Thanksgiving In (Not in Spite Of) Difficulty

Although there were many Thanksgiving feasts and observances throughout the United States for almost two and a half centuries before Lincoln, the nationally recognized holiday that we will soon celebrate was put into place in the middle of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, while the war was raging and the country was literally divided. 

While citizens were becoming widows and orphans daily, President Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Steward wrote:  “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Even in the midst of great pain and hardship, they were recognizing what 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 commands:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” One of the ways that they gave thanks in all circumstances, even horrible ones such as civil war, was by looking to blessings that God had given:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…

They were looking for God’s good providence and for things to be thankful for, so that God would be praised no matter what, recognizing that He is the giver of all good things (James 1:17). Surely we need to do the same in 2020. 

Philippians 1:29 shocks us into recalibrating our thoughts during a year of great difficulty: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” The word “granted” is the same word used in Romans 8:32 about God graciously giving us all things:  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” We expect God to “graciously give” us blessings (as we see in Romans 8:32), but we often don’t understand how suffering could be a grace-gift (as we see in Philippians 1:29).

One answer is because God uses it all.  Nothing is wasted in God’s providence.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) This is why the Apostle Paul could write, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings…” (Col. 1:24). As a pastor I worked with would often say, “Who talks like this? Rejoicing in our sufferings? Christians do!”

We can bubble over with genuine thanksgiving at any time if we look to the blessings God has given us, even if mixed with suffering and difficulty as we have seen on a large scale this year. Our God is both sovereign and good. He is the God who promised Romans 8:28, a promise that rests on the bedrock of Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Blessings. Thanksgiving. Hope. Even during Civil War. Even during COVID-19. Even in 1863. Even in 2020.

A Christian’s Declaration of Stability In God In an Unstable Country

2020 has been a year of instability for the United States. I–and so many others–have never felt the stresses and strains of living in what we would call an “unstable country,” until now. But that doesn’t change my stability in God.

As we see new developments each day, and new crises and controversies that can stretch our faith and test our sanctification, perhaps you can pray each of these commitments with me, daily.

Every day I will choose to:

  • Praise God regardless of how He is answering my prayers (Psalm 145:2-3). Every day, regardless of the new headlines, I will repeat the Psalmist’s declaration: “Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.” God is worthy of praise because He is God, not because He has answered my prayers the way I think He should.
  • Remember that God sets up & tears down kingdoms for His purposes (Daniel 2:21, 4:34-35). My generation is not the first that He has worked mightily in through upheaval, and unless Jesus returns first, it won’t be the last. God is not wringing His hands in Heaven in despair or wishing He could do more. The “king’s” heart is in His sovereign hands (Proverbs 21:1). I will remember that God is working through generations over decades and centuries and millennia, not just today. Every day I will choose to believe and remember that my time and place is just a small part of His great tapestry of redemption.
  • Be an active and good citizen to the best of my ability, shining light where it needs to be & being involved in the political process as much as is helpful. I will do what I believe God is calling me to do to make our country a better place (Jeremiah 29:7). I will not hesitate to contact my legislators, to vote informed, and to raise awareness when appropriate. I can do this without it overtaking my witness for Christ (I want to win people to Christ, not to a political party). I will work hard to hold the tension between being involved as a citizen because decisions in government do really matter, but remembering that in the end even the country I love is not my ultimate home. I am a citizen of the Unites States, so I care, but I am a citizen of Heaven, so I trust.
  • Trust my children’s unknown future to a known God. Corrie ten Boom said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God,” and I will apply this biblical principle to not only my life, but to the concerns I have for the country my children will inherit. The same God who has been my shepherd will be the same God who will shepherd them in decades to come (Genesis 48:15-16).
  • Pray that God will use this unstable time in our country to prepare hearts for another great awakening of faith in Christ. God has chosen to bring many to Christ through times of national unrest in the past, and I will pray that He will do it again, for His glory. It is often when the rug is pulled out from under people that they begin to ask questions about God or Jesus. In our own country, “The Jesus Movement” followed the tumultuous 60s. In our own time, I will pray that many will come to know Jesus as they begin to question where their trust is. I will pray that many believers will rise up to not be afraid to share the stability of knowing God in Christ, and that churches will be strengthened to be true to the Word, discipleship, and evangelism.
  • Preach the gospel to myself and others, reminding myself that I am not my own but have been bought with a price. My life is not my own. I have been placed in this time in history and this place in the world on purpose, for a purpose–which is to glorify God by knowing Christ and making Him known. It is no accident that I live here and now (Acts 17:26). I will share the hope of Jesus with all in my community who will listen. Jesus truly is our only hope. I will remember that eternity is more significant than this moment in history, and that each person I interact with–either in-person or online–is an eternal being who either needs Jesus or whom I will spend eternity with in Heaven. God will hold me accountable for each word I speak or type (Matthew 12:36-37).
  • Spend more time in the Word than reading or listening or watching politics each day. My mind will be renewed by God speaking through His Word (1 Timothy 3:16), not by being immersed in the latest political development. I can dip into the news and be informed without it becoming the driving force behind my thinking–which is the place of God’s Word alone. Charles Spurgeon is attributed with rightly observing, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” I am not putting my head in the sand–I will be informed–but I am intentionally choosing to listen to God’s voice more than any other, which puts my feet on solid rock.
  • Remember that many of the people of God have gone through more difficult trials in their countries and have still held fast to Christ (Hebrews 10:34). From the prophets & faithful Israelites before Christ, to countless faithful believers in church history, to the persecuted church around the world today, many have gone before me in great persecution–and just plain unrest–and have continued to hold fast to Christ. Simply because I was born in the U.S., I am no better than my brothers and sisters in Christ half way around the world who are refugees worshiping in a makeshift tent with only a bag of possessions left to their name. In fact, I will look to them for examples of perseverance in the faith in the face of great political upheaval.
  • Hold fast to God in faith, rather than letting fear build in my heart. I want my actions and my words to be led by faith, not fear. Every day I will choose to remember that God is for me (Romans 8:31), that Jesus loves me (Galatians 2:20), and that the Holy Spirit empowers me and is even in me (John 14:15-20, 27).

At the funeral of the Puritan Richard Sibbes, Isaak Walton remarked, “…Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.” May heaven be more seen in us because of our longings, actions, prayers, and reflection of God’s heart. May the same be said of us in spite of–no, because of–this moment in our country’s history.