I often wonder when it’s time to say “thank you” in contentment, and when it’s time to say “I need more.”
I remember when I was in high school, and a close friend of mine was going through a personal crisis. Everything he knew was beginning to crumble apart around him. However, my Christian conviction kept compelling me to tell him to be thankful. As my friend was dealing with a serious crisis, I couldn’t muster up much more than “this is the life God gave you, be grateful” and “why don’t you focus on all the good things in your life instead?”
That’s what I was told growing up: always be thankful for what God provides. It took me a while to realize that there are seasons of frustration. Seasons where our gut-instinct is not thanksgiving. Seasons where the first thing that comes to mind is a desperate plea for help.
I can’t imagine that people who’ve suffered great loss, who are struggling with addiction or navigating a dysfunctional relationship or whatever the struggle may be, are turning to God in thanksgiving. I don’t think any of us would consider it odd or wrong to hear someone like that cry out I need more Lord! I can hardly believe that I was the person who told someone like that to be content and thankful.
Don’t get me wrong. There are also certainly times in our lives when we know that we should be content and thankful for what we have. Maybe it’s a work-situation that isn’t quite perfect, a season of life when you’re unsure about the future, or a dog who will never stop misbehaving! (or is that just me?). But it took me a while to realize that I needed to adopt a healthier form of thankfulness in seasons of pain. Something that parted that the traditional notion of non-stop thankfulness.
I think of the Psalms as beautiful illustrations of a healthy thankfulness. It wouldn’t take someone long to realize that the whole of the Psalms are riddled with agony and despair. Again and again the Psalmist basically… complains.
Psalm 79 is a perfect image of this. The Psalmist laments about the destruction of Israel and God’s anger being poured out on them. He’s convinced that God is fully capable of saving Israel, but chooses to wait for divine reasons unknown to him. At the end he cries out:
“Before our eyes, make known among the nations
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants…
Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will praise you forever;
from generation to generation
we will proclaim your praise.”
Did you catch that? The then? “Then we your people will praise you” the Psalmist writes. The psalmist if crying out for help from a very human-problem: death. He is searching for God’s intervention in the midst of chaos. And he tells God that once God has done something, then Israel will move from lamentation to thanksgiving.
A healthy thankfulness does not mean you have to be blind to real problems you have. According to the psalmist, the healthy attitude is to commit to God our worries, and wait for help before moving to a season of thanksgiving. In the psalmists’ mind at least, you can’t thank God for a rescued Israel when Israel isn’t rescued. I believe it’s the same with us.
When my friend was in the midst of agony, it didn’t help him much to reassure him that thankfulness is the correct response. It helped him when he would be honest about his pain. Everything is not okay, and i’m waiting on God’s guidance. Then I will be able to move to a season of thanksgiving.
When life is a disaster, I’ve learned that I’ve grown more when I’ve given him my honest anger rather than my fake thanksgiving.