Even though Thanksgiving is a national holiday, its roots are biblical. We are probably more familiar with spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and even solitude and silence. But, God calls His people to two others: remembrance and thanksgiving. God calls the people of Israel to remember. God established feasts, like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to call his people to “remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place.” (Ex. 13:3). Likewise, Christ calls us to communion, the Lord’s Supper, a remembrance of Christ’s suffering for us to make us whole and restored in relationship to the Lord.
Remembrance of God’s goodness and mercy leads to gratitude, and to thanksgiving.
“The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (Ps. 50:23). Thanksgiving is the gateway to holiness, because it inclines our hearts towards our Father; it takes our minds and hearts away from our natural, fleshly tendency towards skewing negative, grumbling, complaining, and entitlement, and leads to rewiring our brains and hearts toward joy. It’s even scientific: I’ve said before in this blog that research shows grateful people are happier, with less anxiety and depression.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to practice gratefulness, and since it rolls into Advent, the preparation for Christ’s coming, it also gives us a great opportunity to begin the discipline of rewiring our minds and hearts for gratefulness. If we’ll make the time and effort, it’s not difficult to find good things for which to be thankful: good health, family and friends who love us, the fact we live in a free country where we can still worship the Lord as we please (despite whatever complaints we may have about our government), and many others.
But what about the hard things? We’ve collectively lived through what most would agree was a challenging season for the world, if not for our country: a global pandemic has taken loved ones from many of us, and caused division over the best way to handle it, even within the Church. Our broader culture seems to have abandoned at least a Judeo-Christian sense of morality (although, ironically, what constitutes human rights, the standards by which we should even be determining right and wrong, and even the truth claims inherent behind the claim to relative truth are all Christian in origin). We feel more foreign, more like exiles in this land we live. Add to this collective angst the “normal” challenges of life: job loss, estrangement from friends and loved ones, and illness, sickness, and death. How can we be thankful in this season when there is so much suffering around us? Is that even possible?
I was reading Francis Chan’s “Letters to the Church” the other day. If you want your spiritual muscles stretched and challenged in a good and healthy way, read Francis Chan. He reminded me that, James tells us to “consider it all joy when you face trials of various kinds, know that this testing of your faith will produce endurance, leading to perfection and completion of good things within you.” (James 1, paraphrased). Chan says we can’t actually fully mature without being attacked, whether by Satan, or life’s brokenness and circumstances, or the people around us. Even when we’re attacked by Christians, God uses these situations to sanctify us. As he says, “we all need a Judas to become like Jesus.”
It’s virtually impossible to develop grace, love, and patience with people who love you, and in situations that seem to go well for you. We don’t become more gracious by having grace extended to us; we become gracious by being forced to extend it to difficult people. We don’t become more loving by having people fawn all over us- that can actually make us more entitled and prideful. Instead, we become more loving by having to love difficult people, even people who will never love us back, especially those who revile us and don’t love us at all. We don’t become more patient by getting everything we want exactly when we want it. We become patient by not the things we thought we wanted, and either being forced to wait upon the Lord for them, or by getting something completely different from what we thought we wanted or needed.
Can you imagine what your life would look like without grace, love, and patience (I hope that’s not your current reality!)? How truly miserable and depressing that would be! Now imagine that life for eternity! Whatever we’re suffering now is both real and hard, I know—I’m not belittling it at all, and neither does Christ. He meets us and loves us where we are, and He has suffered more than we ever will, so we know we have a God who empathizes with us. Yet, the suffering we endure is nothing compared to both what we receive now in this life as its fruit, and what we’ll have forever as a result.
These aren’t platitudes for me; they’re my reality. These past couple of years have been an amazing testimony to God’s faithful Hand, shaping and molding us into the school we will need to be to serve the children and families God has given us in the culture in which we now find ourselves. He has done it through the finest faculty and staff I’ve ever seen, and a very caring group of families. I am very grateful for these gifts.
At the same time, this has also been the most difficult season of my time as a leader at Grace, for many reasons. God has taught me a great deal about brokenness and love. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to love people, even people God gave you a heart to love. Sometimes those same people you love so much will hurt you so deeply through their words and actions it feels like your heart is torn. I’ve learned there are two responses to this kind of pain. One is to wall it off, to develop “tough skin,” to ignore it, and move on. But that approach leaves you hardened, calloused and indifferent, perhaps no longer listening to truth wrapped in pain, or even hostile to these same people God calls you to love. That’s not the way of the Cross.
The other option is to suffer, to let the pain pierce your heart and soul, and to let that pain draw you deeper into Jesus, deeper into the Cross, where the love and compassion and mercy of Jesus can heal you and transform you. That transformation gives you supernatural love, Calvary love, the ability to love and serve and press on and on and on, even with those who don’t love you or criticize you. In this sense, they are no longer your “enemies” (to use the biblical term) but your sanctifying friends.
And, whether it’s people or circumstances, this brokenness, this transformation that leads to deeper intimacy with Christ and to deeper life in Him, being conformed more into His image, more into what we were created to be and, therefore, greater joy, is something for which to be deeply, deeply grateful. And, this is why and how suffering brings thanksgiving. To God be the glory, great things He has done.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.