When giving thanks is hard

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

This is a difficult biblical command, especially when life is hard.

With Thanksgiving this week, there are many who are struggling to celebrate and be thankful. If you are reading these words from Paul and it seems impossible to rejoice, you are in good company.

It’s important to know that the Apostle Paul wrote these words to people who, on the surface, didn't have a lot of reasons to celebrate. He wrote these words to a church in Philippi that was facing opposition and resistance from the outside and conflict within. How could he say such a thing to people who are suffering?

Well, Paul himself knew a thing or two about suffering. In fact, he wrote these words from prison, and he wanted to share with his church family a secret for navigating life’s hardships.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength,” Paul writes in Philippians 4:12-13.

Is it possible to rejoice and give thanks in the face of suffering? Paul would say a resounding “yes.”

But not on our own.

Paul tells us that it is only through the strength of Christ that he can be content in any situation. We can try and try on our own strength to be grateful in all circumstances, but ultimately our efforts will fall short. Paul has learned the secret that even gratitude is a gift.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:15, Paul exhorts another church facing persecution to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Many people interpret this passage this way: God really wants you to give thanks, so you better get your act together and be thankful all the time.

But the truth is that we cannot be thankful in every circumstance by our own willpower. If it’s God’s will for us to be thankful, He will empower us to do it.

When I worked at Crossroads Prison Ministries, I read hundreds and hundreds of letters from people behind bars who were so incredibly grateful, even joyful. Sometimes the letters were a mix of both lament and gratitude. Those things can coexist.

It deeply challenged me how these men and women could be so thankful in the darkest of places. They had learned the secret that Paul wanted the Philippians to learn and the secret that I am inviting our church to enter into. When we don't feel thankful, God is waiting to open our eyes to His many blessings.

As you prepare for your Thanksgiving celebrations this week, you may or may not be feeling very thankful. Maybe it seems like there isn’t a lot in your life to be grateful for at the moment. Would you join me in asking the Lord to bring to mind the many gifts — sometimes hidden, sometimes in disguise — that are all around you?

One of the sages in our congregation recently taught me a helpful gratitude practice. Ask yourself, "What is the smallest thing I am thankful for today?" Then consider: What could the Lord do with a mustard seed of gratitude?

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