What does it mean to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? How can we give thanks when our world is racked by war, grief and death? Should we give thanks in the midst of such horror?
As Thanksgiving approaches, the contrast between a season set aside for gratitude and a world aching on account of two wars lays us bare to our most honest questions. The Psalms provide a way of answering these questions honestly, as the Psalmist finds himself asking similar questions, yet seeking God in them. Although originally set in a markedly different time, the Psalms speak of the world in a way we recognize, as plagued by sin, grief, and death, yet still ever under the mighty hand of God. To learn from the Psalms is to learn how to give thanks honestly during times engulfed in great and visible darkness.
Let’s turn our attention to Psalm 10, noticing how the Psalmist would teach us how to pray.
The tenth Psalm begins: “Why do you stand so far off, O Lord, and hide your face in the time of need and trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Like us, the Psalmist looks around and sees a world as marked by violence, persecution, and death. He does not close his eyes to the injustice or violence around him (Psalm 10:8), but describes what he sees to God. In his description, the Psalmist questions God’s nearness, as if he is asking how the world could look like this if God is near. Yet his fear is transformed as he remembers and articulates what he knows to be true about God: “you behold ungodliness and wrong, that you may take the matter into your hand” (Psalm 10:15), “you are the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:17). His honesty before God leads him to remember what has been true about God in the past, and brings him to give thanks for who God is and will be: “The Lord is King for ever and ever” (Psalm 10:16), “O Lord, you have heard the desire of the poor” (Psalm 10:17).
The Psalms give us words to pray. Perhaps most especially in disorienting times, the prayer book of the Bible can be a crucial part of our prayer lives, so that we pray and give thanks even if it goes against our feelings. In his small book on the Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our heart…The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”1 As the destructive hand of sin rages in our world, may we pray to the One who is the King over all the earth. In taking up the prayers of the Psalms may we learn to give thanks to Him, not ignoring the horrors of the world but through honestly reckoning with them in His presence, remember who He has been and forever will be.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (S.L.G. Press, 1982), 14-5.