This principle seems to hold true in nearly every area of life: The most satisfying joys we experience are realized mainly through adversity and struggle, while poor, unhealthy, thin joys can be had without much effort. Fulfilling joys usually require strenuous pursuit.
Another similar principle also seems to be true: When the pursuit of a fulfilling joy moves from an inspiring idea to actually having to work hard for it, the reward suddenly diminishes in appeal. Therefore, we must often strenuously pursue a fulfilling joy when we don’t feel like it.
I find both principles are often true when it comes to thanking God. A heart full of thanksgiving experiences profound joy. But cultivating a thankful heart is hard work — work we often don’t feel like doing.
But God knows this about us, and his many commands that we “magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30), “come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Psalm 95:2), “sing to [him] with thanksgiving” (Psalm 147:7), pray “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6), eat “with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3), indeed, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) are not intended as guilt-ridden reminders of how ungrateful we are. Rather, these commands are prescriptions written by the Good Physician to help us escape from chronic bouts of discouragement.
Why Are We Discouraged?
Discouragement is, by definition, a deficit of courage.
Biblical courage is the ability to face uncertainty, adversity, danger, or suffering with faith-fueled hope that God will keep his word to us, come what may. Paul went so far as to say that since “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ],” especially the resurrection, we should “always [be] of good courage” (2 Corinthians 1:20; 5:6).
But we are not always of good courage. Why? Because unbelief in the promises of God dis-courages us. This is the focus of all Satan’s massive, multifarious strategies: to dis-courage us through dis-belief in God’s promises. His strategies are disorientingly sophisticated, but his goal is simple: to discourage Christians. Discouraged Christians are immobilized threats. They are diffused gospel bombs. They are silenced evangelists whose faith-anemia can be contagious.
Is it really any surprise that we find discouragement a chronic problem? Daily placed before our eyes, spoken into our ears, and breaking our hearts are reasons to be discouraged — and our indwelling sin is quick to believe them.
That is precisely why right after Paul says, “we are always of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6), he says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Worldly perceptions will tend to sap our courage. But faith perceives a reality so hopeful that even death itself cannot quench the resulting courage.
Thanksgiving and Courage
What does this have to do with thanksgiving? Nothing is as en-couraging as seeing God’s abounding grace (2 Corinthians 9:8), and gratitude is what we feel when we see it (2 Corinthians 1:11).
But what we need to understand is that biblical thanksgiving is not merely our grateful response to a perceived grace received from God; it is a means to perceiving that grace. Biblical thanksgiving is not merely a command to be obeyed; it is a call to see beyond our normal perceptions to hundreds of graces we would otherwise miss due to our sin-induced myopia. And it is a call to see future graces in God’s promises so certain that we can thank God for them now.
That’s why God commands us so often in the Bible to give thanks. The commands prompt us to ask, “What do I have to be grateful for?” That question alone can stop the train of our thoughts from derailing into discouragement, while it draws us back on the track of faith. It forces us to answer, and in answering, we start seeing graces. So, the obedient act of giving God thanks actually results in our feeling grateful to God. The commands are in and of themselves gracious.
God intends for this practice of thanksgiving to become a gracious habit. The more habitual thanksgiving becomes, the more gratitude we will feel. We will find that to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) is not an impossible ideal, but an increasingly satisfying joy, and a potent, counterintuitive antidote to discouragement.
The Best Things Are Hard to Learn
Thanksgiving is a counterintuitive antidote to discouragement because when we feel discouraged, we don’t feel like giving thanks. That’s why we must remember those two common principles: 1) fulfilling joys usually require strenuous pursuit, and therefore, 2) we often don’t feel like pursuing the things we need most. This experience is “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we experience it, we shouldn’t be surprised as if something strange were happening to us (1 Peter 4:12).
Experiencing the joy of gratitude requires the hard work of learning the habit of thanksgiving through daily practice. It’s difficult to learn because of our deeply ingrained habits of seeing the world through self-centered lenses. And because Satan works hard to distract us with all sorts of discouraging things.
But there is abounding grace available to help us see grace (2 Corinthians 9:8). That’s why there is an abundance of commands for us to give thanks! These commands are a grace, for they call forth in us what they demand of us.
Mine the Bible for the “thanks” and “thanksgiving” commands, and practice them — especially when you don’t feel like it. That’s likely when you need them the most. And “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Fight discouragement with thanksgiving. Fight hard! God will supply the strength you need (1 Peter 4:11; Philippians 4:19).
As you obey, you will begin to see and savor the grace you missed before.