Particularly at Thanksgiving, St. Paul’s admonition to give thanks in all circumstances is readily affirmed by most Christians and persons of other faiths too. However, the statement that giving thanks in all circumstances is “God’s will” may strike a particularly discordant note to one whose life is in tangles or to one who struggles with a serious illness or a deep hurt or grief. Once, when I was in a particularly awful situation, I found myself responding with anger to these words. I questioned how I could be expected to give thanks; perhaps I confused giving thanks in all circumstances with giving thanks for such a circumstance. Over time, I have seen how deeply my spiritual life has been shaped by attention to gratitude and thanks to God in every circumstance. In fact, it is in the most bitter of circumstances that my spirit is lifted when I realize just how many blessings abound, even in the midst of suffering. What has your own faith tradition taught you about thanksgiving?
Upon reading your reflections, I remembered how as a child I was taught that the etiquette for replying to someone’s “How are you?” is to say first Alhamdulillah, which means, All praise and thanks are due to God. In fact, it is sometimes the only thing a Muslim answers, eliminating the need to give further details. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the five daily prayers—or seventeen cycles of prayer—I am commanded to perform every day because my preoccupation with daily life can divert my attention from “giving thanks in all circumstances.” Knowing that I have to plan my day according to the times during which I need to perform those prayers helps me to refocus, reflect, and transcend my worries and pain, as well as remember the bounties I have been blessed with. Muslims, who stop whatever they are doing to engage in the prescribed prayers to recite the opening sentence of each of the seventeen cycles, find themselves in a state of thanksgiving as they say these words: “Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” (al-Fatihah 1:2)
Grace, I am glad you raised this question and grateful for your emphasis on giving thanks in all circumstances. I, too, have found myself in difficult circumstances struggling to recognize the blessings in my life. According to Jewish tradition, a person is supposed to recite a blessing upon hearing bad news, in particular the news that someone has died. The prescribed blessing is “Praised is the True Judge.” I have often choked out these words, against my will, without the proper intention of praising God. But I believe that it is appropriate to say the words of praise or thanks without truly feeling them and hope that feelings of praise and thanks will eventually follow. The early rabbis taught, “One is obligated to bless upon the bad as he would upon the good….” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:5) Perhaps Paul and the early rabbis were responding to a natural human tendency that they observed: While it is not easy for a person in pain to offer thanks to God, there are always things for which to be thankful; and it is a worthy endeavor to offer thanks even when it is difficult to do so.