The Bible instructs us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18) and to trade worry for thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6), but the question is how?!
In order to appropriately address this question, we need to consider the source of gratitude. Gratitude is the appropriate response to God’s gracious work in the world.
It is the love that expresses faith by saying, “Thank you for saving me from my sin; thank you for not abandoning this fallen world.”
It is the love that expresses hope by saying, “Thank you for promising to return and finish the restoration work you have begun.”
This same gratitude then expresses faith in difficult circumstances by acknowledging, “I know you have redeemed and rescued in the past. Thank you in advance for what you will do in the midst of this broken story.”
This same gratitude expresses hope in the midst of difficult circumstances by avowing, “I know that one day you will return and there will be no more ‘mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.’ (Rev. 21:4).”
Heart Blockage: Cynicism & Stoicism
Sometimes, though, when the diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer has been pronounced, or the news of a husband’s pornography addiction is fresh, or even when minor things frustrate us, our hearts do not beat with the response of gratitude. When we struggle to thank God in all circumstances, we should consider two possible causes of blockage—cynicism and stoicism.
I work on a team that brings worship services to our local jail once a month. On jail days, we know to expect the unexpected, to prepare carefully, check our lists twice, and that if something can go wrong, it will.
So on the terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day that everything went wrong, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The substitute chaplain had missed the message that he was supposed to fill in. The new guard told us that the computer we always used to play worship music would not be allowed. The guard who usually stayed with us and brought the inmates arrived 15 minutes late and promptly departed. She also didn’t return at the ordinary time to escort the inmates, and I was unnerved and irritated at the irresponsibility.
Ann Voskamp, in her stellar work on gratitude (One Thousand Gifts), asks the compellingly question, “How do I see grace, give thanks, find joy in this sin-stinking place?”On that sin-stinking day, when my irritable heart pumped with anger and condemnation at others’ mistakes and sins, I struggled to answer Ann’s question.
That day in the jail, I recognized my cynic’s heart in sarcastic thoughts zinging around, like, “Of course, the chaplain didn’t show. Of course, the guard randomly decided not to let us bring our computer.”
Simon Critchley, philosopher, described cynicism as “an attitude of negativity and jaded scornfulness.” Romans 1:21 suggests the roots of cynicism, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
That day in the jail, my foolish heart was darkened by negativity and scornfulness. I saw through a glass darkly, seeing only the frustrating here and now. My lack of gratitude was a failure of faith.
I forgot to remember that God had authored a captivating back story of redemption. The story began years before when he revealed to four jaded women that we were prisoners of our own sin. The story continued as God freed prisoners trapped in cycles of poverty, crime, and addiction with the hope of good news. The present story came to life each time we prisoners joined to worship the God who created us with his glory and redeemed us by his Son. As I recalled this amazing grace story, my gratitude grew.
Searching for Stoicism
Another source of blocked gratitude can be stoicism. Stoicism sometimes results when well-meaning Christians attempt to “give thanks in all circumstances” without naming the pain and sorrow of living in a broken world. Throughout Scripture, though, examples abound of people moving to gratitude through a process of grief and lament. Psalm 77 offers one such example.
The psalmist, Asaph, begins by naming his deep distress, going so far as to say,
“When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3).
Asaph momentarily questions the goodness of God,
“Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:8-9).
The psalmist’s words are an antidote to a Christian stoic response to suffering. Asaph teaches us that thanking God in all circumstances does not mean that we hear the news of a fatal car crash involving four local high school students and quickly enumerate three ways we are grateful. Psalm 77 teaches us that crying out to God aloud when we are bombarded by daily reports of political corruption is not only an appropriate response but, as we will see, also the unlikely route to gratitude.
The turn comes for Asaph in verse 10 when he proclaims,
“I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
Yes, I will remember your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:10-11, ESV).
In the remainder of the psalm, Asaph continues to express his faith and hope by recalling God’s previous works of redemption. It is through lament that Asaph’s heart beats again with gratitude to God.
A Heart Freed to Give Thanks
The Bible shows us how to give thanks in all circumstances. When our circumstances are particularly fraught with fallen world struggle, we need to move past both the cynical and the stoic response.
Muttering with the cynic, “It is what it is,” will not get us to gratitude.
Pronouncing with the stoic, “I will not feel the pain of this place” will not get us there.
Remembering, by faith, God’s previous work of rescue and redemption frees our hearts to beat with gratitude. Looking with hope to the future restoration work of Christ’s return frees our hearts to beat with gratitude. As our faith and hope grow, we find courage to give thanks in this “sin-stinking place.”