Thankfulness in the midst

Are you facing Thanksgiving day tomorrow with trepidation? Coming to that table of feasting with tears in your eyes because your heart is overwhelmed with pain or loss? Anticipating prayers and times of “sharing” with grief rather than excitement? Are you wondering what is the best way to honor God tomorrow as you prepare for a family gathering? What is the way to most glorify Him when all your heart can see is the lack of enough chairs around the table ~ the chairs that your children (or parents, or someone else altogether) should be occupying?

Oh sweet friends, I’ve been there. Treading those waters… oh goodness, I can’t describe it… just anguish, really.

One of my favorite authors, Nancy Guthrie, has said the following,

The truth is, it is possible to be filled with joy and still not be described as “happy.” Sometimes we’re just plain sad, not only down in our hearts, but down to our toes. Have you found that to be true? Have you experienced joy in the midst of your great sadness? … In fact, our joy should be as consistent as God is. It doesn’t have to be tied to the turbulent conditions of our feelings and moods. Our joy is grounded in God. It flows from him and back to him. Joy is not something we can generate with positive thinking or a bit of humor. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our inner lives. Joy shines forth from the life of the true believer, no matter how dark the circumstances.

Now, I think a bit of that can be applied fairly well to thankfulness, which is a relative of joy. Remember, while thankfulness is not listed in Galatians 5 as a fruit of the Spirit, it is definitely a work of God. I have often found joy and thankfulness to be deeply intertwined in my heart.

After Nancy Guthrie had two children die, she said, “while there were lots of tears of sadness in our home, there was also a great deal of joy. …sadness did not always define the atmosphere in our home. Joy was always peeking its way through the curtain of sorrow. To experience sorrow does not eliminate joy. In fact, I’ve come to think that sorrow actually deepens our capacity for joy — that as our lows are lower, so are our highs higher.”

And the icing on this cake: “It’s just not natural to experience profound joy in the face of heartache. It is supernatural; it is spiritual.”

I know that for myself, in very similar shoes, it can be very unnatural to experience profound thankfulness in the face of heartache as well; that too is supernatural, spiritual. Throwing myself at God’s feet and begging Him to make me thankful because I know there is SO MUCH to be thankful for has been one way I express my thankfulness.

There have been numerous years where I have not even said “happy thanksgiving” because happy just didn’t fit in my vocabulary. But if someone else said “happy thanksgiving” to me, I would seek to bravely reply, “yes, it is a good day to give thanks” ~ because that’s always true. Regardless of my feelings at a particular time. It is, in fact, always a good day to give thanks.

In another place, Mrs. Guthrie has said, “[God] doesn’t want you to exert all your energies following a moral code or figuring out doctrinal difficulties. He wants your heart.” And when your heart is bleeding and broken, that is exactly the heart you have to give Him: that may be, in fact, what you need to give Him tomorrow as your thank-offering. Give Him your bleeding, throbbing, broken, pained heart; He will be very pleased with this offering, as you acknowledge your brokenness and total reliance on Him for every breath.

And regarding gratitude specifically, let me share one last thing from Mrs. Guthrie regarding Ephesians 5:20 (“Always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”):

We’d like to figure out how to water this verse down. We think to ourselves that Paul couldn’t really mean everything. This seems like a tall order for anyone, but especially for those of us who have faced heartbreaking, soul-crushing loss. And yet we see this kind of worship through gratitude lived out in the life and losses of Job. In the wake of losing nearly everything he owned and nearly everyone he loved, Job fell to the ground expressing gratitude, not just for all the blessings God had given him, but amazingly, for everything God had taken away. “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be stripped of everything when I die. The Lord gave me everything I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21:). God gives, and God takes away. But let’s be honest. We just want him to give, don’t we? And we certainly don’t want him to take away the things or the people we love. … Genuine gratitude is a response not to the worth of the gift, but to the excellence of the Giver. …I know you can barely stand to think about being grateful in the midst of your loss. You may think I’m crazy to suggest that you could be grateful to God for who he is and all he has done for you as you face the empty chair… but if you refuse to nurture gratitude, you will become bitter. So would you turn your eyes from your loss and disappointment to the great Giver, asking him to reveal more of himself to you so that you might grow in gratitude? Would you ask him for the peace and joy that only those who nurture gratitude are given?

Then she encourages her readers to specifically pray for God to grant them hearts of gratitude in the midst of their very real anguish, and asks for us to meditate on 2 Cor 9:15, 1 Thess 5:18, 1 Tim 1:12, and Heb 12:28.

As another Thanksgiving holiday dawns, I just wanted to share some of the comfort with which I myself have been comforted in the past. I don’t even know if anyone who occasionally glances at this blog would be searching for such a kind of comfort at the moment, but it’s what God has given me when I’ve experienced those same questions near this same holiday, and so I wanted to pass it on today… because I remember.

Bring your heart to God; bless His name. Even though you bring brokenness, tears, confusion, pain, and wobbly knees… God wants you and your worship… and so you bring Him what you have and what you are. That, from what I know, is precisely what is most honoring to God in times like this, and what glorifies Him: thankfulness in the midst of your suffering. Not separated from your suffering, but actually in the midst.

Grace and peace, joy and comfort be yours in abundance. Let us give thanks for God and the many ways He sustains us through even the darkest of valleys and in the coldest of shadows.

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