On Thankfulness

We should thank God when he does things that are good. Because it’s polite.

Also, because we’re told to (1 Thessalonians 5, Hebrews 12), pretty much (Psalm 103, Colossians 3), all over (Isaiah 12, Psalm 107), the Bible (1 Chronicles 16, Psalm 95). Our lives are supposed to be defined by thanksgiving.

Let’s unpick my assertion a little, we should thank God when he does things that are good? When God does things that are good. You mean like making the world? And then not destroying it when we took instead of waiting to receive? And then blessing as a gratuitous gift the people that fallibly followed him throughout history? And then coming himself as a servant—like all true Kings—to teach a people whose very beings stank with their rebellion? And then to stand in their place and suffer, and submit to death, even death on a cross? And then to rise from death to glorious life, winning for us victory over the enemy and the grave? And then to ascend to the right hand of the Father to intercede for enemies made friends every day until he returns to wrap up the heavens in a song and cause justice and mercy to flow like rivers?

Those good things?

I mean, it’s a start. And well worth thanking God for. Beyond that of course you could take apart my initial statement another way. God, by definition, does not do things that are not good. He is goodness. He cannot act otherwise.

Which is classical Christian theology, but challenging to us. There is not a single reader who would not have at least one question about why that particular set of events was judged to be ‘good.’ We should not flee from the difficulty. We certainly should be careful about repeating “God is Good. All the Time,” to each other without considering how that true affirmation will be received by those in the most abject of suffering, or even struggling with the accrual of petty disappointments like barnacles on the hull of the good ship faith.

Of course, what I meant in my poorly formulated opener, is that we should thank God when we receive blessing that we recognise as blessing—there are blessings we don’t recognise as such, but that loops us back to the difficulty with our conception of the good. By blessings we probably mean answers to prayer.

We should thank God when he answers our prayers. We should thank him all the time (1 Thessalonians 5), but we should specifically and publicly give honour to God when he intervenes in the world to bless us. Even for the things that seem coincidental. That old adage that “more coincidences happen when I pray” is not a bad rule to live by. That has been my experience too.

It is good to do this, beyond simply because that is the law and the way of Christ, because it builds our faith; it strengthens the faith of our churches; it gives God due honour; and it encourages us to keep praying. We are, in my experience, bad at remembering that we asked God for exactly this scenario some time before. I only remember because the Lord nudges me to, as far as I can tell. The most fun stories are, of course, when you pray in despair for the Lord to break in with no real expectation but enough faith to approach the Father, and then he does so within hours and you realise he had answered your prayer before you spoke.

Of course, there’s a challenge here. Because if we hear lots of stories of God’s marvellous providential provision in the lives of our friends, but everything has gone wrong in our life, what are we to think of it?

Is this on me? My prayerlessness or lack of faith or lack of joy? Some might want to tell us so, and while self-examination is always good, I don’t think that’s why. The times that I have beaten my fists bloody pounding on the heavens (Deuteronomy 28) and the Lord has not done as I requested despite my requests being godly and in line with his general revealed will, are not times that I can point to my own failings as being responsible for my lack of blessings.

In fact, for all self-examination is healthy, your lack of tangible blessing is not on you.

Does it then mean that God does not love me? No. No. Dear friends, a thousand times no. The Lord of Angelic Armies is for his beloved church and for his children. Jesus is for his friends.

So why then? That is the question we must turn back to the heavens. We have to develop robust theologies of suffering, I’ve been edging around these questions here at nuakh for a while. There is not a simplistic answer. There are answers, but if we do not believe that God wounds his children for their good that they do not understand, then we will struggle to apprehend them.

Even though I have a theology that has space for the times when godly Christians’ lives absolutely suck, and they suffer in the full force that we can know suffering here in the relatively safe, stable western world, I still don’t have what we might call answers. I cannot explain why that did, or did not, happen. Nor should I be able to (Job 38-41). Run away from people who try.

What does this have to do with thanksgiving? I know people who are diligent in thanking God, much more so than I am. But when tragedy strikes, even the small everyday tragedies of dreams that die, they don’t know what to do. They feel like they are meant to thank God for it, and give themselves no space to grieve, and in so doing score their souls with a lie unspoken: that God doesn’t actually love them.

It is in these everyday griefs that we are meant to learn that God loves us. After all, we are commanded to be rejoice (1 Thessalonians), but joy is not happiness. Joy is the fruit of longing, and longing requires that our dreams are shattered enough for us to look to the land of the living.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

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