Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6
There are difficult verses in Scripture… tons of ‘em! And not every one of the difficulty met is in the same category. Some verses are theologically difficult. What I mean by that is they seem to not quite fit neatly into our theological box. Others are practically difficult – we know what it says, but practicing it is an entirely different story. Recently, my church Life Group recently discussed on of the practically difficult ones… the one above. This verse has been quoted to me by my parents when I would grumble as a kid due to something not going my way, so I knew the verse well; but how to do it – that was the problem.
I’ve heard different interpretations on exactly “how” to give thanks as well. I’ve heard that we should stop and thank God for the very thing we are are despising at that moment. This seemed odd to me as I was practically lying to God. It seemed it shared the same foundational principle of “belief creates your reality” mindset. I could tell God “thank you!” until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t make my tragedy any less tragic, fix it, or give me peace. It actually made me focus on the fact that I was all the more worried, scared, etc.
I’ve heard that I should thank God for that tragedy as He was quite possibly using it to spare me from a much worse experience. This kind of gratitude still felt off. It was like being kicked in the groin by a kid as school and thanking him for not kicking me twice. To me, this didn’t seem to be an acceptable application of the verse either.
Then there was the, “you deserve much worse” mindset. This supposed gratitude generating mindset went like this, “You deserve hell and nothing better. This tragedy is better than you deserve, so be grateful!” It’s very similar to the second mindset mentioned except it is founded on a bit more negative view of one’s self and a slightly warped view of the manifestation of Jehovah in Jesus. While it is true that as a born sinner, I deserve hell. I’m not denying that, but if the only impetus I have for being grateful to the God who is supposed to be Love is merely that He chose to give me a little pain instead of eternal damnation then it seems my gratitude is more relief than actually being thankful. This mindset essentially takes anything and everything that comes into my life and says it’s good, thus I lose all distinction from good and bad events. It is similar to Grand Master Oogway’s, “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” While containing some truth, as a sinner I deserve to be left in my bondage to sin and be banished to hell, it still seemed off in the context of the gratitude Paul was encouraging here.
Then there was the “gratitude of the not yet”. This was essentially the name-it-claim-it response. The idea to this is that although it seemed my world was coming to an end, just thank God for what He is going to do. This attempt at expressing unshakable faith imagines that by thanking God for it, it will happen. I remember my Dad being hit with the reality of the failure of this mindset. There was a family in our church who had a very sick child. The child was going to die as there was nothing the doctors could do. My dad grieved with the family of that child. He fasted and prayed like I’ve never seen him do before. Then one day, he got this idea. He thanked God in advance for healing the child. Even though He hadn’t done it yet. As you probably anticipated, the child died. My dad’s response – crushed. Here’s the funny thing – this view is very close to the view I think Paul means here. It’s close because it’s not the whole.
See, when we are presently in a situation, it’s not enough to look to the future; that’s only ⅔ of the puzzle. There is also a past. The past is where we find the root of the faith that reaches into the future. Just as the deeper down the root of a tree reaches, the better it is anchored and able to reach up: so the further back our faith-root reaches, the more capable it is at reaching for those things that are ahead. The “gratitude of the not yet”, when merely looking ahead as in the instance with my Dad, searches for something to anchor to. In my Dad’s case, the anchor was the anticipated outcome which proved to be faulty. But when we anchor it in the past, we are no longer anticipating a particular outcome. Rather we are anticipating having the outcome God is working being revealed to us as He works it out. Oh, and here’s the thing, it reaches beyond our own short past. We have all of human history to encompass for that is how long God has been working in the lives of the peak of His creation.
This is what we see the Psalmist doing in Psalm 136. While I would encourage you to read the entire Psalm, he says that the love (mercy) of God is eternal. This future statement generates gratitude (as in the first verse) and is firmly rooted in the works of God in the past. The idea is that because God has always been faithful in the past, He will continue to be faithful. This seems to be the best way for me to give thanks to God while I’m in the midst of a worrisome/tragic event. It keeps me balanced as I see that while God didn’t always respond the way people would have anticipated (sometimes His people met death), He is ALWAYS faithful to His covenant. While He promises to work things together for the good of His people, that doesn’t mean we can predict exactly how this will play out. It means we can gratefully, and even joyfully, anticipate the wonderful outcome He is working even while we’re in the middle of despair. After all, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and if you check His track record on that it will read, “Faithful, Faithful, Faithful”!
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.
His love is eternal. Psalm 136:1