O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
If you read Psalm 107 closely, you will see over and over that it evokes thanksgiving and gratitude despite recording numerous examples of terrible experiences. The storm at sea that is the focus of the selection above is only one example of an experience some people might question as a time for thanksgiving.
He took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Acts 27:35
This verse records how the apostle Paul, in the midst of a storm at sea much like the one described in Psalm 107, is able to be calm and grateful for God’s provision. The storm has been in progress for 14 days, and the sailors have feared they would either founder and sink in the depths of the sea, or else run aground and be broken on the rocks with all souls lost. Paul, who trusts God with his life completely, is reassured by the Holy Spirit that he and all the people with him on the ship, will not fail to arrive in Rome as planned. It is Paul’s destiny to serve God by testifying to his faith in Rome, and all those who are part of his destiny are likewise destined to be saved from the storm. In that context—faith, hope and trust in God’s steadfast love—Paul can give thanks for simple bread, simple food, the simple preservation of life in the midst of chaos.
Paul had “mounted up to heaven,” and gone “down to the depths” in the storm, just as the psalmist described. We who live in a world where most of the moving forces are beyond our control know what it is like. We can be making money hand over fist in a 401k fund, planning for a comfortable, even exciting, retirement, only to see a black day in the market wipe out everything. The fury of that tempest doesn’t hurt just one person; it hurts many. We go up to the heavens in our rejoicing and expectation, only to crash down to the depths when everything falls apart.
In that setting, who among us could still give thanks for a simple piece of bread? Do we thank God for his steadfast love that will carry us through to the future we can no longer imagine, all its props having been swept away in the storm? Can we feel grateful for life itself, and for God’s presence with us despite all the turmoil, in the midst of the mess that is left of the hopes we once had for our future? Do we think about the fact that nothing is beyond God’s control only to doubt his wisdom and his love for us because he did not prevent this disaster, this catastrophe, this perfect storm?
Yet Paul could do it. What makes him any different from me? How is he a better person than I? Is he really better just because we call him an apostle, or did he bleed when he was cut just like the rest of us? How could he be thankful for bread when it looked as if the storm would never end and when it looked as if the ship could not possibly survive to whatever end might come?
Yet that is what Paul did. He gave thanks for bread. Mere bread. Do you think he remembered Christ’s sacrifice for him as he gave thanks for bread that would be simple food for people who had not dared to eat for fourteen days?
The Psalmist says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” (Psalm 107:2) but Paul actually gave thanks for God’s steadfast love before redemption was ever obvious. Paul’s faith was able to expand his gratitude to things not yet in evidence. The sight of unfamiliar land. Grounding off the shore of Malta. The final report that “all were brought safely to land.” (Acts 27:44) Paul was able to be grateful to the God who could do such things, the God who, according to Paul’s faith, would do such things.
This is the kind of faith we need when we are in the midst of a storm over our expression of our faith. Perhaps I simply say “Merry Christmas,” and offend someone. Maybe I wear a necklace with a cross pendant, and my customer says, “No” because he is affronted by my obvious sign of Christian faith. It could be that in a room full of bantering conversation, I say something about going to church, and the conversation stops while I am informed that “We think people should keep their religion to themselves.” It might be something bigger. Maybe I don’t want to pay the health insurance premium for contraceptive services, because I believe that I should trust God to create life when and where he chooses, not when and where I choose. Will I be punished by the state for refusing to pay for what conflicts with my faith? Perhaps I believe that God calls me to say, “God loves you” to someone who sits beside me on the bus. Will that person call 911 to have me arrested for hate speech? If I am a target because of my faith, if the storms of cultural or state persecution roil around me, will I be able to give thanks for food, for shelter, for family, for any blessing at all?
I hear some Christians complain bitterly at the fact that Christianity does not dominate the legal and ethical landscape in the USA today. This is not the reaction God wants us to have. The more we are oppressed, the more we should rejoice, because as Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) We should be like the apostles after the high priest and his council told them to shut up about Jesus. They were beaten and then they were told not to mention that name again. Their response? They rejoiced “because they had been found worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
There it is again. Gratitude. They were not simply grateful to escape imprisonment. They were grateful that their testimony was so completely true that they had to suffer as Jesus had suffered. Many of us would first whine that we were not shown any respect, and then we would whine that God had ignored our prayers for rescue. By the time we walked out the door, we would have whined so long and so pitifully that we would not any longer be able to speak of Christ with love and faith at all. We would have talked ourselves out of any testimony to Christ. The priests would not need to tell us to shut up, because we would have crushed our testimony all by ourselves.
Not all our suffering is about our testimony. Some of our suffering is economic. Some is our health. Some is just the misfortune of encountering bad people who lash out at everyone. Some is due to political events. The vast majority of our suffering is, like the storm that engulfed Paul, completely out of our control. We suffer along with everyone else because of the laws of nature or some other force we can’t manipulate.
The Psalmist says that none of this matters when we trust God’s steadfast love. We trust God, and we give thanks to God, regardless of our circumstances. We give thanks for God’s steadfast love which is a treasure more precious than any other evidence of well-being. We give thanks that we have hope not only in this life, but also in the next. It is hard to feel hopeless or whiny when you feel grateful. This is the testimony of the psalmist. He said, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” In a living relationship with a living Christ, our lives are bathed in reasons to live gratefully, and those reasons transcend all the assaults of circumstance or malicious evil. As the redeemed of the Lord, we respond to disaster by saying,
“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” because “his steadfast love endures forever.”