Giving Thanks When Life Gets Hard
- Jennifer Slattery JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com
- 2014 25 Nov
It comes every year, only this time you dread it. Just thinking of the holiday and all that it entails, feels draining. But what you dread most isn’t stuffing the turkey, mashing the potatoes, or even scrubbing the toilets in preparation for company. No, what you’d do anything to avoid is that moment when your entire family, from your great aunt to your infant niece, are gathered around the table, sharing highlights of their year.
Johnny got a raise. Linda’s pregnant. Stacey’s engaged.
You? Life’s been crazy. Uncertain. Disappointing. Hard.
Watching everyone else celebrate, hearing their joyful snippets, only makes your struggle feel that much harder. Darker.
You want to join in. You know you should join in. It’s the appropriate Christian response, after all. Besides, you have it much better than 90% of the world, many of who experience unimaginable poverty or persecution.
But that doesn’t make Thanksgiving any easier. So you turn to God in prayer, asking him to cultivate a grateful heart within you.
I believe it is in that very moment, when things feel unbearably hard, that our thanksgiving becomes the most beautiful. It becomes a sacrifice offered up to our Savior. Doing so won’t be easy. In fact, we can’t do it in our own strength. But by taking our thoughts captive, drawing near to Christ in prayer, and focusing on our blessings, however big or small, we can grab hold of the peace and joy available to us through the cross.
This doesn’t mean we won’t grieve or struggle. Rather, it means our struggles won’t consume us and overshadow God’s goodness and grace.
After facing the terrors of death, after crying out to God in desperation, the anonymous psalmist who wrote Psalm 116:17 says:
“I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.”
A sacrifice always costs us something. It involves releasing something, willingly depriving ourselves of something. And yet, if we belong to Christ, we know our greatest losses become our greatest gains. As Christ said in Matthew 16:25, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (NLT).
To find our life, we must willingly relinquish it. This means surrendering everything—rights, concerns, hurts, frustrations and questions to God. Trading them for grace. When we do this, we begin to grab hold of the abundant life Christ offers.
At that moment, we begin to trade our anxiety for peace, our sorrow for joy, and our bitterness for love. That’s not to say our struggles miraculously disappear but rather, their sting diminishes in light of God’s tender mercies and grace. Through thanksgiving, he becomes greater and we become less (John 3:30), and that’s a good thing, because we need all of Christ we can get!
Having two chronic illnesses, I deal with chronic and unrelenting pain and fatigue. There are days when I get John 3:30 flipped, and I focus all my thoughts on me. This does nothing to ease my pain or increase my energy. To the contrary. The more I focus on me and my problems, the more miserable I become. Before I realize it, I’ve wasted a chunk of my day in sadness. Worse, by feeding the downward spiral of negativity, I’ve robbed myself of enjoying all those little things that could be bringing me joy.
Things like a relaxed, conversational meal with my family.
A giggly day with my friends.
A quiet morning soaking up the peace-giving presence of my Savior.
And yet, on those days when I determine to focus on Christ and the gifts he’s granted, everything becomes easier. More joyful. Intentional gratitude becomes my lifeline to joy and peace.
Giving thanks centers our hearts and minds in Christ and reminds us of his love, power and goodness. This puts our problems into perspective and encourages us to draw near, rather than pull away, from God during difficult times.
Consider the if, then statement Philippians 4:6-7:
Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done (NLT).
This is a powerful verse, when applied. Don’t fret, feeding your negative and anxious thoughts with all the what-ifs. Instead, turn your concerns over to God. As you do, pause to thank him for all he’s done. Like when he provided that check just when you needed it most. Or when he led you to a wonderful church that became a place of healing. Or, when your heart was breaking, and he spoke to you through a song, sermon, or kind word from a friend. Or when you first understood and accepted his free gift of grace.
There’s something miraculously uplifting about reflecting on God’s faithfulness and unchanging character. It reminds us of his sovereignty and power. It reminds us that he is always working on our behalf.
The Creator of the universe, the One who formed us, knows us, loves us, and died for us, and has our entire life planned out (Psalm 139). His plan is good, filled with hope (Jeremiah 29:11). Our struggles and pain don’t surprise nor confound Him. Rather, he allowed them, for our good, to grow us into the men and women he created us to be. This alone is a reason to give thanks. Not that we’re going through a time of testing, but rather, that God is carrying us through it and has a purpose in it.
We know this intellectually. The hard part is letting that truth sink in deep enough to elicit praise. But here’s the thing—we are in control of our thoughts, and our thoughts control our emotions. Our emotions in turn control our responses.
To offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, then, we’ll need to center our thoughts on the things of Christ. In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul tells us how to do just that.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (NLT).
Notice this passage directly follows Paul’s instructions on dealing with hardship. He is laying out a step-by-step guide toward finding peace, joy, and gratitude.
When I’m going through a particularly difficult time, I turn this passage into a prayer and declaration. Focusing my every thought on Christ, I say, “Lord you are true, noble, right, pure and lovely.” As I go through the qualities named in verse eight, my heart begins to lift, and it isn’t long before gratitude follows.
Because the Lord inhabits the praises of his people, and whenever we draw near to God, he draws near to us. Life is hard. Life will continue to be hard as long as we live on this sin-tainted earth. But life can be incredibly good as well. God’s blessings abound, even in our darkest nights. Sometimes we just need to look a little harder for them. When we offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to Christ, our hearts become centered in his love and peace. This in turn loosens the grip our pain and uncertainties have over us as they become overshadowed by God’s goodness and grace.
Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects, and currently writes missional romance novels for New Hope Publishers.
Publication date: November 25, 2014