Thanksgiving is a great big but

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Some years, you’re so full of gratitude that it seeps out of your pores and suffuses everything you do.

Other years, the idea of spouting words of gratitude seems so wrong as to almost feel offensive.

Sometimes, those are the same year.

A tough year can bring out your gratitude to God for being with you through it all – but lurking behind every item of thanksgiving is a great big but. The Psalmist knows what that’s like.

But the situation still isn’t resolved.

But as I stood there in silence – not even speaking of good things – the turmoil within me grew to the bursting point. My thoughts grew hot within me and began to burn, igniting a fire of words…. Hear my prayer, O Lord! Listen to my cries for help! Don’t ignore my tears. (Ps. 39:2-3, 12-13)

But my loved one died.

Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck. Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold to stand on. I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me. I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched and dry. My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me. (Ps. 69:1-3)

But I’m so sad, so tired, so frustrated. I don’t see any way out.

Oh how I wish I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly away to the quiet of the wilderness. How quickly would I escape – far away from this wild storm. (Ps. 55:6-8)

But I made such big mistakes.

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and stink because of my foolish sins. I am bent over and wracked with pain. My days are filled with grief. (Ps. 38:4-6)

In these tough years, the problem isn’t that you aren’t grateful. You truly are. The “problem” is that your gratefulness isn’t making you happy. And with every sign on every building wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, that feels like a huge disconnect.

But there is no necessary correlation between gratitude and the sunny feeling of happiness. It happens that way at times in our lives, and, oh, those are sweet times, but lack of happiness does not necessarily mean lack of gratitude.

Merriam-Webster has gratitude as “a feeling of appreciation or thanks; the state of being grateful.” Not the state of being happy about everything in your life. In a religious context, gratitude is, at its base, an orientation towards God as the giver of all good things, an acknowledgment that God is working all things for good for those who love Him. This may or may not make you feel happy.

For example, I am deeply grateful that, as a result of the care she received during her illness, my loved one died secure in her father’s love in a way she never was before. But I’m not happy she died.

That gratitude is always tinged with tears.

Think also of the Israelites. They escaped slavery, accompanied by the wailing of Egyptians who’d lost their first-born sons, walked through the Red Sea on dry land and then watched the Egyptian soldiers get swallowed up. Yes, the prophet Miriam led a glorious song of praise and time of dancing. But it’s not hard to imagine them having the shakes the whole time — from the terror of feeling trapped, the mystery of walking through the sea, their relief at their narrowly averted disaster, their awe at the incredible and deadly power of the Lord. They’d be reeling from the adrenaline spikes alone.

But God doesn’t leave us hanging in our reeling, in our stuckness, our grief, our guilt.

In each of those psalms above, the Psalmist makes a turn. Sometimes it’s at the bitter end, and it feels like he’s gritting his teeth, making the turn as a discipline. Other times we can sense the peace, the security it gives him.

Here’s where we put those conjunctions (and so, but, for) to work for us.

And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you. (39:7)

But I keep right on praying to you, Lord, hoping this is the time you will show me favor. In your unfailing love, O Lord, answer my prayer with your sure salvation…. Turn and take care of me, for your mercy is so plentiful. (69:13, 16)

But I will call on God, and the Lord will rescue me. Morning, noon and night I plead aloud in my distress, and the Lord hears my voice. (55:16)

For I am waiting for you, O Lord. You must answer for me, O Lord my God. (38:15)

If you’re having the kind of year in which your gratitude is tinged with grief and pain and frustration, be kind to yourself this Thanksgiving.

Understand that you don’t need to feel happy in order to feel grateful. And hold onto those holy conjunctions with both fists. Because God can give us hope, the Lord does show us favor, His love is unfailing, His salvation sure, His mercy plentiful, and He does hear you

– God’s but always wins.

  1. Pingback: an odd both/and: gratitude/grief « Wonder

  2. Natalie, a HUGE thank you for living with your own Thanksgiving tension in order to help us find life in ours. Wow, this is the best (most helpful) Thanksgiving reflection I’ve ever read. I am passing it along to others. I don’t know if I’ll have a happy Thanksgiving, but I’m confident I can have a thankful one. Blessings!

  3. Beautifully done. Here’s one for you: you may be terrified to write, BUT God is using your risk to touch others including me. Keep at it my friend.

  4. Thanks Natalie, Your words spoke to me on many levels of grief for self and others, and I am amazed with how grateful I am, and sometime I am confused as to how this all can be possible, and, and, grateful that I don’t have to figure it out, just rest in the peace that passes all understanding.

    1. Thank you, Liz. Yes, confused and amazed is a good description for how simultaneous grief and gratitude feels — thank goodness we don’t have to understand the peace to experience it.

  5. Pingback: Thanksgiving reflection…. | Journey to my heart....

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