Gratitude: When it Hurts Like Hell

flowers on table

During this time of year when everyone’s scurrying to secure the makings for the picturesque Thanksgiving spread and oozing gratefulness out their every pore, it all appears shiny on the surface. But in the privacy of our souls, it can feel a bit contrived; token, almost. Overly saccharine and ingenuine, frankly. Especially when life’s been decidedly bitter as of late, souring our spirits…

Don’t get me wrong—I adore Autumn and warmly embrace the celebration that is Thanksgiving each year, with all its trappings and laser focus on God and His gracious gifts. Almost more than Christmas, whose real meaning can so easily get lost in the fog of commercialism.

But aren’t we Christians supposed to exude gratitude every day, not just as we gather at Fall’s end to reflectively feast? Personally, I tend to feel a bit bashful before my God this time of year…like He’s giving me the side-eye, just feeling a little gipped by the other 364 gratitude-lean days on the calendar. Of course, this is not the case. Our meager offerings, however affected by the seasonal bandwagon, are a fragrant aroma to our Creator, pleasing to His heart.

Perhaps my sheepishness is more a response to the HARD WORK giving thanks can be in the midst of a challenging season—and when that season is conveniently nestled in the center of another season, whose very theme is gratitude. Because let’s face it—our human nature can make it hard to focus on the positives when life’s swells are bowling us over. Not to mention thanking God, the Almighty Allow-er, for the very source of our pain—it just feels impossible at times.

The truth is, some of us are dealing with some hard, hard realities. Realities that cast a dark cloud over our sunshine, rendering the giving of thanks a sheer act of the will. For better of worse, practicing gratitude in the midst of these storms–when we commonly feel anything but thank-full–can be downright pain-full.

Of course it’s easier to be thankful for the good stuff; for the abundance in our lives. But it’s the bitter pills in life that are trickier—both to swallow and to savor.

A few nights ago I swallowed one–hard. After a hard day depressed, feeling it both situationally and chemically, I cried in the shower. Worn. Utterly discouraged. By the sheer will it takes to make it through the day at times, only exacerbated by unpleasant circumstances thrown in by life for good (bad?) measure. To stand up under the beating winds of depression and anxiety, with my head held high and eyes focused on my Savior, no less.

HARD.

And then I remembered. The little word my counselor shared with me last week during our session: “for”

As in, “…giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” Ephesians 5:20 (NKJV)

She was careful to make the distinction between this little preposition and another that appears in Scripture in reference to our sufferings: “in”.

As in, “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NKJV)

Both applicable, God-breathed Words of life. But one more helpful to our discussion here, in the pursuit of harboring gladness specifically for the truly wretched, unwelcome circumstances in our lives. “In” implies “in the midst of”, as in, being thankful in the midst of it all, whereas “for” implies giving thanks specifically for the unpleasant realities; those bitter pills that shred our insides going down…

As the water beat down on my back that night in the shower, I willed myself, tearfully, to choke out words of thanks for my affliction. It was painful. And I didn’t feel it.

But I know with time, with practice, I will begin to truly feel these words of thanks. Thanks for my unfortunate plight, and for the ways it humbles me; brings me to my knees before my Father.

I know, because God’s good like that, and I’ve been here before. And I know the feelings always follow the obedience—the discipline of completing the commission. That’s what He’s after—the heart condition, inclining us to give thanks for that which we’re just NOT that thankful. It’s in the act of giving thanks, as we look our faithful Father in the grace-filled face, that we, and our embittered, trial-averse souls, soften. Melt into His merciful arms, held. Sheltered. And rejuvenated therein.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

In the meantime, my tearful, whispered offering is enough, because I know He knows my heart, and the pain in the weathering of my trial, and subsequently, in the offering up of thanks for it. But the happy fruit of this offering? The peace that passes understanding. (Philippians 4:7) What could be better?

The prayer I scratched in my journal the morning after my scourging shower was this: “Lord, cultivate in me; nurture in me a spirit of thankfulness for my depression.” (Yes, Lord. Let it be done.)

I trust, I KNOW, He will meet me in this need; in this striving for greater holiness through assuming the posture of gratitude. It’s His will for me. And for you.

So go, give thanks. Even if you have to force yourself. The feelings will follow…

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