"Step 2 — Thanksgiving" on James 1:9-19 by Joe Ellis — January 21, 2024
We’ve been exploring a type of prayer called, The Examen, and today we’ll be talking about the second part of the prayer: Thanksgiving. By way of reminder: The Examen is a type of prayer that helps a person tune into how God has been present in our day-to-day lives, and how God is leading us in the day ahead. The Examen has 5 steps:
1) Praying for God’s guidance or wisdom,
2) Giving thanks for the gifts of the previous day,
3) Praying over the significant feelings that surface as you replay the day,
4) Rejoicing and seeking forgiveness, and
5) Looking to tomorrow.
You’ll remember, last week we looked at the first step of the prayer: Asking God for wisdom. According to James, God will give us wisdom if we only ask —James had some significant reasons for encouraging his church to ask for wisdom; the church was going through an incredibly difficult time in which it was very challenging to see where God was in it all. That’s why we begin the prayer asking for God’s guidance, for God’s wisdom — we are relying on His divine leading. This is what makes The Examen a prayer, and not simply a helpful exercise in self reflection.
So, having asked God to guide us, we move to the second part of the prayer: Thanksgiving. This is where we go through the previous day, and look at the various ways that God has blessed us, in ways that are big, in ways that are small, in ways that are counter-intuitive, and in ways that give us hope. Thanksgiving is looking for God’s blessings in the previous day.
Thanksgiving is so important for the spiritual life. When you’re going through a hard time, it is very easy to develop a view of God that does not actually reflect who God is. That’s a big part of why James says in 1:13, “when tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me”. Some in the church suspected that their hardships were in fact God tempting them to sin. James says in 1:14, “No it's not God who is tempting you to sin — to find the root of your temptation, you must look within.” Then, to help his people to become realigned with who God actually is, James reminds in 1:16-17 that God is a giver of good gifts; “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” This, as well as the previous two passages, are massively influential for our practice of Thanksgiving. “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” James is encouraging his people to look for those gifts, in spite present hardships.
Naming these gifts we’ve received reaffirms that God is indeed good — and that knowing our Good God is with us, helps us face our trials with greater strength! This is the practice of Thanksgiving which The Examen invites us into — to says thank you to God for the particular ways that he has blessed us. Thanking him for the concrete and for particular things: for the sunshine streaming in, or the beauty of the snow falling, or a warm hug, or a good laugh, or winning the game, or healing from what ails us. When that one leper returned to Jesus, he was practicing this sort of Thanksgiving — noticing the particular, concrete ways God blesses us and saying “thank you.” James reminds us in 1:18 that as we remember our blessings, we are to remember the greatest gift God has given us: “that God has given us birth, through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” We are new creations in Christ Jesus! God is so abundant in the goodness and care he bestows upon us, even in difficult circumstances. Naming these gifts is the primary way we affirm this reality.
I don’t know if you’ve come across people tagging their pictures on social media with the hashtag, ‘blessed.’ It's gotten a bit of a bad rap, largely because it presents such a narrow view of what it means to be blessed. Mainly pictures of beautiful places, toned bodies, new things, graduations, successes, and abundance. You seldom see someone posting a picture of their toilet overflowing or their car broken down on the side of the road tagged with “Blessed!”
James would surprise us with what he would tag ‘blessed’ if he were on Instagram. A New York Times article says ‘#blessed’ is a way of boasting about accomplishments while pretending to be humble. Sort of the opposite happens when you read James. James cautions us not to be deceived by the stuff we would most easily tag ‘blessed’ — James says it's just going to whither away. So, if your stuff has already withered, you’re free! Maybe James inspired the immortal words of Janice Joplin, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Instead of boasting on our status, or how much stuff we have to lose, James says in 1:9 that “believers in humble circumstances ought to boast in their high position” — We have nothing left to lose!
#blessed: I didn’t receive that scholarship I was depending on.
#blessed: my employer laid me off.
#blessed: yes, we are still struggling with that burden.
James is not being cynical. James has deeply internalized the upside down way that God engages with this world — Imagine a poor, destitute widow coming into the temple in Jesus’ day. All she can afford to put into the offering plate is about 2 cents. Jesus tags her action with “blessed!” He points her out to everyone: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44) That’s the mysterious way of boasting, or giving thanks that James invites his people into. He invites us to recognize the upside down way that God relates to this world — and give thanks for the upside down nature of our lives. He’s not the only one who has taken up this approach to relating to the world.
Paul practices this sort of boasting himself. In 2 Corinthians he brags about his weakness. He boasts to his friends in Corinth that he’s been imprisoned, flogged, left for dead, shipwrecked, anxious, betrayed by friends and enemies, left cold, hungry and naked. His final boast is a failed healing - #blessed. Paul had asked God to heal him of that infamous thorn in his flesh. This healing was really important to Paul — three times he asked for God to cure him. God instead says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This revelation from God leads Paul to break into thanksgiving: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor 12:9-10) Paul offers thanks in humble circumstances because he is able to trust that God’s power is manifest through the difficulty. James is on the same page when he says in 1:2-4 “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, which results in maturity and perfection, not lacking anything." Indeed, one of the reasons these experiences are blessings, according to James and Paul, is that they transform us to be people of love, people of justice, people of peace, people of compassion, people of long suffering, people of hope.
