Every Thanksgiving, and many days in between, I find myself reflecting on verses 12-13 in the 4th chapter of Philippians:
This morning, I was lead to the interpretation of this scripture presented in The Message bible. It says:
Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.
To me, this scripture has always been at the heart of giving thanks. Too often my own gratitude depends on what I have and where I am at a particular moment in my life. When things are moving along comfortably - the bills are all getting paid on time or the doctor says I'm as healthy as a teenager - gratitude flows unconstrained. But when life starts muddying my well drawn picture of happiness - the kids are sick or my hours get cut at my second job - thankfulness disappears like guests at an office party when it's announced the food is all gone.
In this scripture though, which the apostle Paul penned while he was in prison, gratitude isn't tied to circumstance. It's tied to our maker. Paul says I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. Sometimes that's a tough thing to remember. No matter how tough times are, we remain the one the One made. Psalm 139:16 says:
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
In this scripture, the psalmist seems to be reflecting on the same idea Paul reflected on in prison: great strength comes to those who remember why we are here, and who made it possible. When life doesn't go like we want it to, and our capacity for thanksgiving is drained, Paul is teaching us to remember we weren't aimlessly constructed to carry out our own designs, we were lovingly created to share in God's unalterable and beautiful plan. And quite often - God's plan doesn't resemble ours.
It's not easy, though, is it, when where we are or what we have includes pain and suffering? One word is left out of The Message translation of Philippians 4:12 that I find particularly useful in this case. In the English Standard Version of this scripture it reads: In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger. The word learned implies the idea of being content in any situation, which certainly makes gratitude easier to grab hold of, isn't one that comes naturally. It takes intentional redirection of our thoughts when they naturally want to drift toward discontent. It takes years of intentionally seeking gratitude after gratitude leaves the party. It takes the discipline required to turn scripture to wisdom.
There are a lot of versions of an old saying that says something to this effect: you can't control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you respond to everything. Paul seems interesting in shaping those responses. I hear him saying, whatever happens, first remember the One who brought you where you are. Lean on Him. Trust that a situation that seems all out of whack in your own world is a beautiful and necessary chapter in His.
And be grateful for Him.
There's also another part of the Message translation of this scripture I had never reflected on before reading it this morning. Paul says:
I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.
In this scripture, Paul seems pretty intentional about including the power and beauty of coming alongside someone when they need it most. Although he acknowledges his secret to contentment is calling on God to carry him through every situation, maybe he's suggesting here that God answers with the hands and feet of those around us. And Paul's gratitude for them in this scripture is unmistakable.
Today, many of us will be intentional about pausing and reflecting on all we have to be thankful for. Things will probably come to mind we haven't considered in a while. And we'll smile. In doing so, maybe we'll consider the advice of Paul. Maybe we'll make this the day when we begin a daily practice of remembering we are the ones the One made. Maybe we'll find assurance in knowing He loved us before He ever made us, all a part of a plan we can't begin to understand, but one that will ultimately make perfect and beautiful sense out of the parts of our lives that are hardest to be thankful for.
And maybe today we'll discover the often overlooked beauty of those who come alongside us in our times of trouble.