One of the fundamental duties of man is the responsibility to give thanks, to be grateful, and one of the fundamental realities of man’s experience is trouble. How are we to function in this kind of ongoing juxtaposition?
Massive cultural apostasies are the result of men refusing to honor God as God, and refusing to give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21). We are told as Christians to give thanks in every kind of situation. “Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:17–18). We are also told to give thanks for every situation. “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). This means that when we gather around our tables later today, we should render thanks for great and good things, obviously, but also for the troubles. In exercising the duty of thanksgiving, we do not seek to withdraw from the world, but rather to embrace it, all of it.
“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, And to sing praises unto thy name, O most High:” (Ps. 92:1).
We remember that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7). We are not called as Christians to deny the obvious, and the fact that it hurts is one of the obvious things. “This is my comfort in my affliction: For thy word hath quickened me” (Ps. 119:50). We can be comforted in our affliction by the Word, but the affliction remains what it is. Our desire should be to contexualize the hurt by faith, not erase it. The pain has a point, which is part of the reason it hurts so much.
Thanksgiving has arrived, but your back pain has somehow not left. Your friendship with someone dear to you has gone south. Financial pressures continue to mount. Rumors of layoffs are flying through the plant. You don’t know if you can handle another week working for your boss.
The desire to erase all pain is a sentimental temptation, a desire to escape into a Thomas Kinkade painting, there to live in a eerily glowing cottage. In one of his essays, George Orwell said this about literary attempts to capture ultimate joy. “All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures, from earliest history onwards.” This is not to say that there is no such thing as permanent happiness, but rather that we are far more dependent on the contrasts than we think. Orwell again, rightly in my view, says this about descriptions of eternal bliss. “It is a commonplace that the Christian Heaven, as usually portrayed, would attract nobody.” I think that an exception to this last observation would be Lewis’s descriptions in The Last Battle and The Great Divorce, but the fact remains that pure, unalloyed happiness in everlasting repose is almost impossible for us to conceive. Lewis does it by carrying a strong element of the already/not yet theme into glory. We are there, we have finally arrived, and we still have an infinite distance to go. Further up, and further in.
So our troubles provide us with traction. The Spirit of God ties our afflictions together with our blessings. He is the one who has packaged these things together so that we might learn to understand His wisdom. We often have a utopian take on festive holidays, wondering why there is any trouble at all. But rather, what God is doing for us is enabling us to put our troubles into real perspective. “As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10). If the apostle learned how to sorrow in his rejoicing, and rejoice in his sorrow, then that is something we could profit from as well.
When we have a trouble, and have been praying urgently for deliverance, we should view every day without that deliverance as just another bucket of water on the altar — so that when the fire falls, God will receive greater glory. Delays in deliverance do not diminish His glory, but rather they heighten it. God never delays so that He would receive less glory in the eucatastrophe.
When we have a trouble, and we ask to be taken out of the furnace, the reason He says no is that we are not yet the kind of silver He wants. He wants silver that is better than this. “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Is. 48:10). Shasta’s reward for having run so well is to run some more.
In short, thanking God for our troubles is not a perverse sort of masochism. We embrace the story, we embrace the process, we embrace the chapter of the novel we are in. When we do this, our pressing afflictions are still there, but we have learned to see them as momentary. We also have learned to see them as the necessary backdrop to what is coming. Without this chapter, the next chapter would make no sense. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
So rather than lamenting our troubles, we should lean into them. God is up to something really good, and while the grace is sometimes challenging — it is always grace. The reason we can have smooth wood is because of rough sandpaper.
In that context, and only in that context, we can also rejoice in the ordinary things. God does prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies. But when we look away from their glares, we can see on our tables the mashed potatoes and gravy, and the turkey, and the ham. We rejoice in the green beans, and we glorify God for the fruit jello. We raise a glass to the God of Heaven, who has made us men, and has given us wives, and who feeds us with kingdom parables.