Each year around this time, my social media feeds blow up with people talking about why they’re thankful for their kids, dogs, friends, yoginis, coffee, opposable thumbs, and nine thousand other things. It’s easy for most of us to come up with lists of all the stuff we’re thankful for because those things make us happy.
But what about the bad stuff? To the extent it makes the list, it’s usually just as a point of contrast. This afternoon, parents across the country will try to inspire thankfulness in their little ingrates by appealing to the existence of starving children on the other side of the world.
Think for a moment about the trials in our lives – the petty annoyances, the heartache, the physical pain, the outrages. It would be crazy to say that we’re thankful for that, right? Surprisingly, no. Consider these five reasons to be thankful for the crap.
1. Because It Makes Us Better
You know that friend on Instagram who posts lots of memes with annoying platitudes? If she hasn’t posted something like this, just give it time: “Troubles can make you bitter or better. Choose better.”
That sounds lame enough to actually be one of her posts, but there’s truth behind it. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “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.” (James 1:2-4)
Trials bring sadness, anger and confusion. But they also can bring joy because we know that they cause our faith to grow, and in turn that causes our character to grow. If we can be joyful in trials because they make us better people, doesn’t that also mean we can be thankful for the trials because they bring us joy?
2. Because It Causes Us to Hope
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul takes the same thought one step further. He writes of the dynamic whereby “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which leads to a hope in the God who is making us more like himself.
My friend David comes immediately to mind when I hear that verse. He was diagnosed a few years back with a rare cancer that causes tumors to grow in various places in his body. He’s had many surgeries, radiation treatments and the like. Cancer has brought a great deal of pain, sorrow and suffering to David and his young family. Those of us who love him continue to pray for healing and deliverance from that suffering.
And yet, as David has walked through cancer, I’ve had the privilege of seeing him become a better father, husband, friend, co-worker and leader. His faith in the God that loves him is stronger than ever. More than that, he loves telling people about how cancer has brought him more life-giving hope in Jesus. And, incredibly, he will tell you that he’s thankful for cancer as a result.
3. Because It’s Necessary to Bring Us Home
Even if we can grasp the truth that trials are ultimately good for us, most of us still would rather skip the trials altogether, thank you very much. But God’s perspective on trials is different. He sees trial as necessary to purify us in our journey through life on the way to our final destination, salvation.
The apostle Peter wrote:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
The focus of this passage is on the future aspect of our salvation. Christians can speak coherently of already having been saved through Jesus, but still also looking forward to a final, decisive salvation where we will come into a full inheritance as brothers and sisters of Jesus. We rejoice in that future salvation, even though we currently are being “grieved by various trials.”
There’s a deeper reason for our joy in the midst of trials. We know that they are “necessary” for our faith to be tested and refined in preparation for the final salvation that we will experience. And that leads to a present experience of trust in God and an inexpressible, glorious joy. Surely we can be thankful for trials if they bring us that kind of joy!
4. Because God Is Working It for Your Good
It’s fashionable these days to criticize the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” But God indeed has promised that he has a big-picture plan for everything in our lives, even (especially?) the rough stuff.
Paul writes: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30; emphasis mine)
It’s the same dynamic as discussed above, but this time it’s all-encompassing. All things work for our good. The things that bring us joy in the moment. The things that drop us to our knees in grief. Everything.
And this dynamic is so sure that Paul can speak of future events in the same way he talks about things that already have happened. God’s purpose behind everything that happens in our lives is to make us more like Jesus. And for that purpose, he predestined us (past), called us to faith in Christ (past), justified us through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (past), and glorified us (future).
5. Because God Expects It
This one makes most sense when you consider the others, but God isn’t throwing thankfulness out there as an option. He actually expects it of us.
Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
It’s a sweeping set of exhortations. Rejoice in everything. Pray always. Give thanks in everything.
Why does God expect us to give thanks for everything? Because he’s told us that trials will make us better. Because he’s told us that trials will bring us hope. Because he’s told us that trials are necessary. Because he’s told us that he works trials for our eternal good.