While leading a women's Bible study, we started to talk about thanksgiving. The Bible is full of admonishments to be thankful in all situations (such as Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:17; and 1 Thessalonians 5:18). But we wondered, what exactly does this mean? And to be frank, how can God possibly expect us to be truly thankful in the midst of the challenges and tragedies we encounter throughout our lives?
A few days later I went for a walk, and as I began to pray about some painful situations our family was facing, I realized I was doing a whole lot of asking and very little thanking. I sensed God nudging me to bring an attitude of thankfulness to my requests and so I began again, adding thank you to my prayer and reorienting my thoughts accordingly.
I had no idea how much that would change my prayers … and me.
At first I'd prayed for a family member battling cancer this way: Lord, be with Sam (not his real name). Give him courage and strength as he goes through each day. I pray that your will be done in his life and that you will be glorified in whatever happens. Lord, if it is your will, please heal him.
But then, as I tried to pray in gratitude, my prayer became: Lord, thank you that you are with Sam. Thank you that he is your child and that you are never far from your children. Thank you that you promise to guard Sam's heart and mind with a peace that passes all understanding. Thank you that you alone hold life and death in your hands and that you will be glorified through his life.
My prayer for my kids and the challenging situations they were dealing with at school had been: Lord, I pray that you will protect their hearts and minds as they are exposed to words, ideas, and images at school that aren't from you. Help them to stay strong. Give them courage to live for you and represent you well. Give them wisdom each time they face new situations.
But now I prayed differently: Lord, thank you that you are able to keep my kids from stumbling. Thank you that the Spirit within them is greater than the spirit within the world. Thank you that you promise to continue the good work that you have begun in them until the day of Christ Jesus.
The simple act of adding "thank you" to the start of my prayers forced me to shift my focus from the problem and onto God's promises. Doing so gave me new hope and perspective. Saying "thank you" helped me envision the big picture that makes our lives seem more meaningful and our trials more purposeful. My courage rose as I acknowledged, once again, that my story is connected to God's story and that he is present within our experiences.
Perhaps this is what Paul was suggesting when he wrote, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6, NIV, emphasis added). Maybe Paul wasn't asking Christians to be thankful for every situation, but instead to bring thankfulness into every situation. When we determine to make ourselves pray "thank you" even when life is hard, we then have to formulate a statement of what it is we're thankful for. This requires us to really think about life with gratitude—to focus on who God is and how near he is to us.
One thing I've learned is that practicing thanksgiving glibly doesn't change anything—the situation or my perspective. Simply saying the "thank you" won't make everything magically better. And even sincere gratitude doesn't make pain go away—but it does give us the strength we need to keep going.
In some of the most painful moments in my life I've thanked God with tears streaming down my face. It wasn't because I was grateful for what I was experiencing; it was because through that intentional gratitude I was overwhelmed with the realization that God was there with me, in the midst of it all, and that he was carrying me through. I could trust his strong arms not to drop me, not to abandon me, not to let me suffer alone.
New Depths of Gratitude
In the past few months I've had many opportunities to practice this new approach to thankfulness and I've shared it with my children as well. One night as I was preparing to go to bed, my 10-year-old son came into our room in tears. He had been thinking about our beautiful German Shepherd who had died suddenly last summer. The grief felt fresh to him once again.
So I set up a makeshift bed for him beside me on the floor and, as we snuggled in for the night, we began to thank God together. We thanked God that he knew what it was like to be sad and to experience the death of someone he loved. We thanked him that he promised to be with us, to help us heal, and to bring us peace. And as we prayed together about our gratitude, my son slowly drifted off to sleep. I held my child and waves of more gratitude flowed. Thank you, God. Thank you.
The attitude of thankfulness God asks me—and all of us—to embrace doesn't point me in the direction of capitulation or submission as I had expected, but rather toward courage and hope. And with that understanding, I can more fully and confidently pray with sincere thanksgiving in all situations.
Kristal Toews is the director of women's ministry at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.