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When Giving Thanks is Difficult


Have you ever found it difficult to give thanks? I have. I know others have, too. A few Novembers ago, a good friend died of a heart attack in his sleep. His nine-year old daughter discovered him in his bed. He was in his mid-50s, active and happy, a loving father and talented artist. After I preached his funeral, his dad came up to me and said, “My wife died in November, too. This used to be my favorite time of the year because of family and holidays – now I wish I could skip over this month.”

What do we do in such trying circumstances? How can we give thanks when we are deflated, dismayed, defeated? Here are a few of my thoughts:


I’m afraid some people believe that God gets angry or taken aback when we display raw emotion under duress. I don’t. After all, the Holy Scriptures record the honest thoughts and words of saints who have been hit hard. The Psalmist lamented when his haters closed in around him (Ps 69:1-4). Suffering Job, a righteous man, wondered if he had a target on his back (Job 7:20). And Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet,” wished his eyes could be fountains so he could weep 24/7 over the sins of his people (Jer 9:1).

God created us, including our emotions. He understands the height of joy and nadir of despair. If you know your Bible, you know that the Lord Himself is capable of deep emotion, including wrath, sorrow, love, joy and compassion. We have a sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4:15) who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4-6). Christ knows our pain. God gets it. If you are carrying the extra burden of thinking that God frowns on your sadness, anger or confusion, let that one slide off.


Because we have a God of empathy, we should take it easy on ourselves. When we lose a loved one, receive a negative diagnosis or face a shattered dream, we can’t just “happy-talk” our way out of it. A few days does not take care of a great sorrow. I have friends who wonder if something is wrong with them when they can’t quickly “get over” a major blow in their lives, such as the loss of a loved one. It takes months — sometimes a year or two. And sadness can still sneak up on you from time-to-time. Whenever the anniversary of my dad’s death rolls around, my heart starts to ache again. I don’t berate myself or think I’m faithless. I feel the pain for a spell and know it’s a fact of being human.


Eventually, we have to move forward. If we don’t, we will get stuck in depression or isolation. This doesn’t mean we can forget the pain, but we can distance ourselves from it so it doesn’t chatter at us all the time. With God’s help, we must continue with our work, relationships and interests. We should again pick up the things that gave us joy before our initial trial. We must serve and encourage others who are down, for doing God’s work imparts deep satisfaction. We always have a choice to wallow in darkness or step into the light. When we follow the One who is the Light of the World (John 8:12), we will naturally move away from the shadows.


Paul writes to the Thessalonian church that they should “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thess 5:18). As Ruth Bell Graham noted, “We can’t always give thanks for everything, but we can always give thanks in everything.” In fact, this is God’s will for us!

I’ll never forget the afternoon I answered that emergency pastoral call. I was literally pushing on the door to leave when my secretary rushed out with the news: a church member had come home from work to find her husband on the dining room floor, stricken by a fatal heart attack. After I stayed at her house for a while, I remember her lifting her tear-stained eyes to the ceiling and confidently proclaiming, “God is so good.”

I couldn’t believe it. She was praising God in the middle of a grief-tornado. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do that – and I was the pastor for goodness sake, the one who was supposed to be super-spiritual!

Colossians 3:17 states, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

“Through Him” is the key. I’m a weekend gardener and have recently begun to make compost tea. I dump a small shovelful of compost into a 5-gallon bucket, add water and let the sunshine bathe it for a few days. Then I pour the “tea” through an old window screen into another bucket. The compost — which is decomposed organic matter — collects on the screen in an ugly heap, but the stained water that flows through is garden gold. Compost tea is full of nutrients and beneficial microbes that make my plants happy.

What kind of screen do you have on the inside? We can pour bad experiences through a darkened, hopeless mind and end up with the sludge of misery. But if we filter the same circumstances through the Spirit-life within us, we can be “more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:37). This doesn’t mean that our circumstances magically dissolve, but it does mean that we can draw strength, hope and peace from our inexhaustible God.

Thanksgiving should not be limited to the fourth Thursday of November. It mustn’t be given only in good times. Expressing gratitude in difficult situations is  the antidote to the poison of despondency. As British preacher John Henry Jowett put it, “Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic. This is a most searching and true diagnosis. Gratitude can be a vaccine that can prevent the invasion of a disgruntled attitude. As antitoxins prevent the disastrous effects of certain poisons and diseases, thanksgiving destroys the poison of faultfinding and grumbling. When trouble has smitten us, a spirit of thanksgiving is a soothing antiseptic.”

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