How Do We Give Thanks to the Lord When We're Hurting?
We don’t always find it easy to give thanks to the Lord, even during times like the holiday when we feel cheery and are reminded to be grateful. Still, Bible passages like Psalm 107 affirm that we should give thanks to the Lord at all times, not because things are going well but because he is worthy of our thanks.
What Is the Context of Psalm 107?
Psalm 107 is the first psalm in the last section of the book of Psalms (“Book 5,” as it’s listed in some Bibles). Unlike Psalm 108 and many other psalms in Book 5, it’s not listed as “a psalm of David.” Therefore, it’s hard to say whether it’s written by David or one of the other Psalmists (such as Anakim, Solomon, or Ethan the Ezrahite).
The psalm opens by repeating a line from Psalm 106, to give thanks to God because his “faithful love” (or “mercy” in some translations) endures forever. The rest of the psalm is directed at the audience, telling them to remember what God has done in their lives. It lists several kinds of people who God helps:
People freed from oppression (107:2).
Exiles from many places, now brought together (107:3).
Wanderers in the desert who called out for God’s help (107:4-9).
People who suffered in prison for scorning God and then repented (107:10-16).
Fools who called out for help at death’s door (17-21).
Sailors who called out for help at sea (23-32).
As Matthew Henry and other commentators have noted, the references to being saved from oppression, people wandering in deserts, and exiles coming together as part of a new group all bring to mind the nation of Israel. Israel was built from a collection of freed slaves, the foreigners who joined them when they left Egypt, and God made them into a nation on Mount Sinai and sustained them through 40 years of desert wandering.
Since the Israelites had a particular covenant with God that outlined various punishments and blessings, Psalm 107’s descriptions of God’s blessings are at least partly about his special relationship with Israel. The last 10 verses talk about God’s wrath, places being left desolate and newcomers taking over the land—another Israel-specific image since the Israelites took over Canaanite lands where God drove out the original inhabitants.
While the psalm builds on references to Israel’s history, it talks about God’s provision and power in a general way. It doesn’t specify which princes that God laid low, what people were put in prison, so we can’t see it purely as a psalm about Israel. As John Gill puts it, it is about what “all men should do, at all times and for all things.” Therefore, we can say that ultimately, the psalm is about why everyone should give thanks to the Lord.
What Does it Mean to Give Thanks to the Lord?
Psalm 107 talks a lot about the moments where God delivers us from dark situations, but it starts by saying we should give thanks because God’s love is always there. Seen in the context of other psalms—some about repenting after mistakes, others calling out for God’s help in troubled times, some about understanding the final destiny of people who reject God—we can say that Psalm 107 highlights God’s provision, but isn’t just about giving thanks in good times. We know both from the Bible and from personal experience that God doesn’t always deliver us from evil in the way we expect, and sometimes unjust people escape punishment (at least in this life).
Therefore, to give thanks to the Lord is a combination of two things. First, we praise God for his goodness, for his holy nature. Second, we do what Psalm 107 outlines: we remember the specific times that God rescued us or brought justice on wicked people. We remind ourselves of these times because remembering God’s past work gives us a long view of reality. We can easily get wrapped up in our current problems, how things appear unfixable. When we consider how God has worked in the past, we set our minds on the “final destiny” of all things (Psalm 73:17), remember God has done good and will do good again. Remembering God’s past actions helps us regain the ability to give thanks to the Lord always.
Are We Required to Give Thanks to the Lord in All Seasons?
While it’s certainly harder to give thanks to the Lord in difficult times, the Bible affirms multiple times across different books that we worship God because of his nature, not because of what is currently happening. Job gets angry at God for his sufferings, and his friend Elihu (who, unlike the other three friends, doesn’t accuse Job of secret sins) reminds him that God is sovereign (Job 32-37). When God finally speaks, he doesn’t give Job an explanation for why so many terrible things happened to him. Instead, he reminds Job of the many things he has created and that he controls. In other words, God tells Job to trust in him regardless of what happens. Similarly, if we look at the psalms as a collection, we see that sometimes the writers pour out their frustration at God, sometimes they ask for his help, but they always come to praise and thanks. We also have various books of the New Testament (particularly the book of James and 2 Corinthians) that take about embracing hard times and praising God in the midst of them.
If we give thanks to the Lord because of who he is, not what we can see him doing at this particular moment, then it follows that we should give thanks at all times. We give thanks because God is creator, who produced all things and rules all things.
4 Ways to Thank God When We Hurt
Many writers have talked about how hurt affects our thinking, making it harder to see what God’s doing but also providing strange new opportunities. Here are four things that we can thank God for in difficult times:
If applicable, thank him for the wake-up call. Sometimes the reason we are experiencing a crisis is that we have been living in a dysfunctional way and have finally reached a breaking point. Pastor Scotty Smith talks about this in Searching for Grace, how going through a “burnout period” was a wake-up call that he wasn’t facing inner pain that drove him to behave selfishly. This is not a moment where God directly punishes us for sin, it’s when he lets us reach the end of our current choices. In that specific context, we can thank God that the hurt came and woke us up, showing us what we had to work on.
Thank him that he is still reliable. Paul talks in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 about a time when he had a problem and rather than take it away, God said “my grace is sufficient for you.” While we may not get a clear message from God as Paul did about why specific hurts aren’t going away, we know that he still provides the grace we need to continue.
Thank him that the pain does not go wasted. James 1:2-8 highlights how trials present opportunities for us to grow. Weaknesses we did not notice (or pretended didn’t exist) become exposed. Enduring a hurting time allows us to develop patience, humility, and other traits that will serve us well in the future. Therefore, we can thank God that the hurt is something that will become like growing pains, a chance to become more than we are right now.
Thank him that he knows more than we do. One of the hard lessons we learn when we hurt is that we do not know why every hurt comes. In fact, since we are finite beings who do not know all, we never will be that smart. By recognizing our finiteness, we develop a humbler perspective. We can also use the painful time as a chance to meditate on how good it is that God is bigger than us.
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.