Saying ‘thanks’ when you hurt
This fall, I celebrated my 20th year as Lead Pastor at Triad Baptist Church.
Given the number of people over the years who have come to know Christ through our teaching and ministries — themselves stemming from God working through so many others than just me — our growth since 1983 and much more, I certainly have a lot to be thankful for. So do we as the church body called Triad Baptist.
But as many who have lost loved ones way too early know so well, life is truly “but a vapor” and fleeting. Life’s storms often descend without notice.
And yet God often uses those times and valleys to underscore a timeless truth: True thanksgiving comes when you learn to thank God not when life is rosy but also when you’re hurting and in despair.
Let me take you to such a time in my life.
I’m living in Colorado and in my late 20s — earning a master’s in counseling and deciding to go that route after leaving the ministry in 1989.
This followed a painful experience that took me years to overcome: a church assignment where the pastor I served under had me blow snow and function more as church custodian instead of giving me opportunities to grow and do what I knew I had been called to do: preach and teach.
There in our small apartment in Colorado one night, I remember crying out to God as I prayed and journaled about where I was in my life. I felt led by God to look at my sleeping children Alison, 5, and Zach, 3, my wife, Bettina, and then myself in the mirror.
As low as I felt, the “man of sorrows” acquainted with our grief and suffering took me around and showed me those things to remind me of the blessings I’d overlooked.
Leaving the ministry was probably the biggest struggle and pull away from God I ever made but God used that night and subsequent days and experiences to teach me to trust His ways and thank him — before the rescue, before the open door, before the turnaround and amid the waiting and uncertainty and discouragement and despair.
Like the children of Israel marching around Jericho and shouting before the walls came down, what God was waiting for all along was for me to praise Him before He brought the walls down in my life and victory and to say ‘thanks’ when I was hurting. That is true faith, and when you can do that, as so many who have been there know, it’s the closest you will ever be to the Lord in your life.
I sat down and began to list all the things I was thankful for and had overlooked — health, a place to live, getting us across the country to Colorado safely, providing for our small family every day, and for life itself and being able to take another breath.
God, had indeed, already proven himself faithful to me and good to me through my 57 years in so many ways. Like the popular saying, “Attitude determines altitude,” I was so low because I had overlooked God’s obvious work in my life in the difficult times and good times and had not said ‘thank you’ nearly enough.
Fortunately, while life is fragile God is faithful, too.
Deuteronomy 7:9 promises us, “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.&rdqo;
Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold resolutely to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”
And 1 Peter 5:10 explains, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore you, secure you, strengthen you, and establish you.”
Exactly two years from that prayer in Morrison County, Colorado, I took a church in Lexington that had 55 members at the time who had come from a church split before I got there. I joke that I was incredibly successful since, in my first six months of ministry, things were going so well that attendance went to 38.
But I was so excited to be serving the Lord, and so thankful for the opportunity God had given me that I pressed on and learned to trust him in new ways. In a year, 110 people were attending. By 1998, when I came to Triad Baptist, 240 people made up the church.
God’s way often brings you down to lift you up, and that is exactly what happened to me. Only God knows how this all works in His plan but I saw how my perspective changed when I learned to trust God and His ways over mine.
God has not only taken discouraging circumstances in my life and turned them around for good but proven himself loving and faithful to me through every one of the ups and downs of the ministry.
Now, as I gather around the Thanksgiving table as a grandfather of five little grandkids that call me “Papa,” I see the cycle of life and how the greatest blessing is for my children’s children to call on the name of the Lord and to learn to walk with Him.
I get my deepest joy and rest knowing God truly has been faithful to me even when I have gone through times where I doubted Him. He’s remained with me even when I’ve had a hard time saying ‘thanks’ and lacked the faith to thank Him in the midst of the trial — not after He brought me through it.
May this Thanksgiving be a special one for you. Whatever your circumstances or wherever life takes you or finds you, take stock of your own life, and sit down and jot down your own list of Godly blessings.
Then look up and thank the one who loved you so much that He gave you his very best: His own son.
You are, and we all are, blessed indeed.