Lessons in Gratitude: Even in Struggle, We are Thankful

Written by: Amy Hemseri-Sabala
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Right now, I am transitioning into a life of ministry, and have found a role model in Corrie Ten Boom.  Following her time in a German concentration camp, she spent the next 30 years travelling all around the globe at the direction and bidding of God.  She often called herself a “tramp for the Lord”.  I am inspired not only by her utter trust in God, but also by her extreme examples of faith and her openness to discovering gratitude in the most unlikely places.

When World War II broke out, Corrie was 50 years old and unmarried, living with her family in Haarlem, Holland.  As the Nazi aggression trampled Europe, the Ten Boom’s hid Jewish friends and neighbors in their home for several months, enduring fright, raids and threats from Nazi power.  Eventually, they were discovered and the Ten Boom’s were arrested for their compassion. Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were sent to Ravensbruck, a women’s concentration camp. They were placed in Barracks 28, their dank, crowded, smelly and flea-infested home for the next several months. Corrie told her sister that she didn’t know how she could cope with such a terrible place, but Betsie reminded her that God had already given them the answer in their Scripture reading that morning in 1 Thess 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Corrie and Betsie began an exercise in thankfulness, despite their terrible circumstances. Corrie said that she was thankful that they were together. Betsie chimed in that she was thankful that the Bible that Corrie smuggled into Ravensbruck, on penalty of death, was not found. Corrie added that she was thankful that the barracks were crowded, so that more women would hear the word of God when they read it aloud.

However, there was one thing that Corrie could not reconcile, saying, “I just can’t thank God for the fleas”.

The women were forced to work long and grueling days and the food was meager at best. When they returned to Barracks 28, Corrie would read aloud from the Bible while a lookout watched for guards.  As the days went on, no guards were coming by Barracks 28, so Corrie and Betsie grew bolder and began reading from the Bible twice daily. Weeks later, Betsie overheard some guards talking that no one wanted to patrol Barracks 28 because of the fleas. Corrie laughed, “All right Lord, thank you for the fleas!”

Although Corrie’s faith and gratitude seems an unachievable attitude, I am encouraged by her example in my own life when far smaller trials have become joy-stealers when I fail to see the gratitude in front of me.  To “rejoice always and pray continually” seem like tall tasks, but to “give thanks in all circumstances” seems almost insurmountable.  Paul is not suggesting that we mask our true emotions with a fake Christian smile and pretend that nothing is wrong.  Rather, we acknowledge that we are in a tough spot and focus on those circumstances in which we can be authentically grateful.

Many years ago, I had a cancer scare.  As I was awaiting the test results, the hours became days and my fears began to increase.  In the midst of this waiting, I handed over the whole situation over to God; my health (good or bad), the needs of my family, and even the possibility of death.  Whether or not my test results were positive, I knew I had much to be grateful for, and focused on God’s love and provision.

Paul does not say, “Give thanks FOR all circumstances”.  He says “Give thanks IN all circumstances”.  There is a big difference between the two.  If we were to be thankful FOR all circumstances, then our prayers would sound like, “Dear God, thank you that I just received a cancer diagnosis.”  There’s no authenticity in that!  Rather, knowing right where we are emotionally and physically, God desires us to pray,

“Lord, thank you that you are with us in the midst of this cancer.”

“Thank you God, that you are much BIGGER than cancer.”

“Thank you Lord, that you promised to never leave or forsake us”; this became my personal mantra as I waited for the cancer test results to come back.

Our prayers reveal that we have put our faith and trust in a God who transcends our circumstances, and wants only good for us, in spite of what we may be experiencing.

The New York Times published an article in November 2011 that said: “Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html)  Gratitude and thankfulness are themes that carry throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing the praise of your name, O Most High.”  (Ps 9:1-2)

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.  Oh Lord, my God, I will give you thanks forever.” (Ps 30:11-12)

“So then just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”  (Colossians 2:6-7)

Gratitude is God’s practical antidote to unhappiness. God desires a joyful and fulfilled life for us and He knows that apart from Him, we will not find what we are seeking for.  When we keep our mind focused on gratitude and drawing closer to God despite the trials we face, we find ourselves growing more intimately connected to Jesus. The esteemed Rev. Charles Spurgeon summed it up this way:

“When joy and prayer are married their first born child is gratitude.”

Fill the blank, “Thank you God, that you are much BIGGER than _____________.”