Audacious Advice: Stop Giving Thanks for Everything

My five year old and I were driving home after a long afternoon of running errands. From the front seat, I handed him a little surprise: a Kinder Egg. After a few minutes he began to cry because the toy inside was not to his liking. His tears soon turned to angry proclamations. My grip tightened on the steering wheel as I thought of all of the snarky comments I could make in response.

After a few deep breaths, I gently reminded him that the Kinder Egg was a treat, a gift, and maybe instead of complaining, he could say thank you.

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I want him to learn to notice things to be thankful for. I want him to notice and say thanks when someone gives him a gift, even if the gift itself isn’t what he would choose.

To neglect thankfulness has the potential to turn us into entitled, critical grumps. When we look for reasons to give thanks—when we search for what’s sometimes hidden, buried under layers of disappointment or resentment or downright pain—we open ourselves more and more to the potential of joy.

I believe that practicing gratitude has the potential to push back fear, to strengthen our marriages, and to make our lives generally better. So I want my kids to learn to say thank you.

But in that moment, was I teaching him something I didn’t intend to?

We arrived home a few minutes later. With tears still wet on his little cheeks, he climbed into my lap and said, “Thank you, momma, I’m only crying because I’m so happy about it. I cry when I get excited!”

Well, we both knew that wasn’t true.

Here’s What He Taught Me About Giving Thanks:

I was asking him to be thankful for something he wasn’t actually thankful for. We talked more about it, and I tried to say, very clearly, that it is okay for him to not be excited about the toy, it’s okay for him to not like it.

But, I told him, he can still be thankful that I tried to do something kind for him.

See the difference?

When James instructs his readers to “give thanks in all circumstances” he is not telling us to give thanks FOR all circumstances. There is a difference, and I think it’s significant.

The Difference:

To give thanks in all circumstances is to notice where new life is sprouting, where hints of spring are breaking through a frozen ground. It’s to sift through the ashes to see what remains, what will rise up. It’s the audacious act of claiming there is still hope where there seems to be none. It’s stubbornly clinging to the promise that life comes from death, that this is not the end of the Story.

I am watching my friends live this out so beautifully as they journey through cancer with their young daughter. They regularly choose to find reasons to give thanks in what is the darkest season of their lives at this point. 

But they aren’t giving thanks FOR their daughter’s cancer.

Three Risks of Giving Thanks For Everything:

  1. We call good what is evil. To give thanks FOR all circumstances is to say that the situation itself (rather than what might arise from it) is good. There are situations that simply are not good—don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

  2. We skew the vision of God’s creation and recreation. We present (to ourselves or to others) the idea that the world as it is, with all of its bruises and scars, brambles and deep pain, is what God intended for us.

  3. We turn God into a cruel or distant being who wants us to say thank you for injustice, inhumane suffering, and evil. These things that are so far from the vision of shalom in scripture shouldn’t be celebrated. They should be named for what they are.

The Psalms, the prayer book of the Israelites, is not comprised only of prayers of thanksgiving, but also prayers of lament. They give us space to complain when things don’t line up with the goodness of what God creates. 

Instead of Giving Thanks For Everything…

Give yourself permission to lament,

to fight against evil,

to kick against darkness,

to speak truth,

to enact shalom.

The Psalms, the prayer book of the Israelites, is not comprised only of prayers of thanksgiving, but also prayers of lament. They give us space to complain when things don’t line up with the goodness of what God creates. 

By all means, look for things to give thanks for in the hardest seasons, in the biggest instances of injustice and evil. Look for ways that God might be working, that God might be meeting you in the midst of the pain. Cling to the hope and the promises and the new creation as if your life depends on it.

And give yourself permission to not say thank you.