Content & Green Site Coordinator, Counselor
Giving thanks when life is hard can feel frustrating, even impossible. Sin and sorrow have existed since the Garden, and today we continue experiencing the labor pains of suffering with increasing intensity. How can a young woman be thankful when her life is a cycle of broken promises and harsh words? Where does a husband find gratitude when he scours the employment ads while also trying to care for his sick wife? What does thanksgiving look like for the family facing an abrupt tragedy after a car accident?
Most therapists and counselors agree that practicing gratitude increases our joy and overall well-being. In fact, a common counseling exercise is to take time daily to identify one or two small (or big) things one can be grateful for in his or her life. This can be a helpful practice, but when life is particularly painful, it may feel like a generic or belittling suggestion.
Gratitude that depends on what is deemed “good” in our lives will always end in disappointment, or even self-condemnation as we wonder why God has not granted the good gifts we desire. Our thankfulness must be rooted in the hope Jesus won for us at the cross, not in the status of our current circumstances. When we form our gratitude around the shape of eternity rather than the hardships and heartaches of today, we will see our thankfulness multiplied.
Themes of thanksgiving are scattered throughout the psalms, drawing us in with pictures of praise and acknowledgment of God’s blessings. Psalm 100 is frequently referenced.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
How can we come into God’s presence with songs of thanksgiving when our hearts are devastated by loss or betrayal? How do we read a psalm like this with hope? Dane Ortlund writes a helpful reflection on it:
Sometimes the pain in life is so great that the thought of rejoicing seems not only distant but a mockery to our true emotional state. Yet we must receive what the Bible says in passages such as Psalm 100 because the Bible itself acknowledges the deep pain of life...And even more deeply the Bible gives us resources for wading through the pain of life with a joy and calm that transcends the darkness. As this psalm concludes, “The Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (v. 5). Your pain never outpaces his love. Your difficulty is surrounded by the deeper reality of his goodness. He proved it by sending his own Son for you. Even in the pain of life, we lift our hearts and our voices to the Lord.
If you find yourself struggling this holiday week to reconcile your pain with the call to “be thankful,” locate yourself in this psalm. Perhaps instead of listing your blessings one by one, you might increase your gratitude by marking promises of biblical hope. Hope invites us to wrestle with the discomfort of our suffering while drawing our attention to the assurance of glory. Rather than dealing harshly with yourself, forcing gratitude for hard circumstances, remember that God deals kindly with us and invites our doubt and sorrow to co-exist with his promises. You can bring your suffering to the table and thank God for his goodness.
 Dane Ortlund, In the Lord I Take Refuge, p. 276-277.
Melissa Affolter has served in various aspects of counseling and discipleship ministries for nearly twenty years in the local church.