We know what the Bible says (First Thessalonians 5:18): Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Over and out. But how? How do we live out that “all” part? How?
Writing as a senior fellow for the Hoover Institution, the psychological scientist and Stanford professor William Damon makes this observation: “If there is some desirable balance in life between appreciation and criticism – between a comfortable perception that the glass is half-full versus a resentful grumble that the glass is half-empty – we are living through a time when the scales are tipping in the direction of negativism. Given this, my sense is that football and the turkey will far eclipse any wholehearted expressions of gratitude on this particular Thanksgiving.”
Did you catch that? Negativity is everywhere, and gratitude is waning. If that’s what you’ve been thinking, you’re right.
And it’s not just culture-specific, but it’s holiday-specific too. A survey by the National Women’s Health Resource Center discovered that two-thirds of women report depression during the holidays. According to Healthline, here’s the deal: “The stress and anxiety during the months of November and December may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.” And Dr. Kenneth Johnson, a psychiatrist at Columbia St. Mary’s, boils it down even further for us: “Depression is higher in the winter months in general, but the biggest cause of holiday depression is unmet expectations.” If I might say it another way: when it comes to one of the year’s big deals, we hype it up for weeks and then get sad when it doesn’t feel like it was supposed to when it’s all said and done.
And it’s not just culture-specific, or holiday-specific … it’s person-specific. For some people whom I dearly love, 2019 has been the most painful year of their lives. With no close seconds. How in the world can we give thanks under those kinds of circumstances? It’s clearly not easy to give thanks when mental illness has invaded. When death has claimed one of our children. When the relationship most dear to us has been stolen by adultery or abandonment. When all financial resources have been drained dry. And, yet, this is life this side of heaven.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to stretch us all for a moment. If Romans 8:28 is still true – and it is – and “all things” are working for my good and God’s glory, perhaps this moment of profound sadness (whatever it may be) is part of the plan. Here’s what I’ve found about my own seasons of depression, friends: without them, my propensity toward jerk-ness is immense. (Is it O.K. for me to admit that?) Sometimes, at least, I know that God is creating empathy in me through my own sadness. I don’t like dark nights of the soul any more than you do, but I’m discovering that they’re abundantly necessary if I’m ever to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
Not only that, but – through our experience of pain – you and I are learning to make peace with the past. We’re having to actually trust God to cover our sin and shame by the blood of His Son, shed for us on that cruel-but-wondrous cross. And think about this: if we had nothing to consider to be “dreadfully wrong” with life in our present condition, would we really long for heaven? I have to tell you (again, I’m a little scared to admit this): I’m not sure that I would. I need to own my regrets. I need to own my sorrows. I need to own my “if only’s” – anybody else have those besides me? – because each one reminds me that the here and now is far from perfect – and that I’m not home yet!
We all want to settle in and have it all, well, nice. I get it. But this is life on a fallen planet last time I checked. Perhaps, by God’s grace, you and I can find blessings of eternal value hidden even in the putrid things. Don’t get mad at me for that last sentence – remember, it’s Romans 8:28 that’s driving us. And, if it is, then Thanksgiving does matter after all. Even this year. Even now.
The German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), is probably best remembered for his resistance to the Nazi regime. No doubt desiring more than all else to follow Christ, Bonhoeffer’s road was marked with pain and struggle. He wrote: “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God.” After his unjust arrest and two-year imprisonment, Bonhoeffer was transferred from Berlin to Buchenwald, and then to the extermination camp at Flossenburg. On April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged.
That was some nasty stuff that Pastor Dietrich had to walk through to get to glory, but I think that our older brother captured it amazingly well: “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”
Tranquil joy. Count me in.