Thanksgiving in the Desert

Each year when Thanksgiving comes around, we are prompted to think of those things for which we are thankful. And certainly that is a good discipline to regularly engage in. As Matt Redman says in his song, “For all Your goodness I will keep on singing, ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.” It is good for our hearts to continually search for the treasure of God’s goodness, and to give Him thanks as we discover more and more reasons to praise Him.

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But how are we to give thanks when we find ourselves in less-than-ideal circumstances? What if we’re facing tragedy rather than joy, or suffering rather than delight? What if the thing for which we would be very thankful has not yet happened and may not happen at all? How are we supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving in the desert?

The Psalms are full of thanksgiving, but the Psalms are also full of complaint and heartache and sorrow. Yet if we look closely, the Psalms give us a pattern of how to express our complaints and sorrows in a way that honors God.

In Psalm 22:1, David twice exclaims “Why?!” “Why have You forsaken me?” and “Why are You so far from saving me?” He is not afraid to air his complaint—even his accusation—against God. And God does not strike him down for daring to say such a thing. God is big enough to handle our complaints and accusations. But how can those complaints honor God? Verse 3 of Psalm 22 gives us a clue: “Yet You are holy…” Throughout the psalms we see this pattern—submissive trust follows honest complaining. There is the “Why, God?!” spoken in despair and anguish, but that is followed by a calling to mind of some aspect of God’s character. It is like what Jeremiah cries: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is…But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…great is Your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:17, 21, 23)

God is not honored by angry fist-shaking that merely demands Him to do what we want. But neither is God honored by bitter hearts hiding behind smiling masks and empty platitudes. If we find ourselves in a desert this Thanksgiving season, we can honor God with our honest complaint when that complaint is then followed by an attitude of submission and trust in God’s goodness and sovereignty, even if we do not see that in the moment.

Jesus uttered the psalmist’s words as He was hanging on the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) He did not paste a smile on His face and thank God for how all this was going to turn out for the good. No, He cried out in anguish and pain as He bore the wrath of God for your sin and mine. Yet, having publicly voiced such a complaint, He still was able to say “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46) as He entrusted Himself to the perfect will of His Father.

May our honest complaints be tempered by deep trust in our God as we learn what it means to have Thanksgiving even in the desert.