My five year old and I were at the end of a series of errands. I had hinted that we might get a treat and snuck a Kinder Surprise Egg into our haul at the grocery store. As we were driving home, I handed it to him, much to his delight. After a few minutes, though, he began to cry; the toy inside was not something he wanted or was interested in. His tears soon turned to angry proclamations.
Once home, I reminded him that the Kinder Egg was a treat, a gift, and maybe instead of complaining, he could say thank you.
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.
But it did reveal a bigger truth to me. I was asking him to be thankful for something he wasn’t actually thankful for. So, 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. I don’t want him to feel like he can’t express when he’s not happy about something. But, I told him, he can still be thankful that I tried to do something kind for him.
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.
But. That doesn’t mean that we are asked to give thanks for everything.
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.
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.
To give thanks FOR all circumstances is to say that the situation itself (rather than what might arise from it) is good. We risk calling good what is evil.
And when we do this, 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 and brambles and deep pain, is what God intended for us. 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.
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.