I once heard a story about a missionary who was exhausted and had arranged to take a holiday in a quiet and lonely cottage in the country. When they arrived at the house there was a card on the table that said, ‘Try giving thanks.’ The suggestion went straight into their heart like a healing arrow—they admitted their failure to give thanks, walked straight back out of the cottage and went back to work: energised and content.
There’s no question that this is an important habit, but there are dangers here. Using it as a positivist, ‘won’t be told, push on regardless’ mantra for example, which in the end actually serves as a blocker to listening to your team, listening to God, and making you into an almost Buddhist, individualist stoic who has abandoned the whole idea of valuing the honest (and sometimes quite negative) insights of brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. We only have to look at the psalms of disorientation for example to realise that God himself invites us into what could be called the ‘tradition of brazenly challenging and wrestling with God’. Without that, and without those messy long conversations with our brothers and sisters we will find ourselves turning into an unteachable lone ranger who loses all interest in the joy of learning and raves on like a cracked record about ‘praising the Lord!’
This habit of thanksgiving is not intended as a self-protective device, it is intended to take you to a place of honest affirmation where you first of all lay out how bad things really are—in sometimes brutal honesty, and even challenging God via a psalm like #88. Having done that, you then choose to deliberately co-operate with God in a spiritual event that unleashes his power.
So, try giving thanks, but not so much for the thing itself—you don’t want to kind of back-handedly blame God for what might have been your fault, the devil’s or the world’s. And focus your thanksgiving on the good—which you won’t yet be able to see—that God (with the help of your trust) will already be bringing through the pain.
As you go to the prayer, forget about waiting until you feel thankful. The whole point here is that you are unable to feel thankful. So get on with it and lift up to him even the faintest of worries or disappointments, stuff that maybe you feel embarrassed to even be worried about. And instead of flooding him with a requests, simply thank him that he is the great carer of souls and is deeply loving and serving those who are on your heart—even your enemies. Yes, this may seem naive, but there are greater ones than you and me who have found this to be a true and tested secret principle, which—when activated—unhinges the power of darkness and causes death to begin to work backwards into life.
Once, after having to face an awful tragedy, I went for a walk late at night, found a bar and – with the permission of the Holy Spirit – had a couple of long slow scotch and cokes and cried for two hours. Then a few weeks later, took a long slow drive at night to pray and while I was driving a faint and dark voice began speaking into my soul: ‘Keep going and don’t come back,’ it was saying. I laughed at what I took to be a devil, but the retort came back, ‘You just don’t get it do you! What we have is so much better!’ Again I was astounded at the thought that the devils actually think they have a better deal going, like a man whose entire life is a wreckage calling out to his neighbour to come and join him.
Sometime later I remembered words that were written written three thousand years ago in a world where babies were ritually offered to the flames as an act of solemn worship and teenage girls would ‘faithfully’ go up to temples to live for a time with filthy priests because it was the thing to do. The words were written by the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed some of the worst atrocities in history and this is what he wrote: ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness O Lord unto me.’
‘That’s what I love about this mysterious gospel,’ I found myself thinking. ‘It doesn’t care. Doesn’t apologise. Won’t hang it’s head in shame and say I am right!’ As in, it does care about me, but it doesn’t have much time at all for this knocking on my door sulk that wants to get in so that together we can punish God for all the #%*! in this world.
This gospel has stared long and hard into the faces of lying priests, blood thirsty demons, and – before this newcomer called evil was even thought of – the everlasting face of eternal love. It refuses to accept the argument, which claims that Exhibit B: The Existence of a Broken Innocence, means that somehow, Exhibit A: The Existence of Innocence, no longer counts in this debate. It thinks that the once innocent heart of a man– rather than being an embarrassing interlude that he is hoping nobody will mention – is the most telling and significant thing that ever happened to him and a no-brainer clue about why he exists.
It asks me with all the authority and wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, to ‘bet my life on one side’, to assert that God is good and is in charge and to obey that God by giving thanks—through gritted teeth if necessary. It even challenges me to apologise for not giving thanks, which seems to be tantamount to refusing to sing the anthem of this kingdom. There are of course caveats in the modus operandi of this Grace-King, when faced with a challenger such as me. He likes to wrestle for example (as Jacob found out). So, in the process I may find myself taken on a ‘melancholy tour of a blood-stained killing tree, dark hilly calvary’ in the hope that I will see that if this was good enough for the greatest of soul-carers, then why is it not good enough for me?
But beware, this is not a positive thinking, visualisation game, this is a spiritual battle. We do it because we have chosen to trust that he is here, he is good, he is in charge and that this present crucible of pain can be transformed into a work of redemptive grace, which— together with him—unleashes the power of holiness, which will change the core of my being. My part is to trust, and to persistently give thanks, even to the extent of writing a thanksgiving list of people and things (big or small) that I am worried, outraged or bitter about. And then giving thanks about them every day.
Romans says, ‘God works for good in all things with those who love and trust him.’ (Rom 8:28) In other words there is a condition to this promise of working for good: one sulky human will could be stopping a miracle from happening. Nothing is exempt. One experience that I hold out on has the power to enslave me for the whole of my life because it is so bound up with my determination to sulk. And not just me, my family, work mates, even a whole town or nation can fall under the spell, if I become a person of great influence. On the other hand, if I give thanks, the secret sulk will be broken and I will have something to be thankful about. If I don’t I won’t, and the sulk will prevent the coming to life of that secret principle, which—when activated—is able to unhinge the power of darkness and cause death to begin to work backwards into life.
‘They say life’s rough
And I hear you’re doing it tough
But if you grumble and complain
You only add another chain.’