Lorrie Noel found out she had a brain tumor in August 2011. After more testing, she learned it was cancerous. Though the cancer had nestled into an inoperable place in her brain, stretching its deadly tendrils from this safe haven, Lorrie had inexplicable joy. Seasoned doctors wondered at her undaunted smiles, and nurses, hardened by daily encounters with suffering, laughed at her cheerful humor. Most notably, Lorrie insisted on meeting and praying with fellow patients in worse conditions than her own, telling them of her hope, praying for them, and writing their names and prayer requests in her journal so she could continue to pray for them when her first round of treatments ended.
Lorrie gleefully told me after her time in the hospital: “Sarah, God is doing some amazing things over there. I know it’s hard, but if he wants to use this sickness to share the love of Jesus with the nurses and doctors and patients over there, then I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”
I thought back to my time in a hospital room at the tender age of seven, watching my father struggle through his last breaths as the same disease that terrorized Lorrie’s brain stole him from my life. I did not remember thankfulness; I remembered fear. I remembered sorrow deeper than I could possibly understand at so young an age. I remembered disbelief, confusion, but never joy. What role did gratitude have in a deathbed scene? What place did thankfulness have in life-threatening illness?
Lorrie was grateful to God even though she had no idea whether she would survive this illness or not. She was thankful to be a part of God’s story in any capacity—in sickness or health. I wondered at my own ungratefulness. I was heading to college in a few weeks, and I found my heart more full of dread and selfishness at the uncertainty of my future than of thankfulness. I was slave to the expectations I had set for myself rather than free in the promises God made for me in his word. I began to realize that at the root of my ungratefulness lay a lack of confidence—a necessary ingredient to begin a life of gratefulness. Confidence in God produces faith, which in turn leads us to thankfulness. Without these elements, our lives will not reflect the joy of having Jesus as our Savior, but learning to incorporate them is a daunting task.
We are told continually in scripture that God provides our strength, that our weakness will not overcome us, that in troubles God will uphold us. Yet we live with doubt and fear instead of courage and confidence. Psalm 46:1-2 says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (ESV). Further, John 16:33 tells us that though we will have troubles, Christ has overcome the world. With this kind of assurance, we can thank God in the midst of troubles, knowing that he will be faithful to protect us. When we thank God even before knowing the outcome of a situation, we acknowledge that his promises are true.
“Once we realize our own unworthiness, we can more accurately give thanks to God for his abounding mercy.”
Our thankfulness in difficult times boils down to confidence. The Bible has promised that God will be glorified. And it also promises that God upholds the weak and defends those he loves. Thankfulness is a matter of accepting those promises and living by them. It is an outpour of our confidence in the word and strength of our God. Without this confidence, we would have no reason to rejoice in trials, but the Bible repeatedly assures us that our confidence is real and justified in Christ. Thankfulness comes from our assurance in God. Building confidence starts with reminding ourselves of God’s promises for the future, his faithfulness to us in the past, and his presence with us in the present. This could mean beginning a practice of writing a list of things God has done, will do, and is doing. Or perhaps it means praying each day to become more aware of the Spirit working in our lives, even in the small things. Even keeping a journal of daily events can reveal the active role God plays in our lives, and reading through the journal periodically can remind us of the power and sovereignty of God. All these things build our confidence in the power and presence of God with us.
Our confidence in the power and faithfulness of God naturally produces gratitude. Though we do not deserve even the air that we breathe, God gives it to us out of his great love for us (Eph. 2:4). He gives us life and a purpose though we deserve death and destruction. Once we realize our own unworthiness, we can more accurately give thanks to God for his abounding mercy.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. Our culture cannot comprehend such a mentality of perpetual gratitude. Rather than rejoice, we grumble; rather than pray, we sulk; rather than give thanks, we complain until we cannot see anyone or anything but ourselves. Selfishness and thankfulness stand in opposition. Thankfulness requires us to look outward for a moment, to acknowledge that perhaps our perceptions are not quite so wise and omniscient as we are in the habit of thinking.
However, once we begin a life of thankfulness, we can have peace in even the most uncertain circumstances. Thankfulness focuses our minds and hearts on the promises God has made to us, and in this way, we submit to his power in every situation. God has promised never to leave us nor forsake us in Joshua 1:5, to uphold us with his mighty hand in Isaiah 41:10, to work all things for good for those who love him in Romans 8:28. He has promised grace to those who believe in Christ— that he died on the cross, taking the punishment for our sins, to bring glory to the Father. All of these promises are fulfilled in the Bible countless times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, God never left them. He made them a mighty nation through David when the Philistines threatened to overtake them. When the Israelites turned to idols, in complete disobedience of God’s commands, God forgave them and loved them still. And in the New Testament, Jesus establishes that anyone who believes in him is adopted as a child of God and receives all of those promises alongside the Israelites. With such complete assurance, thankfulness is clearly warranted. Further, as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, when we give thanks to God, we fulfill God’s will for us. God wants us to surrender our hopes and fears to him because he is sufficient for us. With thankful hearts, we become aware of God’s strength and become satisfied in him.
Confidence in God produces faith, which in turn leads us to thankfulness. Without these elements, our lives will not reflect the joy of having Jesus as our Savior, but learning to incorporate them is a daunting task.
The fulfillment of God’s promises reminds us that we serve a perfect, loving, just, and mighty God who has chosen us—imperfect and often ungrateful people—to display his glory in creation. We can depend on the promises made to us for the future because he has been faithful in the past and his character never changes. This unmerited favor should lead to joy and thankfulness. Though we do not earn God’s favor or attention, he displays his love to us in promises and in his continuing presence with us.
Lorrie’s confidence allowed her to face cancer with joy and selflessness. No matter what our circumstances are, whether small or life-threatening, we can thank God in advance because he is with us always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). We can learn to trust God by remembering his promises, by remembering his faithfulness to us in the past, and by remembering his power.