It has been a strenuous year, to say the least. The virus has claimed the lives of so many — some were elderly, while others were far too young; some were wealthy, others, poor; some were well-known, others bore names most of us have never heard expressed.
Now, more than ever, is the time to fight the temptation to become bitter or resentful, which can only lead to “futile thoughts” and “foolish hearts” (Rom 1.21). Instead, let us reflect, with gratitude, upon the value of experiencing a time such as this.
Surely, our ancestors experienced times of even graver distress (cf. Mt. 24.7-8, 21). The apostle Paul endured nearly a lifetime of tribulation (cf. 2 Cor. 11.23-27). Friends forsook him (2 Tim. 4.16); enemies beat him and accused him falsely; and as we read about his skin chaffing against the cold metal of the chains and manacles which unjustly took away his freedom, and as we realize that he must have known that, at any moment, without warning, a Roman soldier could have come to take him to his execution, we cannot help but think that this was a man who had every right to be bitter — to complain about the injustices he was enduring.
Yet, that is not what he was! That is not what he did!
In these miserable circumstances, Paul wrote of his gratitude for “the things which happened to” him (Phil. 1.3, 13). He urged the brethren not to “complain,” but to “be glad and rejoice with” him (Phil. 2.14-18). He actually “rejoiced” in his “sufferings” (Col. 1.24), and in the midst of internment he instructed us to “be thankful” (Col. 3.15) and to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5.20; cf. 1 Thess. 5.16-18).
Indeed, the Bible teaches us that there are significant benefits to developing a thankful heart, especially in times of adversity. Consider three such boons.
First, thankfulness brings us closer to God.
Daniel’s enemies knew that the man of God was uncompromising in his faith and regular in his prayers to God. Consequently, they exploited his daily habit of prayer and used it against him (Dan. 6.1-9).
When Daniel learned that they had duped the king into targeting him by signing a law banning prayer to deity for thirty days, which not even the king himself could revoke (cf. Dan 6.8, 15; Esther 1.9; 8.8), he neither sulked nor sought retribution. Instead, Daniel “went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” (Dan. 6.10).
Some men might have grown sour in their view of God, wondering why the Lord would allow such vile men to succeed in implementing their cruel ambush. But Daniel maintained a thankful heart, which not only guarded him from feeling the grief which his enemies intended to inflict upon him, but also brought him closer to God, who eventually turned Daniel’s hardship into an encouraging victory for faithfulness (Dan 6.18f).
Like Daniel, let us view trying ordeals as opportunities to depend upon God for aid “in time of need” (Heb. 4.16) and learn to express gratitude to him for them (Ps. 50.14-15; Heb 13.13-15), for they are but an expression of his love (Heb. 12.5ff).
Second, thankfulness brings us closer to each other.
The apostle Paul was thankful for all types of relationships.
(1) There were those with whom he had a close affinity, like the Philippians, of whom he was extremely proud (Phil. 1.3ff; cf. Phil. 4.1). Thankfulness helps to remind us of how much joy those whom we call, “friend,” can bring us (Prov. 27.9), especially in times of “adversity” (Prov. 17.17; cf. Rom 16.3-4).
(2) There were those with whom he sustained a familiar relationship, but with whom he was disgruntled. He had spent at least eighteen months with the Corinthians (Acts 18.11). However, in a letter to the congregation, he expressed considerable disappointment in their carnal choices (cf. 1 Cor. 3.1ff; 4.14f; 5.1ff; etc.). Yet, he still felt thankful for them (1 Cor. 1.4f).
A thankful attitude, particularly for those with whom one is at odds, can help us develop a compassionate and forgiving outlook that serves to build bridges rather than burn them (cf. Mk. 11.25; Col. 3.13; Eph. 4.31-32).
By contrast, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant was designed to remind us that a failure to be thankful will lead to an ungodly mercilessness against our fellow man, for which God will hold us accountable (Mt. 18.21-35).
Indeed, thankfulness can help to soften the heart and repair old wounds.
(3) There were also those with whom Paul had no association. The Roman Christians, for example, were veritable strangers to him, since he hadn’t yet been given an opportunity to visit them (Rom 1.10-15; 15.22-24). Still, he was thankful for them too (Rom. 1.8).
When at last he approached the city of Rome, the brethren travelled forty-three miles south to meet him in their excitement (Acts 28.15). Even though he was a stranger — and an accused criminal in Roman custody no less — the Roman Christians were drawn to Paul for his gratitude-filled letter which encouraged them in Christ.
Let us never underestimate the power of expressing gratitude to create bonds with our neighbors.
Third, thankfulness brings us closer to self-contentment.
James urges us to be thankful for “various trials” and to rejoice in them. Why? They help to improve us, giving us the thick skin of endurance (Jms. 1.2-3). The ability to endure pain—whether emotional, psychological, or physical—without becoming bitter is essential to the maturation of our souls (cf. Rom. 5.3-5).
Marcus Aurelius, the sixteenth emperor of Rome (161-180 A.D.), was grateful for every “vexation” because it taught him “magnanimity, temperance, prudence, [to be] secure against inconsiderate opinions and falsehood” etc. He sagely counseled us to remember this principle when we experience hardship: that “to bear [misfortune] nobly is good fortune” (Marcus Aurelius [167 A.D.], The Meditations: Book 4).
If one develops the ability to look upon misfortune as a potential blessing, then nothing could ever defeat us! For though sorrow, sadness, and tears are an inevitable part of life in this world (cf. Heb. 5.7; Rom 12.15; 1 Cor. 12.26), yet such heartache will only stiffen our resolve to live well during our brief span upon the earth (Rom. 8.35-39). In this way of thinking, we can more readily become thankful for hardship.
Paul reminded us that thankfulness will lead us to the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” and “will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4.6-7).
In 1988, a Polish railway worker named, Jan Grzebski, was hit by a train. He survived, but only just. He spent the next nineteen years in a coma. At long last, he awoke—in 2007!
Imagine the contrasts between the world he left in 1988 Poland, to the Poland of 2007. Before the accident, the country was on the verge of collapse; meat was rationed; there were huge lines at every gas station; grocery shelves were bare, save for tea and vinegar.
Now, conversely, he had come around to a world where everyone had cell phones and there was plenty of material wealth to go around. How grateful he must have been!
But something puzzled him. As he walked the streets of Poland for the first time in nineteen years, he heard people still complaining on their cell phones about their circumstances. They had food in their bellies, freedom in their societies, wealth in their pockets — but they were still unhappy!
If we learn to be thankful for both boons and banes, we will learn to be content in any circumstances, for then nothing external could ever make us despair of hope or deprive us of ultimate joy (Phil. 4.11-13).
There is an excellent spiritual song entitled, “For Every Hill I’ve Had To Climb,” written by L.E. Thayer, that serves as a fitting close to the tumultuous year, 2020. It reads as follows:
For every hill I've had to climb,
For every stone that bruised my feet,
For all the blood and sweat and grime,
For blinding storms and burning heat
My heart sings a grateful song—
These were the things that made me strong!
For all the heartaches and the tears,
For all the anguish and the pain,
For gloomy days and fruitless years,
And for the hopes I’ve lived in vain,
I do give thanks, for now I know
These were the things that helped me grow!
'Tis not the softer things of life
Which stimulate man's will to strive;
But bleak adversity and strife
Do most to keep man's will alive.
O'er rose-strewn paths the weaklings creep,
But brave hearts dare to climb the steep!