This time of year, school history lessons and plays often center on our country’s very first Thanksgiving. What our kiddos learn about the first Thanksgiving while making paper turkeys or pilgrim hats is a tamer version of what we now celebrate with all the trappings and ideals of a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hallmark movie.
The real version is that the first settlers left every comfort and sense of security behind and endured things we can’t imagine, and probably won’t ever have to experience. That first winter saw nearly half of those who braved the voyage across the Atlantic die from exposure, starvation or disease. They were in survival mode.
But then they spent 3 days giving thanks to God.
In spite of experiencing the loss of loved ones, they were thankful to be alive. They thanked God for food to eat and for new crops, even though the weather felt punishing at times. In this harsh, stingy and strange land, they were thankful for the freedom to worship God as they wanted.
The settlers chose to be grateful when it seemed they didn’t have too much to be thankful for, which always makes me feel kinda guilty when I gripe about little irritations.
But if I’m honest? Some things in life – some seasons of life – can drop us to our knees. An unexpected tragedy that devastates us, or a day-to-day grinding struggle that slowly erodes hope from our soul.
Embracing gratitude then is just plain hard.
Are we really supposed to have a thankful heart and a spirit of gratitude when a loved one is tragically taken from us?
When we’ve just been told our spouse or child has cancer?
When our spouse walks away and leaves us to pick up the pieces of a broken heart and home?
When we lose our job and have to choose to pay for either food or utilities because we don’t have money for both?
When a dear friend or family member avoids us and refuses to speak to us…for years?
When our child is suffering from their own poor choices or they’re stuck in circumstances that aren’t of their doing but still beyond their control?
When we find ourselves dragged under waves of grief and so lonely for someone to rescue us or just sit with us and “be there”?
I’ve experienced some really tough situations. Overcome with grief and short on hope, there have been long, drawn-out seasons in my life when I could not feel any sense of gratitude. It was hard to be grateful for anything.
And yet, in the middle of all the ugliness and pain, that’s exactly what God was asking me to do.
I knew it. I heard it in my heart.
“Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18
I tried to fight it. I wanted to shake my fist at God and stay angry at Him for what He was allowing in my life. But wallowing in my misery only made me more miserable. So I had to figure out how to find a little bit of something to be thankful for, even when I didn’t see any reason to be thankful.
I began trying to appreciate what I did have. I tried looking for what was good in my world instead of what was messed up. I tried viewing the trials and circumstances in my life as a way to grow in Him and closer to Him. I bathed myself in God’s word, especially the Psalms. I asked Him to show me how to see things through His eyes. I made myself give thanks even when I didn’t feel like it.
And slowly, my thankful heart followed.
I still can’t say I usually get it right. It’s not easy for me to find an attitude of gratefulness and look at what God has done for me when I’d rather swim in self-pity. I’m certainly not trying to make light of anything you might be struggling through in this season of your life. But I am learning that when I choose to be intentional about my attitude – to first look for Him and what He might be trying to do in my life through hard things – He shows me that there is so much to be thankful for even when giving thanks is hard.