Summary: Giving thanks loosens the grip of our anxious clenched fists, so that we might let go of ourselves and receive the fullness of God’s Spirit. Five steps toward learning to give thanks.
A few miles south of downtown Atlanta, away from the tall, shiny, steel and glass buildings, a street corner is occupied by a short, unassuming, old building made of brick and stone. It’s a church building. When I lived in Atlanta, early every weekday morning a line formed outside this building—a hundred, two hundred, two hundred and fifty people—mostly men, but some women too and even some kids now and then. In all kinds of weather, in the heat of the Georgia summer and in the frigid cold of February, the people came. In the basement of this building, breakfast was served: coffee, grits, hard-boiled eggs, a few slices of orange, maybe some donuts or muffins.
In my memory this street corner is always shrouded in semi-darkness. Everything seems to be in shadow, even after the sun comes up. Shades of gray dominate the landscape. No flowers. No brightly painted murals. Just gray brick, brown jackets, and sad eyes.
Actually, not everyone had sad eyes. There was one gentleman in particular who was there every morning. At least, on those occasions when I was there, he was there. He always came through the line with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. When asked “how are you this morning?” he would respond “I’m blessed! I’m blessed!” And he meant it.
He might have been cold. He might have been hungry. He might have been exhausted. He might have been carrying the grief of tragedies long past. Those things might come up in further conversation. But when asked “how are you this morning?” he would respond “I’m blessed! I’m blessed!” And he meant it. He was not slow-witted. He was not in denial. He was not an eternal optimist refusing to acknowledge negativity. He was just blessed. That’s all, just blessed.
This man stands out in my memory as a living example of the peace that passes understanding.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“Rejoice,” Paul encourages us, and “do not be anxious about anything.”
Well, it makes sense that the second statement would go with the first. It’s hard to rejoice and worry at the same time.
But how can we not worry? There is so much in this world and in our lives to be anxious about. Food, shelter, clothes. Job, relationships, family. Emotional stability, financial security, spiritual growth even.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Are there things in this world and in our lives that provoke anxiety? Yes! Lift them up to God, Paul says. And give thanks, Paul says.
Notice, Paul doesn’t say, lift your requests to God and don’t forget to give thanks after he grants your request. Paul says, lift your requests to God, tell him about everything that causes you anxiety, and give thanks at the same time. Give thanks before you lift up your concerns. Give thanks while you lift up your concerns. Give thanks after you lift up your concerns.
And then what happens?
Then “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
The peace that passes understanding is not a gift that comes after God has met all of our ‘felt needs.’ The peace that passes understanding is a gift that comes in the midst of our need. The peace that passes understanding doesn’t remove every care from us. The peace that passes understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus so that our cares do not overwhelm us.
When Paul exhorted the believers in Philippi to rejoice, he wasn’t telling them life would never be hard. He was promising them that God’s joy and peace is available to them even when life is hard.
Paul didn’t tell the believers in Philippi to give thanks after they got the peace and joy. He told them to give thanks while they were lifting to God the concerns that threatened to rob them of peace and joy. There is something about giving thanks to God that begins to make it possible for us to be open to peace and joy.
Sometimes we’d rather hide our hurt, bury our anger, pretend we are not afraid, and cling to our worry than open ourselves to God’s healing touch. It’s in our nature to resist the healing, reconciling, saving touch of God’s Spirit. Our thanksgiving is one avenue God can use to break down this resistance.