I remember a time years after my cancer diagnosis when I could look back at that very difficult time in my life with gratitude. The very day I had a hysterectomy to remove the cancer was also the day I previously had planned a trip that would have been a very bad idea. I didn’t know it at the time … I couldn’t see the dangers ahead … but in hindsight, I see that cancer saved me from several bad choices. You might even say cancer saved me from myself, for which I am now thankful.
But back when I was experiencing excruciating pain, when a dull tickle of nausea threatened to gag me for months, when my body was continually prodded and injected and humiliated, when I held handfuls of my own hair in my hand, I was not thankful for cancer.
But I was thankful.
The day my hair started to fall out I had been admitted to the hospital for a complication from my surgery. I spiked a fever, and a scan revealed a pocket of fluid that had collected around the surgical site. My platelets were also dangerously low. But it was nothing a temporary drainage tube and an infusion of blood couldn’t fix. A friend was visiting in my hospital room to cheer me up when I reached up to run my fingers through my hair. A clump fell out in my hand. Tears filled my eyes. Even though I knew this was going to happen, I didn’t know when. And on that day, a day when I had been rushed to the hospital because of the fever and weakness, I needed some good news. Not a bald head.
Before I could break into a full cry, I urged my friend, “Quick, let’s think of everything we’re thankful for.” And the two of us began listing things that God was providing even in an otherwise dark season: world-class medical care, friends and family who were supporting me, another friend who was on her way to shave my head so the trauma of handfuls of hair at a time would cease, and on and on. By the time we had both made our lists, the tears had nearly stopped.
Of course I wasn’t thankful for cancer. That wouldn’t come for years. But in the midst of cancer, just like the Apostle Paul adjures us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, I was thankful.
When life brings us happy changes, it’s easy to be thankful … both the in and the for kind of thankfulness. But in the hard changes, the kind that bring suffering and loneliness and despair and even death, gratitude often is the last thing on our minds. And as someone who has suffered deeply … in many of the same ways you have … receiving the encouragement to be thankful when all hell is breaking loose often feels like the wrong kind of encouragement. We have to speak it gently, if we speak it at all. And maybe the better way is to urge it preemptively. To practice being thankful now, in all the things we’re currently experiencing, so that when the hard changes come … and they will … gratitude will be our habit.
But why do we need to be thankful in those most difficult of times?
Consider the eucharist: the sacrament of thanksgiving. Hear it from Mark’s Gospel (14:22-24):
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them.
Jesus broke the bread with his hands, he poured the wine into a cup, and he gave thanks, even though the bread and the wine were symbols of the way his body would be broken and his blood would be poured out … all in just a few short hours. In one sense, you could say he was modeling what Paul meant when he told us to give thanks in all things.
But look deeper. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 10. Jesus didn’t simply eat the bread and drink from the cup himself. He shared. He passed the bread and the wine around. And he told his disciples to keep this feast of gratitude until He returns, which means we, too, eat and drink with him.
See, it’s not simply food and drink we receive from Jesus. The word translated “cup” in 1 Corinthians 10 is from the Hebrew word meaning “the portion of what God’s administration deals out.” Every time we give thanks in the hard changes — every time we say with Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” — we accept with gratitude the good plans of God, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. And we experience deeper fellowship with Christ.
This hard change you are going through now? You don’t have to be thankful for it. Not now. Maybe not ever. But if you can be thankful in it, if you can see any glimmer of God’s goodness in the midst of all that’s hard and heavy, receive it as Christ’s presence with you, as fellowship with your wounded Savior who held out the broken crumbs of his own body as an offering of thanksgiving.