One thing I’m grateful for during this week of Thanksgiving is the opportunity to visit in-laws and friends in Colorado (which is providing plenty of time for extra blog writing!). There is only so much you can do in Northern Virginia to deviate from its culture of busyness and ambition, especially when there are only tiny pockets of natural beauty left amidst the office buildings and shopping centers to remind you of the fact that reality moves along outside of the circumstances you experience. I think about this a lot when I am able to get away to the forest park, or when I stop to watch ants carry food diligently and quietly across the sidewalk on the little mission their Creator has implanted in them – all while the human world whizzes by, rarely taking notice.
Maybe I’m a weirdo, but I’m a big believer in the importance of the occasional existential crisis. We should train our hearts not to shy away from the recognition that we are small, fragile, and not the center of the universe. The rest in a holiday “vacation” and the beauty of a place like Colorado provides space for reflection when I may otherwise be tempted to turn this holiday season into another opportunity for anxiety and discontent.
I realized today that this temptation is compounded by the many “catching up” conversations I’m having with family, friends, and strangers. Maybe it’s because I’m not great at small talk or because I struggle with using the responses of other people to gauge whether my problems and successes are legitimate, but I find I’ve spent most of these conversations complaining about my circumstances. Happy Thanksgiving?
Of course there is a time for honesty regarding the trials we experience, especially when talking to people who genuinely care about us and whose godly wisdom can be trusted to give good counsel and prayer. But there is a God-honoring way to discuss problems, and then there is an unproductive, sinful way. I notice an overriding tone of bitterness, an incredible lack of “but God,” in my rehearsed explanations of what my life has been like in the latter part of this year. Sure, there have been afflictions aplenty: the pains and discomforts of a difficult pregnancy, the health emergencies of immediate family, the strain of living in an expensive and lonely region, and so on. But I’m getting a bit weary of making these topics the center of my conversations. My life can’t be defined by the problems I encounter.
Why don’t I take care to point out how God is bringing good from bad? If I’m honest, it’s probably because I struggle sometimes to believe in my heart what I proclaim to be true. When I elevate my hard circumstances over all things, I show in that moment that I’m not trusting God to be powerful or good enough to enact redemption. I conveniently forget all the many, many times where He has done exactly that.
God has always been faithful to convict me in seasons where I’m tempted toward despair. This mental and emotional shift in perspective, a shift from the glorification of problems to the glorification of God’s power and sovereignty, has almost always been produced by a deliberate choice to regularly, habitually give thanks. I don’t recommend the author’s teaching, but the Lord graciously used the book One Thousand Gifts to bring me out of a severe depression in the earliest stage of my Christian walk. This was not because there is an abundance of doctrinal truth to be found in Voskamp’s writing, but rather because of her determination to point out how gratitude and awareness of small mercies can make real joy possible, even during trials. (If anyone knows of a book that proclaims the same message but doesn’t promote mysticism, please comment and let me know.)
Many people have an aversion to habitual gratitude because we only notice the most grandiose demonstrations of God’s kindness. Perhaps we fear deep down that we’ll run out of things to be grateful for after we thank Him for our food, our family, and our home. Of course we should be thankful for these things! But if we think these are the only expressions of grace worth mentioning, we will soon have our gratitude overshadowed by the multitude of small inconveniences, frustrations, and disappointments that we face each day. So here’s a practical challenge for you and me both. Rejoicing over small mercies.
During one of the most tumultuous but peace-filled seasons of my life, my journal recorded and recognized gifts such as these:
- Evening sunlight filtering through the tree in Mom’s backyard
- A friend’s quirky, too-loud laugh
- The trust of a tiny bird who took the French fry I offered
- The first daffodil in early springtime
- The earthy smell of new and old books
- Steam rising from a coffee mug on a cold morning
- The ability to see in color
It felt silly at first to treat these everyday occurrences as things to thank God for, but over time, the reality of all the little joys began to overshadow both the bigger and smaller moments of pain. And I think a large part of this is due to how gratitude turns our eyes outward, whereas despair and discontent make us obsessed with what is happening inside or to us.
Do whatever you think would be most effective to cultivate deliberate, habitual thankfulness in your life, through prayer and repentance that is empowered by God. Do it not only for this week of Thanksgiving, but for as long and as often as you can manage. Make time for it. Teach your children to do it. Even the world understands the importance of things like gratitude journals and “thank you”s and deliberate pauses in the harried moments of life. How much more ought we, who know we are given infinitely more than we deserve, see thanksgiving as a necessity? A biblical command (Ps. 50:14; Ps. 107:8-9; 1 Thess. 5:16-18; Phil. 4:6-7)? Something that not only is beneficial for us, but is sinful for us to neglect?
And I pray this week that we can learn not only to thank God for positive things big and small, but also for the times where it isn’t yet apparent how a trial could possibly be good or right (see James 1). I pray we learn to give thanks in all things, even for the hard circumstances, because we expect and trust that they’ll serve to bring glory to God and good to His people.
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Colossians 3:15-17 ESV