Can I be Thankful? Will I be Thankful?

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By James Biesiadecki

Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church of Bartlesville Oklahoma

My son, Chandler, has been gifted with a sensitivity for missions from an early age. As we served with the International Mission Board (IMB) in Central Asia, he was 4 or 5-years-old when he asked, “Where would be the hardest place in the world to be a missionary?” Inspired by something in the news, I said, “There are a lot of difficult places, but maybe right now, the most difficult could be North Korea.” He thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I should start in Thailand. That way, I could learn how to be a missionary, and then I’d go to North Korea. That way, if I die soon, at least I could save some people.” My response? That was easy for a pastor/missionary: teary-eyed and thankful. 

Unable to shake that calling to missions, he was thriving in his second year of college as he continued preparation for the mission field. Serving as president of his class for the second term, his collegiate experience seemed everything we hoped for. My response? Easy for a dad who has invested love, time, and money in the kid: Thankful. 

This past year at age 19, Chandler realized his high school sweetheart was God’s gift to him, and wanting to remain pure, he thought it best to marry this genuinely godly young woman. As a sweet-spirited beautiful lady, she would be a great addition to our family. My response? A slight concern for financial stability, no doubt, but as a Christian man, I was thankful. In several months our job would seem complete. We could sit back in gratitude and bask in the goodness of God.

Thankfulness can be a natural reaction to good things, but thankfulness is neither intuitive nor immediately sensible in the face of crisis or adversity. At least for me, thankfulness comes easy in those moments of blessing. On the other hand, anger, depression, or paralysis has often been my knee-jerk reaction to moments of pain. The instruction, yes even the command to be thankful, is only provided by divine revelation and requires divine strength to accomplish. Paul said, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18, ESV). The command comes in the serene moments before the crisis arises, before tragedy strikes, and before heartbreaking circumstances crash down on us. In God’s mercy, he prepares us so we can not only endure the hardships, but so his mercies will be revealed even through those difficult times. As a pastor, I have taught that. I have encouraged that. I have even shouted that from the pulpit for years. But this year, I learned it.

My blue skies were darkened by a sudden storm in Chandler’s life. Just weeks after his proposal and on his 20th birthday, he was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma showing up in his neck. His breathing was constricted, his body ached with itching and weakness, and nausea became the norm. His return from school came without certainty of return. In a moment, his promising future service to God, his family, his “everything” seemed unlikely. This was the darkest cloud we have ever known. For the first time, I truly felt the force of Martin Luther’s words: 

“For still our ancient foe

does seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great,

and armed with cruel hate,

on earth is not his equal.”

Trips to MD Anderson were ahead. Immuno-therapies and talks of intense radiation regiments and subsequent chemotherapies crashed every conversation. I was learning about cancer and the after-effects of treatments. I was reading with zeal about natural remedies, all while in the back of my mind, I wondered how long we had. Thankfulness, at the moment, seemed so distant, so out of place. Yet, through the anguish, prayer, and tears, my wife and I determined, yes resolved, we would be thankful. Thankful for the time we were lent this son; thankful that we loved him, and he loved us; thankful for the young man he had become. Yes, mingled with anguish but truly thankful. Not only did we learn to trust the Lord with thankfulness, but in the darkest tempest, we saw our son radiate with thankfulness as wind and waves seemed to fall powerless around him. 

This young couple decided they wanted time unchallenged by the effects of treatment. A wedding thought to be months away would now be two weeks away. Not only did our church surround us with prayer, as hundreds, if not thousands, of prayers and encouragement on social media and in cards also flooded us. But then, un-numbered souls from our church came together and enabled a near storybook wedding on a shoestring budget in only two weeks. I performed the ceremony through tears as I scanned the crowd. There were so many faces from the past, many having traveled great distances to show their support. Family and guests from out of town commented that it was the single most extraordinary outpouring of love and support they had ever seen. We sent them off to a honeymoon under string lights, sparklers, and love sent from God. 

So much could be said, and so many stories could be told here, but after months of treatment, Chandler went for a follow-up last week and received words that were medicine to our souls: “all clear.” The scan of his body says, “Nothing to see here for now.” The effects of the radiation so far: near zero. Dad at the table at Thanksgiving this year: overwhelmed…yes, thankful. 

Martin Luther himself was not unaccustomed to grief, with the death of a 1-year-old (Elizabeth) to the plague and a 14-year-old daughter (Magdalene) to an unknown illness; his journals reveal crippling grief. In writing a friend, he said, “It is amazing what a sick heart she has left to me, so much grief for her overcomes me. Never before would I have believed that a father’s heart could have such tender feelings for his child. Do pray to the Lord for me.” Yet through his grieved heart, he had a predetermined hope. When he says the words, “when the world with devils filled that seeks to undo us,” he speaks from personal pain. Yet, was able to face it with this reality: 

“Did we in our own strength confide,

our striving would be losing,

were not the right man on our side,

the Man of God’s own choosing.

You ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is He…”

Luther knew what we must know in those moments: with a single word, Christ can take down Satan’s schemes and provide strength and stability, and yes, even enable thankfulness. He did, and we can do what the Psalmist called for:  

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:2–5, ESV).

So as we approach the table at Thanksgiving, we don’t know what new pandemics await, and we don’t yet see the effect of vaccine mandates on jobs. We have no idea the next moment of national unrest that looms and what deep and personal tragedy creeps in the shadows ahead. But here is what we do know: We know for sure God is good, and we know for sure Christ is risen. So meditate on the good things that God has allowed, and find strength in Christ to be thankful when your trial hits. With the “Right Man on your side” this Thanksgiving, your striving will be winning.