Are we thankful yet? It's Thanksgiving for goodness sake lol! It's funny how we can't just make ourselves feel thankful. Gratitude is the result of something done to or for us. Digging into Psalm 118, I found a precious truth that reveals how deep, life changing gratitude happens!
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. What calls forth deep gratitude from our hearts? It’s God’s goodness and love. But often times, we may be looking for His goodness and love in all the wrong places, which implies we ourselves are not in a place to receive and experience all that He has for us. I’m not talking about physical geography but rather, where we are spiritually / emotionally in our lives. Where our minds tend to dwell and abide when we interact with the world and the people in our lives determines whether we are able to connect with God’s mercy and grace. It really boils down to who we are, where we find our worth, and what we think life's about. In other words, how we identify ourselves, how we relate to God, and how we understand our struggles.
2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.” The psalmist first calls Israelites to proclaim His eternal love. This is our identity at the national level (in a spiritual way) – to belong to a people whose name means, ‘those who struggle with God and men and overcome’. To be able to experience God’s amazing grace, we must be people who engage the spiritual and emotional struggles that God allows to come our way. And we must learn to engage in the way which God determines it as a success. God’s way is always overcoming evil with good. And this is a huge indicator that we are experiencing real, divine love – we overcome the internal struggles against our own ‘evil’ and the ‘evil’ of others with goodness and love from God.
3 Let the house of Aaron say: “His love endures forever.” Second and more specifically, we need to be of the house of Aaron, meaning, we need to be priests; not in the conventional sense with white collars and what not, but Biblical, New Testament priests, which every believer is called to be. To experience God’s deep, transforming love we need to become well acquainted with the inner life - all the emotions, sorrow, and hurt - so that we can bring acceptable offerings to God as well as intercede meaningfully for others.
4 Let those who fear the Lord say: “His love endures forever.” And thirdly to experience eternal kindness that moves us to deep gratitude, we need to take God and His Word seriously, more seriously than we take ourselves, our responsibilities, our goals and dreams, our fears and hurts, and even the incessant stream of thoughts that go through our minds everyday. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ There is a strong connection between wisdom and real, life changing thankfulness. Wisdom is knowledge and understanding into God and His ways which results in a life of joy and peace. Wisdom is humbly walking with God to experience and process all of life (especially emotional pains) in ways that grow beauty and strength in our character and relationships. Wisdom is having inner life skills (business world often calls them soft skills) that enable one to be saved from the ways of wicked men and the adulteress. Those designations refer to unfaithful ways of dealing with desires and pain – ways that don’t seriously consider God’s goodness and power, but rather resort to hostility, hiding, seduction, and manipulation. But none of those ever result in true thanksgiving, only destruction of self and others.
5 When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place. When was the last time you felt hard pressed? The King James Bible calls it, ‘distress’. The Message Bible phrases it, ‘Pushed to the wall’. The idea is getting backed into a corner with a fear of not being able to get free - trapped with no alternatives but defeat. If left in this place, we would end in despair without hope. It’s being in a place of powerlessness and poverty which prevents us from being and doing what is meaningful for us. People work really hard to not end up in this place. Pursuing financial wealth, power, control, prestige, and physical health are ways to protect ourselves and our families from being hard pressed. There’s inherently nothing wrong with those pursuits but if we use them apart from a transparent and vulnerable relationship with God where we wholeheartedly trust in His love and goodness, then we will not be open to His work and blessing in our hearts to grow gratitude. And when you did feel hard pressed, did you cry to the Lord for mercy, believing in His love and delight in you, that He would rescue your heart (as revealed and proven through Christ’s death and resurrection for us)? If we don’t believe or feel that there’s grace in the universe, that there’s no one there for us, negative emotions will continue to constrict and suffocate our hope, making our hearts sick. Faith that Jesus reveals the heart of God brings us into a spacious place and opens us to God’s help and healing. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Slavery is a great metaphor to help us understand what it means to be hard pressed. As a slave, we are totally limited in what we can and cannot do - to the point of letting go of our dignity, succumbing to an existence without love and meaning. When we are in emotional distress, we feel inadequate and we don’t feel like we have choices. The pain of shame and rejection debilitate us from healing and redemptive actions. We often find ourselves not even wanting to pursue positive change because hopelessness and bitter self-sufficiency might be so ingrained in our hearts. Freedom and spaciousness are the last things from our minds. We get tunnel vision and only see desperation and pain, fueled by the fear of despair. Being hard pressed is that place where are tempted to give up, sever ties, and resign to deep, harmful compromises in our character and relationships. Crying to the Lord is the wisest and most powerful thing we can do to overcome painful distress. When we believe in the God who is not only a powerful benevolent Creator, but also the perfect Father who is empathy at His core, our hearts are stirred and moved to trust in a childlike way, the healthy way our hearts were created to trust in the One who both made us and redeemed us by His Gospel.
