Jim Burns is President of HomeWord and has written books for parents, youth workers, and students. Jim and his wife, Cathy, and their daughters Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi, live in Southern California. Visit HomeWord.
'Thank Therapy' for Tough Times
By Jim Burns
I learned an important lesson during one of the worst months of my Christian life. I don't think I've ever felt more depressed or farther away from God. I couldn't get a handle on why I was feeling so blah. Cathy was concerned, and she convinced me to make an appointment with my good friend, John, who is a pastor and excellent counselor.
A couple of days later I found myself sitting at lunch with John, pouring out my story and my struggles. John didn't say much, but seemed to be listening intently. When I finished my story, I waited for his response. It didn't come.
He paid for the meal, and as we left the restaurant he said simply, "I've got a verse for you." With that, he gave me a napkin with the words "I Thessalonians 5:18" written on it.
At first, I was hurt and frustrated that John would hear my story and think my remedy was found in a single scripture verse. Usually John was an excellent counselor, but this time he blew it. I wanted insight, not a Bible verse. Then, as he pulled into the parking lot to drop me off, John turned off the engine and asked to pray for me. At least he is going to do his pastoral duty, I thought.
John's prayer went something like this: "Lord, thank you for Jim and thank you for these problems he is having. I thank you in advance for hearing and responding to our prayer. We pray with thanksgiving, Amen."
After this "thanksgiving" prayer I was now livid. As I went into my office I thought to myself, Who does he think he is, thanking God for my problems? The nerve of him! Here was one counseling situation that had failed and, in fact, made things worse!
When I arrived home that night Cathy's first question was, "How was your time with John?" She could tell by my tone of voice that it was less than inspiring. She kept prying, and finally got me to take the napkin out of my pocket and give her the scripture reference John had given me.
I hadn't bothered to look it up; but Cathy went straight to a Bible and read 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to me: "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
The scripture only made me more frustrated. This single verse told me that it was God's will for me to be thankful in all circumstances. I told Cathy, "This is not the answer to my depression." But guess what? Morning after morning and evening after evening that verse kept coming back to my mind. And I've learned a few things about thankfulness over the past few years that have absolutely been a life-changing experience for me.
When it comes to this subject, I meet two types of people in the world. There are those who are grumblers and complainers and those who are thankful and grateful. It is interesting to note that almost universally the person who is a complainer is much less happy than the thankful person.
If I drew a straight line on a piece of paper and on one end wrote the words "grumbler/complainer" and on the other end wrote "thankful/grateful," which end would you be closer to on the continuum? The odds are overwhelming that you can measure your degree of happiness in life by where you place your mark.
In studying thankfulness I've learned a very helpful idea: Thankfulness is a key which unlocks your depressive emotions. You cannot be both thankful and depressed at the same time. They are opposite emotions. You can be sad, hurt, or angered and still be thankful; but you can't be depressed and still be thankful.
We can't make the decision about whether some of life's negative "stuff' is thrown our way; but we can decide to be thankful, even in the midst of a not-so-perfect world.
Let me explain my thoughts by giving you three practical points on thankfulness that can transform your life.
It was the apostle Paul who said that we should "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus," (I Thess. 5:18). But for many of us, the attitude of thankfulness does not come easy. We've learned from our past to complain our way through most circumstances.
My initial reaction to the verse was perhaps similar to yours. Thankfulness is fine when things are going well, but how can it be God's will for me to be thankful for my parents' divorce, war, relationship problems, my grandmother is dying, and everything else that's wrong in the world? Is this verse telling me I should rejoice and be thankful for family problems or hunger or other tragedies in life?
No. If you look closely you'll see that Paul is not telling you to be thankful for these things; rather we are to be thankful in our circumstances. There is a major difference between being thankful for every situation in life and being thankful in those situations. He challenges us to find reasons to be thankful even in the worst of struggles.
Thankfulness is an attribute which transcends your circumstances. No matter what your circumstances, I believe there is reason to be thankful in them. Your circumstances may never change, but your attitude toward them can change -- and that will make all the difference.
Above the stove in a friend's home is the modern proverb, "I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." We must face the fact that some of our experiences may not be the best. But we can always be thankful for what we do have.
One of my modern-day heroes is Terry Foxe. Terry was a Canadian runner who attempted to run the entire distance from the east coast of Canada to Vancouver, British Columbia, in order to raise money for cancer research.
Terry knew the needs of cancer victims intimately because he was one himself. He was running across Canada with an artificial leg. This amputee ran twenty-six miles every day, six days a week, to raise money for cancer.
Terry's enthusiasm and zeal for life caught my attention during his run, and I remember, day after day, seeing him on the news. People, mainly children, would be gathered around him, and he would usually be standing in front of a microphone in a park or shopping center or church building. He would often say, "I don't know about tomorrow but I'm thankful for today, and I'm going to make the most of this one day God has given me."
Terry's thankful heart was an inspiration to millions of Canadians and to people all around the world. He died before completing his run. But Terry Foxe was able to run 2,200 miles; and before he died he received the highest civilian medal of honor given by the Canadian government.
Christians have a special reason to adopt the attitude of gratitude, because we know that whatever comes, our times are in God's hands. It was Jesus who said, in effect, "So don't be anxious about tomorrow. God will take care of your tomorrow, too," (see Matt. 6:34).
I'm told it takes three weeks to form a habit, and another three weeks to solidify that habit. In my struggle to develop the habit of thankfulness, I tried an experiment I called "Thank Therapy."
Thank Therapy is simply focusing on the many things in my life for which I can be thankful. The first time I tried it, I took out a notebook and wrote at the top, "Twenty Reasons Why I'm Thankful." The first few were easy; but in my depressed emotional state I really struggled to write down twenty reasons why I was thankful. Thank Therapy is an act of the will to concentrate on the good and not the bad.
No matter what your circumstances, you can find reasons to be thankful. Why not take a few minutes, grab a notebook and pen, and make your own list of things for which you can be thankful. Recently I spoke to a group of people about what I'd been learning in the area of thankfulness, and I challenged them to make a list. Here are a few things they were thankful for:
Jesus Christ, forgiveness and new life, parents (their sacrifices and unconditional love), glasses (if I didn't wear them I wouldn't be able to see), rain (it brings green and freshness to our land), health (it's taken for granted), a car (it would be a long walk to work!), etc.
When you focus on positive things in your life and give thanks for them, the load seems lighter. Make thankfulness a habit in your life and watch good things happen.
What a wretched thing it is to call oneself a Christian and yet be a stranger and a grumbling servant in the Father's house. Christians have every reason to be thankful because Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice his very life in order to set us free from the constraints of sin. Paul explained it this way: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us," (Rom. 5:8).
With this expression of love, we can begin to understand the depth of thankfulness that can transform our hearts. Yes, your circumstances might be difficult. But because you have a Lord who cares for every aspect of your life, you can be assured you're not alone in your struggles.
The sacrificial love of God in Jesus Christ helps me focus on how deep and unconditional the love God has for me is. As I reread the crucifixion story in the Bible, my self-esteem is always given a shot in the arm.
My feeling is, He was willing to do that for little ol' me? I must be pretty special to Him. I must have worth after all. Make your response to God's sacrificial love one of gratitude. It will put your life and faith in proper perspective.
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