So often thankfulness is seen as an overflow of happiness. But if that were the case, where is the depth? If we only gave thanks to God during seasons of bliss, what does that make our relationship with God look like?
Looking at Scripture, and looking back on my own life, I’ve learned that thanksgiving isn’t only an attitude we are to posses when life is going well and when we can “pin the feather on the turkey” without thinking too long and hard. Thanksgiving isn’t when we have a Pollyanna approach to life, and pick and choose the good stuff to focus on. If we think it is, then I want to challenge you with the thought that genuine thankfulness of heart is so much more.
True thanksgiving, and the kind of thanksgiving that I believe gives the most praise back to God, occurs when we’ve come to the end of our rope. Or, like Jonah, am trapped in the belly of a whale. I’ve heard the story of Jonah many times, and have read this passage many times. It wasn’t until last week that the depth of thanksgiving struck me from what is here. This passage is when Jonah after saying “no” to God and running in the opposite direction, found himself sitting in the belly of a whale. Jonah believes he is going to die, and that this would be his last prayer.
Jonah 2:1-9 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Thanksgiving, true thanksgiving requires sacrifice. Thinking of all the “easy things” to be thankful for is a good thing. This jump starts our hearts and minds into being attentive to the gifts God gives us. But once we’re able to get there, there’s a farther step that typically requires a step of faith. If we don’t take this step, I’m going to say then we are willingly missing out on deepening our relationship with God, and falling more in love with Him than possibly ever before. This, my friend, is the step of giving thanks go God in the midst of pain, stress and heartache. And that step leads to us being able to actually thank God for the pain, stress and heartache that life throws our way.
I feel like Jonah is a Biblical character that we often pick on. But the passage, and his story, is pretty deep. Jonah went through a mess of a time and then of all things, got swallowed by a whale. But when Jonah got to his lowest low, he looked to God. Jonah knew that God could do a miracle, and save him. But Jonah was human, like you and me, and I’m pretty certain that Jonah thought his life would end by being digested by a fish. (Uh, nasty.) So looking back upon all that God had done for him, he is moved to thanksgiving. Now that’s an amazing heart-change that took place! And guess what?
Johan 2:10 “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
Jonah’s life was spared. When we get to the end of ourselves, and look to God, it should stir our hearts to thanksgiving. I’m not going to tell you that your pain will end, or your prayer will be answered in the way you want. But I will say, thanksgiving allows God to work in our hearts and change our perspective in order help us accomplish the tasks God sets before us. (Remember, Jonah lived, but God still had him go preach in Nineveh.)
Living in chronic pain is something that just doesn’t go away. It’s my “thorn in my flesh” I guess you can say. The pain fluctuates, but it’s always there and it has been since I was twelve. Not being able to do normal activities when I was younger like dance or sports was hard. I tried to not let it bother me when I sat on the sidelines of my friends’ soccer games. But I’m human. And it did. But through the years, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I leaned to a greater degree, what being dependent and relying on God means.
As pain greets me every morning, it’s an opportunity to turn towards or away from God. Many years ago I decided to not let this turn me away from God, but I allowed God to work in my heart and turn me towards Him. Looking to God has made me be able to say with genuine thankfulness, “Thank you, God, for this pain that allows me to see my constant need of you!”
“Because of it, I have learned to cry out to You all hours of the day and night. Because of that, I have a deep and abiding relationship with You that I would never want to trade for anything…even a pain-free life. Because of that, You have opened doors for me to share with others what true joy and lasting gratitude looks like, and that it’s possible for them to find it too.”
You may not live in chronic pain like me, but I can almost guarantee that there’s something in your life that threatens to take away your genuine thankful heart and rich relationship with your Father. Obviously, my story is nothing like Jonah’s (and I doubt yours is too) but I think there is something from his story and journey to thankfulness that we can all learn from.
Life has never been picture perfect since the moment Satan entered the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent. If you think that following Jesus will lead to a bed of roses, then I am going to tell you that it’s not. It’s going to lead you to something far greater. A life with Jesus means that pain will happen. People will die, and sickness continues. But Jesus enters into our mess and draws close to us if we let Him. And when we let Him, He will ever so gently, but persistently, reveal Himself to us in the midst of our pain, stress and heartache. Then He will stir within us simply the wonder of Himself and all that He has done for us. This my friend, opens the door for our hearts to be filled and overflow with thankfulness. The richest kind of thankfulness comes with sacrifice. Are you ready?
And yes, I realize Jonah’s story doesn’t end with an exclamation of thankfulness. But, really, am I there 100% of the time? No, I am not. But I want to be. Oh yes, I want to be….