Giving Thanks

Albert Einstein once said that the most important question for a human to ask is this: “Is the universe friendly?”[1]

It’s a particularly good question for 2020. This year that began with hopes of seeing all things better (with 20-20 vision) has turned out to be a year of unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes, blatant racism, global pandemic, economic recession, and upended churches, schools, and businesses. Now, the end of 2020 is giving us political toxicity and social isolation for the holidays.

Yet the calendar says it’s time for Thanksgiving. And we have St. Paul’s admonition to “give thanks in all things” (1 Thess 5:18). How does anyone pull off continual thankfulness, especially in a year of disasters? 

Psalm 103 comes to mind.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. Who forgives all you iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from death. Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, and who satisfies you with good as long as you live (Ps 103:1-5a).

While the psalmist’s exuberance is inspiring, I have some questions. Obviously God doesn’t heal everyone from all diseases nor always rescue from death, as painfully demonstrated by the current global covid death rate of 1.4 million. Later in the psalm, verses 14-16 acknowledge that we are all mortal, taken from dust and will return to dust. Perhaps we should see the psalmist’s words about God healing all of our diseases and rescuing from death as poetic celebration of the countless times we have been ill and got better or knew life-threatening dangers and escaped — whether by miraculous rescue or through the incredible healing powers of the human body. Those of us who have survived the coronavirus can relate to this deep gratitude for restored health.

Maybe even more profound is the psalm’s celebration that God “forgives all your iniquity,” a concept later depicted with this imaginative metaphor: “as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgression from us” (v. 12a). If you were to travel east around the globe, you may encircle it over and over without ever coming to an end, or if you were to go west as far as possible, you’d never discover a point of stopping. God’s forgiveness removes our sin and guilt from us by an infinite distance. There is reason for thanksgiving.

This first paragraph of Psalm 103 concludes with celebration of a different kind of corona: God “crowns you with steadfast love (hesed) and mercy,” and climactically declares that God “satisfies you with good as long as you live.”

To be sure, 2020 has had its good moments to celebrate: quiet evenings at home, a slower pace of life for some, children to cherish, love for and from a spouse, heroic deeds of medical professionals, and churches and schools that have creatively adapted — to name a few reasons to bless the Lord. 

But the deeper truth from the psalm is that God also works for good in difficult times and on hard days, as well as happy ones. God’s steadfast love and mercy redeems even the tough parts of life. We know frightening well the devastation of disease and reality of death. Our hearts can be broken, our dreams wrecked. We can be victims of betrayal, and the thing we most dread can happen. We can loose so much: a job,  a loved one, a hope, a dream. There are dark days. There have been hard times in the past and there will be more in the future. 

But in the dark days we are not alone. When the world crashes in on us, it’s never the end. There may be a permanent loss, but it’s never the end of the possibility of goodness. Paul says it best: “God is working all things together for the good” (Rom 8:28). That doesn’t mean that everything that happens is good. It is not. But God can bring good out of all things, even tragedies. It’s not that the pain disappears, but that it can be transformed, or some great good that can grow out of it. 

As Henri Nouwen has said, “Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. It is a difficult discipline in which I constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future. It is hard precisely because it challenges me to face my painful moments—experiences of rejection and abandonment, feelings of loss and failure—and gradually to discover in them the pruning hands of God purifying my heart for deeper love, stronger hope, and broader faith. I am gradually learning that the call to gratitude asks us to say, ‘Everything is grace.’ Whether there is suffering or joy, I can say, ‘Yes, I want to live this, and I want to discover in this more fully the gift of life.’” [2]

God is with us in each difficult step of life. We face nothing alone. And God offers grace in the face of each painful moment. On every hard day God is there saying, “Trust in me; rest in me. I’ll walk with you. My grace will be enough.” And in depending on God’s steadfast love and mercy we find a peace in the midst of the tough days.

Again, Nouwen has written: “To reclaim our history in its totality means that we no longer relate to our past as years in which only good times can be remembered and bad times need to be forgotten, but as opportunities for an ongoing conversion of heart. In a converted heart all our past can be gathered up in gratitude, be remembered with joy, and become the source of energy that moves us toward the future.” [2]

Is the universe friendly? Yes. This is still God’s very good creation, notwithstanding some rough edges that can cut razor thin. And more importantly, we live every good day and face every challenge not simply in our own strength, but in the strength of God who crowns all moments with steadfast love and mercy. In ways we may not yet imagine, God is satisfying us with good as long as we live.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

May we give thanks to God in 2020.


[1] Einstein thought that we should answer the question “yes.” See

[2] Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, (HarperCollins ebooks), chapter 4.

* Photo of Ellis family Thanksgiving dinner in Brownwood, TX, 2012.

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