6 The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? This is the potent resolve which frees us from the fear and pain of being hard pressed. This heart felt confidence opens our minds to the many possibilities that God has in store to heal us and help us to recover from any and every hurt, habit, or hang up. Courage because of Emmanuel (God with us) empowers us to see people as they truly are - mere mortals - all under God’s authority. Fearing God and not men is essential to being thankful for God’s loving kindness as it expands and clarifies our perspective into the human condition - that everyone is frail, temporal, and susceptible to greater powers such as death. Knowing that the Immortal One is truly with me, not only His presence but His heart, gives us the strength we need to pursue goodness and mercy in the midst of our hard-pressedness.
7 The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies. The Empathizing God helps me overcome the enemy of my soul, ie. distress and fear caused by pain, shame, affliction, rejection and hopelessness. Victory in this internal struggle / trial calms the storm in the sea of my emotions. And I experience sunshine, peace and calm which yields a heart of great appreciation for all that God does for me which I cannot do myself.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. 9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. Trusting people and those in authority is good but not as a refuge from the storms of distress. They are very limited in their strength and ability to comfort us. When it comes to finding ultimate safety and protection from the damages of internal strife, we need to go directly to the One whose heart is 100% with us. He genuinely knows our pain and afflictions and He knows how to lead us to the spacious place, the place of real refuge.
10 All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. 11 They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. 12 They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them down. 13 I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. 14 The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. Being hard pressed and in emotional distress is not a small thing; it is likened to having the whole world against us attacking on every side. Like being in the midst of swarming insects, fear and confusion leave us screaming for relief. If we identify with anything or anyone less than the One who is perfect love and strength, we will get pushed back and fall without ability to get back up. But if we find our identity in the God who has revealed His heart through Jesus Christ, we will find strength, defense, and salvation. No matter how overwhelming the odds and how numerous and powerful the forces and arrows of distress, the identity of God is able to consume them ‘as quickly as burning thorns’. We need to find ourselves in this God.
15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! 16 The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done. Experiencing overwhelming, desperate moments with God’s comfort and help leads us to processions of victorious celebration. Our hearts are filled with praise and thanksgiving for the everlasting love that overcomes our fears and hurts. Rather than being overcome by hostility and wrath, we overcome with faith and mercy; we receive the gift of grace that wins us over to be willing to hope, forgive, and love eternally. And as God gives us these victories, we are able to live and not die to help others find the hope and gratitude that is found in God alone.
18 The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. 20 This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:13, 14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” The context of this passage is one of judging others and how we need to judge ourselves first to see things clearly. These moments of judgment cause conflict and distress. This is the fertile ground of negative emotions and an environment ripe for hostility. Yet Jesus instructs us to ask, seek, and knock for God’s great gifts in the midst of these times (Matt.7:7-12). Going through distressful moments with faith in God is the narrow gate which leads to life. Going to God for comfort is a radical expression of faith in the profound, often painful, yet most meaningful moments of our lives. Distress and hard-pressedness create a very narrow entryway which people usually try their best to avoid. Yet the Lord uses hard pressed moments to discipline / disciple us to become people who bring life and peace to all the places we go each and every day. As we find comfort from God, we are able to comfort those around us (2 Corinthians 1:4)
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. This way of living is foundational to being a child of God, ie. a person full of thanks for God’s mercy and goodness. It is the initial stone to set the orientation of the rest of the building. When we are hard pressed and we apply wholehearted trust in God’s truth and grace, it transforms the orientation of our lives and we marvel at the incredible work of God in our character to reflect His own.
25 Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. 27 The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. 28 You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. 29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. As we overcome struggles of distress, emotional hurts, and pitfalls of despair, by God’s saving work and ways, we experience the success He wants for us - to be one who comes in the name of the Lord! And this identity reflects the light of God’s grace and truth, especially in the midst of distress. As we continue to grow in this way of life and love, we grow in greater and deeper worship of the God who is good and whose love endures forever! And being a worshiper is the epitome of wholehearted gratitude!
“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4;23, 24
As you celebrate and enjoy the holidays, I encourage you to grow hearts of thankfulness by paying attention to your distress and hard pressed moments. More importantly, remember to cry to the Lord with faith and hope in His love which endures forever! Make those crucial identity determining decisions. Then expect to experience God's great work in your heart to bring you to the spacious place of His grace and gratitude.