It was 2016 – a Tuesday night, at Bible study. I’d spent the last ten minutes of casual conversation complaining to one of my group members about something – I can’t remember what it was. And then my co-leader asked me to say grace for us. I thanked God for Tuesdays, for the meal, for the gathering, and for the thing that I had been complaining about.
The group member asked me about it afterward – why include it in the prayer? Why say thank you for it, if I had been complaining about it a minute before?
Because you should say thank you for the things that upset you.
Stay with me for a moment
I know that generally speaking, a challenge like this is very much like when someone pokes a knotted muscle in my back or shoulder. The immediate reaction is to pull away, but if I want that muscle to relax, I’m going to have to lean into the pressure. It’ll be uncomfortable, but if I stay in the moment, there’s something to be gained here. I recognise that the premise of this article can feel very much like pressing a very sore spot in your shoulder. Stay with me; there’s reason in the statement.
A biblical basis
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Job is a book of the Bible that I’m not sure gets enough airtime. I visit it when things are hard, or every two years, whichever comes first. In chapter one, Job loses his wealth and his children. In chapter two, he loses his health, and is reduced to sitting in the ashes, scraping at sores that will not heal. Given the immense loss, I’m always surprised by his response to suffering. This is in the moment of sadness. This is the white-hot, knee-jerk reaction, and in the face of suffering, Job’s response is to praise God. Chapter two in particular is an eye-opener. The NIV renders it as: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
I have never experienced a loss so profound as Job’s, and yet, too frequently, I will only accept good from God. It is not a bad thing, to want good things from God. But only good things? I want to gently offer that this is short-sighted.
In examining the Scriptures to understand the character of God, we can conclude that he is ultimately good, that he is committed to our good, and that he is in control. Another passage that is helpful for understanding this is Hebrews 12, and although the subject matter is still confronting, please stay with me.
“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
In moments like these, I remember that God is our Heavenly Father – a better father than any earthly father we could have, committed to our good, and willing to discipline us for the sake of growing us up in righteousness. It reminds me of moments when I have seen my friends who are parents hold their ground as their child tears up, unable to understand or unwilling to comply with their parent’s instruction – why they need to finish playing, or cannot have another chocolate, or need to share. From the child’s perspective, their parent is allowing, or even causing discomfort to them. From the parent’s perspective, they are teaching their child so that their child will grow up to be a well-adjusted adult.
I am a child of God. I never stop being one. It is a humbling thought to return to. In this moment, I am feeling discomfort, but my Heavenly Father is committed to raising me right. He will not leave me as a selfish toddler; he is teaching me to be more like Jesus. Even in this event that has made me upset.
In moments when I am feeling discomfort – anger, or sadness, or disappointment – it is entirely possible that my Heavenly Father, in wisdom that I don’t quite understand yet, is teaching me something. In saying thank you for the discomfort, I am actively trying to hijack my thoughts, shifting from how this event is negative to how this event exists in the big picture.
This idea has its limits
This doesn’t mean that the negative feelings towards our discomfort or upset don’t matter. It is okay to recognise that things are upsetting, and upsetting you. But it isn’t good for our mental or spiritual health to stay there forever. When I think about things that make me uncomfortable or upset for too long, it plants seeds of bitterness in my heart, and prevents me from seeing the good that God has also given me.
In addition, there are some events that cause discomfort or upset that we should not apply this logic of saying thank you to God for. There are deplorable things that happen to people, and deplorable things that people do. They are the result of sin, and I don’t think we should apply this idea to them. To do so is to say that God authors sin, and that directly contradicts the established fact that he is good. Sin is our corruption of good things. God is at work despite sin.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Joseph’s story in Genesis is a wild one. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, imprisoned on false charges, and is forgotten in prison, before rising to the number two position in Egypt. Through acts of unbelievable providence, he is placed into just the right position to save his entire family from severe famine. When their father dies, his brothers become distressed, certain that their sins are about to come home to roost, and instead Joseph offers them mercy. Joseph, despite undergoing deep hardship, is able to see God’s greater purposes at work, despite the sin of his brothers.
But what about us?
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
A chapter after these words, the apostle Peter doubles down on the point he is making to the Jewish leaders of the day: “…you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15).
There is nothing more evil, nothing more deplorable, nothing more sinful than when Jesus was crucified. And yet, we call the day we remember Jesus’ death Good Friday. We thank God for accomplishing the greatest good for us despite the greatest evil. He is good, he is committed to our good, and he is in control, and you will never see a better example of this than at the cross.
There is wisdom in learning to thank God for the things that you didn’t want. Cultivating a habit of saying thank you:
- Reminds us that God is using good moments and hard moments to grow us up
- Teaches us to look for the big picture in the moment
- Reminds us that God is still good, is committed to what is best for us, and is in control
- Isn’t for saying that how we feel doesn’t matter, but does remind us that God has plans for us beyond this moment.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.