This is an invitation into a practice of uncomfortable Thanksgiving — it's to look at our present difficult circumstances and ask for wisdom to see God’s grace, God’s gift, God’s power at work. To do this, we must take James seriously when he says, “anyone lacking wisdom should ask God.”
When offering Thanksgiving for difficult circumstances, it's important to let God lead the way. God certainly led Paul down this path when he said, “my power is made perfect in your weakness.” Paul didn’t arrive at this insight on his own, this was a gift given to him by God. Jesus did the same for that woman in the temple when she gave her 2 cents, helping her rejoice in her humble circumstances through praising her generosity. God is the one who empowers us to see right-side-up what everyone else sees as upside down — He’ll help us see that the last will be first, the weak will be strong; He’ll help us see that the foolish are found to be wise.
Again, it is so important to let God lead the way in this, and not just try force this insight by will. Because if we try and just muscle our way through this, we might find that we are not able to arrive at this sort of insight on our own strength. As a result we may end up feeling weak, defeated, or like a sub-par Christian because we just can’t see how God’s power is made perfect in this particular weakness. If you can’t see it, that’s OK, please don’t force it. Just keep asking God, and waiting.
A second reason why it's important to let God lead the way in this sort of Thanksgiving is because it's all too easy for things to get bent out of shape. As some in James’s church had thought their trials were sent by God to tempt them. Or take Paul boasting of being blessed with hunger, cold, imprisonment, beatings, poverty, anxiety, betrayal. To offer God Thanksgiving for these things when God has not given you wisdom to see blessing through them, may feel cruel. So the first step is to ask God for his Wisdom about these difficult things, help us see them through His eyes. This is a giant leap of faith — it's recognizing the possibility that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. It's recognizing the possibility that God chooses the foolishness of the world to shame the wise; it's recognizing that God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him, and realize that it's entirely His gift that we are found whole in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God— He is our righteousness, our holiness, our redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (2Cor 10:11)
So, if you want to be stretched when praying the Thanksgiving portion of The Examen — you could pray this way: “Father, reveal to me your wisdom about this difficult situation. Is there anything in here for which I might rejoice, that I might boast, for which I might give thanks? Help me see this situation not through my limited insight, but through your wisdom.” Again, it is so important to let God lead the way in this. Sometimes, we just won’t be able to see God’s grace. In those situations, and they are many, there is still another way of entering into the practice of Thanksgiving.
You find that way forward in 1:12. James says #Blessed “are the ones who persevere under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”. James isn’t talking about the crown a royal would wear, but the victory wreath that crowns the winner of a race. He’s talking about the victory when we finally are raised from the dead with Christ and made new. James is looking forward to the return of the Kingdom; when heaven comes to earth; when all things are made whole; when wrongs are put to right; when Christ returns and death is no more; when tears are no more; when trauma is no more; when abuse is no more, when terminal sickness is no more; when mental illness is no more; when famine is no more; when war is no more. Blessed is the one, James says, who perseveres — they will receive the crown of life. They will be victorious. #Blessed. Blessings on you who are going through so much, Blessings on you who are trusting God in your darkness, you will be crowned with glory.
James must be riffing on a theme he learned from his brother Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:3-12)
There are times when the only way we can give thanks is by giving thanks that the way things are now is not the way they will be. “Thank you, Lord, that I will not always be under trial; Thank you, Lord, that I will not always be mourning so deeply; Thank you, Lord, that I will not always be so anxious; Thank you, Lord, that I will not always be hungry and thirsty; Thank you, Lord, that I will not always be sick. Thank you, Lord, that I will inherit the Kingdom; that I will see You face to face; that I will be reunited with the ones I love. Thank you that in your Kingdom, sickness will be no more, racism will be no more, mental illness will be no more, war shall be no more, famine shall be no more. Thank you that this present suffering will pass away, and everything will be holy and whole.”
Reading James invites us to consider three different approaches towards Thanksgiving.
1. The first one we talked about is recognizing that all good gifts come from God — giving him thanks for the big and small areas, the concrete and the spiritual. Those areas in our life that we readily experience as blessing. This is the normal way of giving thanks during The Examen.
2. The second way we talked about is asking for God’s wisdom to begin to see our difficult situation in the upside down way that God works in this world. It's to ask for guidance to see God’s power, God’s wisdom, God’s strength in ways that are so very hard to see when life is difficult. When God reveals his power, wisdom and strength through these difficult situations, he leads us to a place of Thanksgiving and praise that we could not have discovered on our own.
3. A final way of praying the Examen is offering Thanksgiving for what will be, thanks to Christ’s redemptive work. Christ died for the life of the world. He will return, and he will restore all things. Thank you, Lord, that the way these things are now, are not the way they shall be. Come, Lord Jesus, come.