By Javan Rowe
Is it possible to have a thankful spirit when facing our worst, most frightening situations? When life’s hardships wear us down and block our forward progress, can we still be grateful?
There was a time I found thankfulness toward God difficult because I felt let down. I graduated from college with a music degree and aspirations of a career in singing and songwriting. Shortly after college I began traveling with a team of musicians to churches presenting programs that combined original songs with related sermons. We recorded a CD to attract record labels. We felt pursuing both avenues would increase our odds of succeeding in ministry.
When Things Don’t Go as Planned
But then I woke up one morning and realized my dreams weren’t coming true. The ministry ended and the big contract was never signed. I felt angry at God for not using me when I was determined to use my talents for his glory. After all, I wanted to sing Christian music. Why wouldn’t he honor that?
I imagine the prophet Jonah must have asked similar questions when he found himself caught in a crisis. Called by God to go to Nineveh, Jonah refused and traveled by boat in the opposite direction. A terrible storm arose. Jonah was thrown into the raging water and swallowed by a giant fish. Not exactly the kind of oceanic adventure I would want to undertake!
Instead of asking “Why me?” in the belly of the fish, Jonah gave thanks. Jonah 2:2-9 provides a record of Jonah’s prayer—a prayer that is quite different than expected, culminating with, “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you” (v. 9). Even in the midst of a terrifying situation, Jonah demonstrated gratitude toward God.
Recognizing God’s Control
Within his prayer, Jonah said, “But You, O Lord, my God, snatched me from the jaws of death” (v. 6, New Living Translation). Jonah recognized that God, the creator of life, has control over life and death. It’s comforting to know God is sovereign, and that in his sovereignty there is a purpose for us.
“When I almost drowned, I called out for help, and you listened to my cry” (v. 2, NIV). God possesses immeasurable power, but he also listens to our heart’s plea and works for our sanctification. Paul affirms this in Ephesians 1:4: “For [God] chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” God has complete control and he works to transform us into better people.
The Closeness of God
Jonah prayed, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. . . . I will look again toward your holy temple” (vv. 2, 4). Jonah discovered that even though he had forsaken the Lord, God remained with him through his isolation. This temple of God’s presence was within Jonah’s reach. We also have assurance when we walk through dark moments that the Lord will never leave us. After all, Jesus referred to himself as the temple and makes his home in the believer. We can commune with God in the midst of our most dire circumstances.
Psalm 23:4 reminds us, “Even though I walk though the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” When it seems everyone has abandoned us, when we feel like the walls are closing in around us and loneliness is paralyzing us, we can know with the assurance of Scripture that God is near.
A Spirit of Thanksgiving
Sitting in terrifying darkness, suffering in a stench we cannot imagine, Jonah determined he would serve God with the voice of thanksgiving. The fish that appeared to bring disaster was actually sent for his salvation. It saved him from drowning in the sea and reminded him of the importance of his relationship to God.
Christians have many reasons to be thankful. In addition to blessings such as family, health, and employment, we have received an even greater gift. The God who made us, wants to know us. If that were not enough, we anticipate a glorious future where we will forever dwell with him. How can every breath we exhale not carry with it an aroma of thankfulness?
Cultivating a thankful spirit requires that we regularly evaluate our standing with God. This means asking, “Am I bearing enough fruit for the Lord?” This must have been what Jonah meant by the phrase, “What I have vowed I will make good” (Jonah 2:9). He assessed his spiritual condition and found it lacking. Realizing he had fallen tragically short, he made a declaration to stop putting his own agenda before God’s.
Jonah failed to be submissive to God. He tried escaping from God’s will, so God sent a great fish into his life to get his attention. In a manner of speaking, we encounter great fish in our lives too. If we pay attention, they can lead us to refocus our lives and strengthen our relationship with him. The fish God sends may appear frightening and unbearable, but they are intended for our spiritual growth.
My fish consisted of a personal crisis where my ministry had dried up and I was left wondering if God had anything left for me. I may have appeared congenial on the surface, but inside I was impatient and frustrated. I decided to embrace God rather than turn away. I learned what he was trying to teach me through my drought. As a bonus, I learned to enjoy the process instead of experiencing joy only when I reached my goals.
Jonah showed me that gratitude was possible when things were not going my way. Though my life was not unfolding according to my design, I was able to rejoice in the blessings God had given me. I also realized he was using my dry period to tear down my self-sufficiency and mold me into the person I am today. The fish God sent enabled me to learn patience and dependency, as well as thankfulness.
Since God deals uniquely with each individual, it is difficult to predict what form these fish will take. Our fish may come in the form of physical hardship, loss of job, or marital problems. They come when we do not expect them. God sends them in the depths of our despair, but his intent is to build us up and make us stronger, more committed believers. A thankful spirit helps us recognize the joys inherent in the process.
As we submit to the Lord, he gives us strength to endure life’s trials. Whether our fish leave or linger, we can trust God is in control and knows what he is doing. An attitude of thanksgiving may not come easily, but it will come when we dedicate ourselves to pleasing God. The question I asked during my own spiritual crisis was, “Will I allow this fish to harden my heart, or let it mold me into the image of Christ?
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
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