NBA Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson contracted HIV thirty years ago. He recently marked the anniversary of his diagnosis by stating, “I thank the Lord for keeping me, giving me strength, and guiding me for sixty-two years but especially the last thirty.” Now an outspoken Christian, Johnson stepped down as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019 so he and his wife could devote more time to their church.
“It’s truly a blessing when you know what direction you’re going in,” he said.
I wanted to begin today’s Daily Article with this good news in order to frame the tragic story everyone is following: an SUV plowed through a Christmas parade in Wisconsin on Sunday. As of this writing, five have died and forty-eight were injured. Authorities have charged Darrell Brooks, a Milwaukee man with a criminal history dating back to 1999, with five counts of first-degree intentional homicide.
One father told reporters, “There were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere. I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter.” He added, “My wife and two daughters were almost hit. Please pray for everybody. Please pray.”
In other news, a school bus carrying members of a high school band collided last Friday with a pickup truck traveling the wrong way on Interstate 20 in Big Spring, a town in West Texas. The band director was killed, as were the drivers of the bus and the pickup truck. Two of the twenty-five students on the bus were taken to a Lubbock hospital in critical condition.
I have never been to Milwaukee, but I have traveled that stretch of I-20 dozens of times over the years, the last just a few days ago. I played in the high school band, as did both of our sons.
As a result, the bus collision in Texas feels more real to me than the SUV tragedy in Wisconsin. But those in Wisconsin feel just the opposite. And what happened in either place could happen where you live today.
During this Thanksgiving week, can we emulate Magic Johnson’s gratitude to God in the midst of suffering? Should we?
A Thanksgiving spectrum with four options
If we cannot learn to give thanks in hard times, we will never learn to give thanks. An elderly seminary professor once advised me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.”
What makes Thanksgiving difficult for you this year? Are you dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one? Challenges in your health, family, or finances? Guilt over the past or fear of the future?
In collating gratitude with suffering, we have four logical options we can view as a Thanksgiving spectrum.
1: We can choose gratitude as a generic attitude, a feeling we choose to feel. As I noted yesterday, this is a common approach in our secularized culture. However, it is an illogical and impractical choice. Feeling grateful without being grateful to someone in particular is like feeling love without loving someone in particular.
2: We can be grateful to God for the good things in our lives. For example, the psalmist declared, “This is the day that the Lᴏʀᴅ has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). This is obviously a step beyond secularism’s self-reliant denial of the supernatural and is where most Christians end up on the Thanksgiving spectrum.
3: We can “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, my emphasis). This is a step beyond gratitude only for good things, a decision to find reasons for thanks in difficult times as well as good.
4: We can “give thanks for everything to God the Father” (Ephesians 5:20 NLT, my emphasis). This is the most challenging step of all, a decision to find cause for thanks even for the hard times we experience.
Is faith pretending?
I want to recommend the fourth option today. Not because it is easy, but because it is transformative. If we can learn an attitude of gratitude to God for every moment we experience, we will “enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4) and experience continually the transformative power of his Spirit in response to our worship.
Does this mean that we have to pretend that hard times are not hard? When asked to define “faith,” a small boy replied, “It’s believing what you know ain’t so.” Is this what God asks of us?
Not at all.
Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35), pleaded with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane with such stress and intensity that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44), and cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And yet he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), proving that doubts, pain, and grief are a normal part of life in this fallen world.
To “give thanks for everything to God the Father” means to thank him for the good that we experience and for the ways he will redeem the bad.
It is to experience his presence as we suffer (Psalm 23:4), knowing that because we are in his hand (John 10:29), he feels all that we feel and grieves as we grieve. It is to walk with him through the waters and the fire (Isaiah 43:2) and find in his Spirit our hope (Romans 5:3–5), help (Psalm 34:19), and peace (Philippians 4:6–7). And it is to believe that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
My favorite prayer in the Bible
When we lack the faith to trust God in hard places, we can ask God for the faith to trust him in hard places. We can offer my favorite prayer in Scripture: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Our gracious Father will answer our prayer, and our grateful faith will position us to experience his strength and grace in transforming ways.
In Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner writes: “A cancer inexplicably cured. A voice in a dream. A statue that weeps. A miracle is an event that strengthens faith. It is possible to look at most miracles and find a rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect. It is possible to look at Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas.
“Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.”
What miracle do you need today?