When Jeff and I got married 11 years ago, we each picked a Bible passage to be read during our ceremony. The passage Jeff chose was 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Rejoice always. Pray continuously. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
I found out later that Jeff's mom had taught him to say this verse by heart by the time he was three years old. He wasn't even aware of this when he chose it as our wedding verse; it was just embedded in his heart from childhood. This is not only so encouraging to me as a mother -- that I can influence my children's hearts and minds by what I teach them in these early years -- but it also blesses me as his wife, because Jeff is the most contented person that I know.
Second to my husband as the most contented man is my father, and if I had to name the Bible passage he most often quoted to me it would be this:
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-8.
When I look at these two passages, and these two men, together, the common thread I see is offering thanksgiving. More specifically, I see the discipline of seeking out what there is to be thankful for in any circumstance, and then taking the actual step of offering thanks. Though I always admired this in my father growing up, there have been times, usually periods in which I was besieged by anxiety, that I believed this practice of his was overly simple-minded optimism, a way of pretending that bad things weren't happening, that danger didn't exist in the world. And intellectually, I have had trouble at times offering thanksgiving to God, giving him credit for all the good in the world, but not holding him accountable for the bad.
I'm 33 now, and I am a changed woman. Because in my late twenties, I followed my more complicated, and what I thought was more intellectual theology right into a pit. I'm talking a psychological pit that rendered me incapable, unmoored, broken, and scared. I went to a place where I doubted God's very existence, though I had experienced his love and care very personally from childhood. I got help. I got medicine. I got self aware. I got educated. But ultimately, what got me out was thanksgiving.
In front of my house there grows a tree. It nearly touches my bedroom window. In the spring and summer, it is full and leafy, and covered with green berries. In the fall, the berries turn bright red, and then the leaves turn golden. My whole room turns golden in the afternoon from those leaves. And then they shower down on my doorstep, and the bare branches still cling to the bright red berries. I really love that tree. And for some reason, from the bottom of my pit, I looked up at that tree and realized I had to say "thank you" for it. It was a sort of pagan spiritual experience, discovering a higher power purely through looking at my tree.
Once I started saying thank you for the tree, I started needing to say thank you for lots of other things. My children, who were beautiful and healthy and miraculous and over whose being I had no power. I couldn't take credit for them, but someone had to. I needed to say thank you for the existence of friendship, and the community at my church.
Over the last few years, I've learned a lot about how the brain works, and one of the things I've learned is a concept called neuroplasticity. I'm no scientist, so I'm going to butcher it and I hope there aren't any psychologists reading this. But essentially, our habitual thoughts form actual physical patterns and pathways in our brains. And once those paths are formed, when we take in stimuli, situations, or stress, our thoughts follow those paths like a marble being dropped down a groove. These thought paths become what we believe are true, no matter how out of whack they might be. And it's very, very hard to change them. But it's not impossible.
I love Scripture, because it confirms this science. God designed our brains. And I believe his repeated call in the Bible to offer thanks is one of his many good rules that protect us from ourselves. Habitual thanksgiving protects our mental health. It keeps us out of psychological pits. And it helps us see the goodness of our eternal God. Giving thanks in all circumstances doesn't mean we believe all circumstances are good; this world is fraught with pain, sorrow, trouble, and Scripture is very clear to warn us of that. But we believe good can come from all experiences in the form of character, perseverance, community, and bonding with God.
I need to get back to the idea of giving God credit for the good and no blame for the bad. I don't have an answer for the second part. Of course I don't! Philosophers and theologians have been wondering about the origin of evil for thousands of years. And I also don't understand what it means when we say that God is sovereign; the mystery of how he moves in history and people's hearts while preserving our free will is just that -- an unfathomable mystery. It used to make it hard for me to say thank you for some reason. But it doesn't anymore. Here's why:
In James1 it says: "17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
To me, this means that everything good I have comes from God because God is the author of all good things. All the most significant goodness are his inventions: love, marriage, parenthood, the terrifying and awesome act of childbirth, beauty, nature, friendship, community, sex, creativity, food, our intricate bodies, our five senses. There is no good convention of human beings of which God has not been the origin or enabler.
So I meditate on these good things. I am still not even in the top 10 of the most contented people I know and I still struggle with anxiety; that marble run in my brain was pretty deep. But I am now free to thank God for all the goodness in my life, and doing so is what keeps me sane.