Thankfulness in the Middle of Withoutness

Today is a day for appreciation. Well, I suppose every day is such a day, especially for Christians. We know the compassion of the one true God who loves humanity, no matter our wretchedness. This love was most fully expressed through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. If there’s something to appreciate, it’s that. In fact, this Gospel is the lens through which we view our world.

Beyond this, everyday appreciation is a muscle to be flexed. I mean that it takes practice to become something we engage in habitually. And yet, it’s a routine worth forming. Better yet, it’s an economy of sorts with a rather astounding exchange rate. In my own life, I’ve learned the more appreciation I uncover for the blessings I’ve been given, the less concerned I seem to be for what I don’t have. The more appreciation I have for where I am in life, the less time I spend wondering what could have been had I done things differently.

Maybe you know what I mean. Of course, you do. Any honest human being understands it’s impossible to be angry and happy simultaneously, just as it’s impossible to be disparagingly frustrated and appreciative simultaneously. These two passions can’t exist in the same sphere at the same time. One will always outbox the other. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago, during a nightmarish layover in Chicago, I found myself standing in a line no less than a football field in length. Indeed, there were hundreds of stranded passengers, and, as a general collective, the emotions were running hot throughout. I stood immersed in that thickly volatile line for three hours before finally reaching the desk and speaking with an American Airlines representative who, through a less-than-four-minute discussion, informed me there was nothing the airline could or would be doing to help or accommodate me.

I was being left helplessly without.

I did not express my rage to the representative. I’m not that kind of person. Besides, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. She had already endured the same sentiments from hundreds of people before me, and she would continue to suffer them with the same emotional immunity after I wandered off to find food and a place to sleep for the night. Still, I was mad.

I was frustrated.

I was feeling contemptuous.

I wasn’t experiencing any discernible reason for thankfulness—until I saw a particular little boy holding his big sister’s hand.

I told Jennifer and the kids the story when I got back to Michigan. The boy was no more than five or six years old. Both of his legs had been amputated and replaced with prosthetics. He was hobbling along unnaturally, laughing as he attempted to keep up with his sister amid the bustling crowd. Hand in hand, they passed right by me, both giggling. I don’t remember noticing the parents. Instead, I was more caught up in the playful coaxing of the sister. She was poking fun at him for slowing her down. She wasn’t being cruel, but instead big-sisterly. She was speaking as one speaks to a little one while at the same time doing what any typical big sister would do to any typical little brother. Except the boy wasn’t typical—at least not according to the assumed definition of typical. He didn’t have legs. He was forever without. But here he was laughing with his sister. He was tottering along without concern for what he didn’t have while rejoicing in the moment for something he did have, which was an incredibly devoted sibling.

I immediately felt a little sick to my stomach for being so inconvenienced by my travel woes. Combined, they were a relatively insignificant withoutness that I would undoubtedly forget in time. I can’t recall for sure if I did or not, but I likely whispered to myself, as I often sigh in other troubling situations, “In a hundred years, who’s going to care?” I speak this way to reposition my thinking. It’s a deliberate admittance that any moment of struggle, while I might not want to go through it again, will inevitably become laughable upon future reflection. In another sense, it’s also a subtle acknowledgment that past situations of struggle often become memories of having learned something important or discovered a personal strength, or better yet, a vivid depiction of God’s faithful deliverance when I could not self-deliver. In other words, my struggles play a part in God’s broader plan for my completeness.

This sounds familiar (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). It also takes me back to the big sister.

Her playful pushback—calling him a slowpoke and saying he’d never get to where he was going if he didn’t keep moving—believe it or not, this reminded me of texts like Luke 18:21, Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 9:24, Galatians 6:9, and others. These texts encourage believers not to give up, to keep pushing onward, to stay the course of faithfulness, always looking to Christ. They remind me that God has made promises and that He’s never One to break them. The sister’s persistent presence brought to mind such texts as Matthew 28:20, Zephaniah 3:17, Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:38-39, Isaiah 41:10, and countless more. These remind me that God is with me in my struggles. The world would try to convince me that He is present as my enemy. Faith speaks something better. It knows He’s holding tightly to my hand. It knows the crowd is chaotically swirling, but it also admits God knows right where I am. He’s never going to lose sight of me. And all along the way, He’ll be prodding me in ways that lead me to discover proficiencies He is instilling for a faith that can meet with struggle and survive, even becoming thankful right in the middle of the storm.

God employs struggle in this way. Human storms are rarely fun, but they’re not necessarily bad.

Before attempting to fall asleep on the floor at gate E7 in O’Hare’s Terminal 2, I asked the Lord to forgive me for my foolishness. After that, I found myself as I described before: unable to be both angry and grateful simultaneously. At that point, gratefulness took over. I thanked Him for allowing those two children to pass by. That brief intersection in time was a reminder of something essential. I also discovered a quiet appreciation for the woman at the American Airlines desk who was tolerating the ire of countless travelers, doing what she could to at least listen to their concerns. I discovered a measure of thankfulness that I would be sleeping on the ground in an air-conditioned building instead of outside in the heat and humidity. I was thankful for the sandwich I could afford to buy before I got situated at my little campsite. I was thankful for the people who played a part in making it. I relearned what was meant by the old saying that when eating the fruit, be mindful of the one who planted the tree.

The Gospel goes the deepest in this regard.

Christians know God is always the One to whom thanksgiving is due. No matter who planted the tree, the trail of every tree’s planting and subsequent fruit leads to Him. In fact, Jesus encourages His believers in Matthew 6:26-29 to look around for easy reminders of this. A bird flitters around, doing what it can to eat and feed its young. It’s likely the flowers in your garden did not plant themselves, but rather, you did. Still, whether it’s the swooping birds or the well-dressed lilies of the field, God is the Creator, and we can behold His steady care on full display for His world even by looking at them. As we look, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Are you not of more value than they?” Of course, we are. This knowledge can only deliver the believer to the foot of the cross, the Kingdom that Jesus wants us to pursue (v. 33). It’s there we can measure our withouts against the greatest withoutness ever endured—the greatest struggle ever suffered, resulting in the most extraordinary care ever bestowed, all of it unfolding so that He could fill us with what truly satisfies—something that does not rust and thieves cannot steal: the forgiveness of our Sins.

With this as our heading, everything else seems so trivial. Everything else—both the blessings and struggles—seem worthy of appreciation.

But here’s the thing: we’re sinners and saints. We slip in and out of both thanklessness and gratitude. I did last week. I went from despair to hope that Thursday night in the airport, but I became frustrated by the whole thing again when I wrote last Sunday’s eNews message. I’d been on the phone with American Airlines for hours on Saturday, trying to get some financial satisfaction, all to no avail. I was getting angry. Looking back at what I wrote, I can see the nonchalance of thanklessness’s grip at work in the Sinful nature. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It wasn’t until later in the morning that I did find the ability to say, once again, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care.”

God fed me with His love. He took me by the hand and coaxed me along in my withoutness toward something of far greater value that I’ll never be without: the love of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my Savior.

I pray the same comfort for you.