / "Brother Hendricks, I never go anywhere but that I pray for the Lord's journeying mercies." / "Well, safety is essentially what my boy is thanking Jesus for when he thanks him for the fence. That fence keeps out those great big dogs on the other side!"
Fifth, we give thanks because God is FAITHFUL. The Psalm ends by observing, "His faithfulness continues through all generations." God's not going to leave you in the lurch; you can count on Him, His word can be trusted. God can't lie (Num 23:19; Titus 1:2). Deuteronomy 7(9) sums up God's faithfulness well: "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands."
Billy Graham says, "Some years ago someone gave my little boy a dollar. Hebrought it to me and said, "Daddy, keep this for me." But in a few minutes he came back and said, "Daddy, I'd better keep my own dollar." He
tucked it in his pocket and went out to play. In a few minutes he came back with tears in his eyes, saying, "Daddy, I lost my dollar. Help me find it." How often we commit our burdens to the Lord and then fail to trust Him by taking matters into our own hands. Then, when we have messed things up, we pray, "Oh, Lord, help me, I'm in trouble." The choice is yours. Do you want to trust your life in God's 'pocket' or keep it in your own?"
Finally, we can be thankful that God GUARDS us with peace. Php 4:7 promises that "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." The Greek word for 'guard' here comes from a military term meaning either to protect from invasion, OR to keep the inhabitants of a besieged city from fleeing. Isn't that latter meaning so true? When trouble comes, our first impulse is to run; but God's sovereign protection gives us peace to see it through, knowing that God "causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him..." (Rom 8:28)
We are guarded by a mighty Shepherd. In the passage in John 10(27f) in which Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd, He adds: "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand." We're 'un-snatchable' in His care!
Thankful - for Fleas?!
This Thanksgiving, along with thanking God for the usual turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, let's go beyond that to things that even Christians in hungry countries can thank God for - His eternal qualities: that He's our Creator, we belong to Him, He cares for us lovingly, He is good through and through, He's unwaveringly faithful, and He guards those who trust in Jesus with perfect peace.
Then we may even be able to thank God for difficult things. For instance, who would thank God for fleas?
Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place relates an incident that taught her always to be thankful. She and her sister, Betsy, had just been transferred to the worst German prison camp they had seen yet, Ravensbruck. On entering the barracks, they found them extremely over-crowded and flea-infested.
That morning, their Scripture reading in 1Thessalonians had minded them to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. Betsy told Corrie to stop and thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters. Corrie at first flatly refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted, and Corrie finally succumbed to her pleadings. During the months spent at that camp, they surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without guard interference. It was not until several months later that the learned the reason the guards would not enter the barracks was - you guessed it - because of the fleas! Let's pray.