When It’s Hard to Be Thankful

By Melanie Rainer


Scripture commands us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), even in years like 2020. This year has been marked by tragedy, death, political upheaval, natural disasters, and sickness on a global scale. And still, daily grief interrupts our individual lives at the same time: people we love get sick and die, games are lost, friends move, pets run away. The individual sadness is amplified by the global stress, and no one has been immune to the roller coaster we’ve been riding this year. 

And yet, the holidays loom. November is here, a month typically marked by gratitude and thankfulness paper chains. Does gratitude feel forced this year? It does here at my house. But the practice of thankfulness matters, like running miles to train for a marathon. It’s important for our kids to see us grieve, stress, fear, and be angry; but it is also important for them to see us take our heavy hearts to the cross of Jesus. 

I’m not going to tell you that giving thanks should be contrived or disingenuine. It may feel that way this year, and that’s ok

When I struggle to give thanks, I’m drawn, over and over again, to Psalm 69. It reads in part:

Save me, O God,

    for the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in the miry depths,

    where there is no foothold.

I have come into the deep waters;

    the floods engulf me.

I am worn out calling for help;

    my throat is parched.

My eyes fail,

    looking for my God.

In the first 3 verses, David lays it all out before the Lord. He’s tired, sinking, and doesn’t have the strength to go on. The Psalms lead us through all our emotions, reminding us that we serve a God who created us to have them and who knows every tear we cry. 

David goes on and on, but lands with this:

But as for me, afflicted and in pain—

    may your salvation, God, protect me.

I will praise God’s name in song

    and glorify him with thanksgiving.

This will please the Lord more than an ox,

    more than a bull with its horns and hooves.

The poor will see and be glad—

    you who seek God, may your hearts live!

The Lord hears the needy

    and does not despise his captive people.

Let heaven and earth praise him,

    the seas and all that move in them,

for God will save Zion

    and rebuild the cities of Judah.

Then people will settle there and possess it;

the children of his servants will inherit it,

    and those who love his name will dwell there.

David offers us a template for thanksgiving in seasons of drought, devastation, and pain. He gives thanks, not for his circumstances, but for the God who created him. Because regardless of our circumstances and pain, God stays the same. He is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6). And God has always been the same: when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, when they were exiled in Babylon, when Nero killed some of Jesus disciples, when the world experienced the black plague, and the world wars, and He is still the same today, in 2020, a year of violence, reckoning for racial injustice, a pandemic, tornadoes and hurricanes, and so much more. 

God is God, and His promises are true: He will save Zion, rebuild the cities of Judah, and those who love His name will dwell there. This was true when David wrote it, and it is true now while we await the second coming of Jesus when that promise will be true forever. 

As Thanksgiving dovetails into Advent, maybe our thanksgiving looks like David’s. We’re so tired we can’t hold ourselves above water, but we thank God for being who He is and for doing what He says He will do.