Remind most persons how often the Bible talks about thankfulness, and you're bound to get "the look" - the look that says, "Well, that's stupid, and obviously, the Bible has never tried to live my life." Because when we talk about being "thankful in all things," a lot of persons feel cheated out of their pain, their anger, their misery, their moping, their whatever. They look at their life and are completely sure they're entitled to their very human reactions. Be thankful? For this? You must be a special kind of stupid.
But the Bible never says to be thankful for all things; rather, it admonishes to be thankful in all things. The only things we have to be thankful for are the things that come from God's hand.
And that's not, by the way, "everything." That's just another faulty piece of the serpent's theology that creates a space to pit man against God unnecessarily.
A right kind of thankfulness, a thankfulness in all things for the things that come from God's hand does not deny us our human reactions. It does not reject our pain, our anger, our misery. It doesn't preclude us from, in the same breath as our thankfulness, also declaring how hard things are right now or how miserable. Quite the contrary, actually - our thankfulness creates the necessary contrast for us to see our circumstances in their true light. And this small little thing changes our entire experience of them.
Take something fairly mundane for most of us - a diet. Most of us have tried dieting at one point or another, usually with mixed results (or temporary results). Human beings on diets generally complain about still being hungry, not being able to eat enough food, not fully satisfying their stomachs because dieting is so hard. But thankfulness changes dieting.
Serve yourself a portion of food that is sufficient, even if it does not seem enough to satiate your hunger. Eat it. Enjoy it. And then, when it is gone, be thankful for it. When it doesn't seem enough and you feel your hunger still aching, be thankful for the nutritious food you have just given yourself, delicious as it was, and something strange happens - thankfulness fills up what's left of your emptiness and you don't feel hungry any more; you feel satisfied.
Or what about those days when you're barely getting by, when you're living paycheck-to-paycheck and there never seems to be a margin. You sit down to pay bills once again, knowing it's going to come down to pennies in your balance. It's easy in this moment to stress out about it, to feel things pressing in on you. But pay each bill and then be thankful that today, there was enough for that bill. Pay your next bill and be thankful you could cover it. Pay your next bill and be thankful...and all of a sudden, something strange happens - thankfulness expands your space and you start to breathe a little easier; things really are okay and the pressure's off. You may not have it all, but you have enough.
Or take something a little harder. Take that moment when your doctor says it's not good news, when there's not a lot left, if anything, that modern medicine can do for you. At this point, we often immediately think about all of the things we still want to do, all of the others we still want to be there for, all of the future that gets cut short. But thankfulness doesn't have a future; it dwells only in the past and the present, the things it has and knows. Be thankful even here, and your focus shifts. You feel a new strength as you reflect on the graces your life has given you, on the contributions you've made to your community, on the love you've given to those closest to you. And then, something strange happens - a peace settles in.
None of this changes your circumstances. You're still hungry, poor, sick. But your perspective on these things has changed in a way that allows you to live more fully in them. It's the strangest thing. Hunger doesn't feel like deprivation any more, and you're able to recognize it as a false signal, as an ache for something beyond sufficiency. Thankfulness for sufficiency jots a note on your heart that says, no matter how you feel about it, that was enough and it was good.
Poverty doesn't feel like a cage any more. You're able to see how you have enough, even though it doesn't feel like a lot, and when you have enough and it is good, you always feel like you have a little more.
Sickness and death don't hang over you like a cloud any more. Trying to live your life from the future backward never works; it will always leave you just short of where you want to be. But thankfulness lets you see all that you already are and live from the strength of that knowledge. You are enough and it is good, and you've no need any longer to fear what you may never be because of all the things you already are.
This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and it really does make a difference in your life. Not because it changes things, not because thankfulness somehow makes your circumstances different, but because it changes your perspective on them. It lets you come at your life from an entirely different heart, and it doesn't just make a difference, it makes all the difference.
So if there's something you're facing that seems too big, if you're standing in waters that seem too deep, if you feel your heart drawn toward the pain, the anger, the misery, the moping, try thankfulness. You don't have to be thankful for everything, but in all things, there's something to be thankful for because God is right there providing for it.