“I have nothing to be thankful for.” Those were the words in the letter to the editor of our local newspaper sometime in November, 2001, expressing the writer’s sense of loss following the terrorist attacks of September 11.
My initial response was one of judgment. How could anyone claim to have absolutely nothing to be thankful for? Did she have even one friend? Probably. Did she have enough education and intelligence to read and write? Obviously. Was there any food at all in her kitchen? I imagined so, or she most likely would have been trying to make ends meet rather than reading the newspaper and writing to the editor. I mentally lifted my nose in the air, peered down on her condescendingly, and gave her a lecture on how blessed she is to live in a land of such abundance.
Later (I don’t remember how much later, but definitely too long), my heart began to break for her. Here was a woman who was hurting so badly that she couldn’t even appreciate the little pleasures and joys that come to all of us. Maybe her letter was a cry for help. Did anyone answer that cry? Had her normal shock and grief turned into ongoing depression?
Whatever her mental condition, the woman was obviously suffering. And she was responding to that suffering by feeling hopeless and bitter. She needed my understanding and prayers, not my judgment.
Several years later, I read a story in a magazine about a first responder who had been at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was so traumatized by the destruction and death that had surrounded him on that day that he was abusing alcohol to ease the pain. His marriage was in trouble, he was unemployed, and he was seriously depressed.
One day he was out in his front yard with his young daughter. A stranger walked by, said hello, and smiled at the toddler. In an instant, the first responder’s life started turning around as his perspective shifted. If a total stranger could show a little kindness to a child, then maybe there was some good in the world after all.
Facing the pain
Here were two different people responding to the same situation—a frightening terrorist attack on American soil resulting in the deaths of approximately three thousand people. Who could blame the woman for retreating into anger and bitterness? But where did she go from there? I’ll never know.
The man had witnessed the horror firsthand. He had risked his life to save others. He was a hero. And yet he, too, was overwhelmed by the cruelty behind it. Self-medicating his PTSD, he descended into alcoholism. It took time—not just days, but years—for him to reach the point where his heart could be touched and his life could be restored.
Suffering hurts. It damages our minds and our emotions. It dampens our spirits. It leads to a desire for escape, a crying out for relief. It’s easy enough to advise people to count their blessings, to have an attitude of gratitude, but can we realistically expect that response when the pain cuts so deep?
Maybe. I think there are a few rare people who can see the good in their lives, and be genuinely thankful for it, even in the midst of the blackest night. But we evangelicals have a tendency to claim that we’re giving it all to God, to believe that we’re being truly thankful, to speak of hope and peace and joy, when in reality we’re simply using a more acceptable form of escape than alcohol or drug abuse: denial of the misery inside.
I’ve had my share of stresses in the last few decades. (Actually, it feels like more than my fair share. I have to occasionally remind myself that others have been through worse situations.) I’ve followed my own advice in taking all my feelings to God, being totally honest with Him, begging Him for relief. Venting has released the anger and fear and hopelessness. It’s brought me back to a place where I can genuinely thank God for all the good in my life.
Giving thanks anyway
But occasionally I’ve found myself wallowing in the pain. Obsessing over my circumstances. Making no progress in working through the distress, especially in cases where I can’t take any action, where all I can do is wait and see what the outcome will be. Stuck. Like the woman who wrote the letter to the editor.
At those times, praising God in spite of the difficulties, finding things to be grateful for even when I don’t feel like giving thanks, seeing the good in little everyday events (like the first responder) helps to lift my heart and my soul out of the pit. It’s not an artificial denial of what I’m really thinking and feeling. I’ve brought it to God, hoping and praying for the strength to endure. I haven’t found the relief that I’m seeking, but I know that I need to move on.
The Holy Spirit has led me to a better understanding of spiritual warfare through all of this. There can be a fine line between an honest expression of the ache inside and a repetitious cycle of despair and self-absorption. When I cross that line, Satan is winning. He’s got me right where he wants me. He tells me that I’m simply pouring out my heart to God in a healthy way. That’s a good thing. Why not continue to vent?
But when I deliberately turn from brooding to thanksgiving, I’m resisting that liar. I’m standing up in my own little way against the evil one. Breaking his power over my thoughts. Giving God the glory that He deserves and that Satan wants for himself. I’m depending on God to remind me of His blessings and to make me truly thankful even in the toughest times. It brings me closer to Him and out of the clutches of the enemy. Therefore, I give thanks.