What can the Psalms teach us about expressing gratitude? The answers may surprise you.
How can we express gratitude in the midst of such a severe pandemic? Due to travel restrictions, many of us are experiencing Thanksgiving far away from loved ones. The United States has already seen over 260,000 deaths from 12.6 million documented cases. That number does not reflect the way in which COVID-19 has disproportionately affected marginalized communities with limited access to health care. Can we really express thanks during a season with such widespread pain?
The book of Psalms presents a timely model for expressing gratitude during challenging times. Biblical scholars continue to dispute the precise dating of the Psalms, but it is well understood that they were widely used in worship during the post-exilic period (after 539 BC) after the Judeans returned to the land. It was a momentous occasion to restart worship in Jerusalem after two generations in exile. But the return was disappointing. Repatriation was marked by poverty. The forced migrations had fractured family units. The Judeans faced depleted resources as a result of colonialization from the dominant empires of Babylonia, Persia and Greece.
Within this context, the biblical collection of the Psalms begins to take shape. Two particular genres of Psalms emerge that help us reflect on expressing gratitude during pandemic. First, the psalms of lament give space for the worshippers to authentically express their own grief. This grief was both individualized and communal. It covered physical affliction and persecution. These laments were a crucial part of their lived existence so it is natural to see it connect to their expressions of worship.
Alongside these psalms of lament were thanksgiving psalms. These thanksgivings were sometimes earthly and material, giving thanks for provision and protection. But thanksgiving psalms were largely spiritual – recognizing God’s faithfulness to the community. Remarkably, the elements of the psalms of lament and thanksgiving were often woven together. The psalms know that the life of faith must reflect both pain and gratitude.
For example, consider Psalm 69. It begins with a plea: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck” (verse 1). And from there, it just gets darker with complaints of physical calamity, multiple enemies, isolation, lack of family, shame, and so on.
But unexpectedly, Psalm 69:30 declares, “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.” The final six verses of the psalm continue this tone of gratitude through praise.
The transition is abrupt and without explanation. How can the Psalmist move so quickly from complaint to thanksgiving? I’m not completely sure. But I do think it is signaling that gratitude does not mean that we bury our pain. In fact, the psalms teach us the opposite. The psalms model a worship in which we can freely cry out our pain and frustrations as part of our expression to God. Prayer must be authentic even to the point of challenging notions of God’s goodness.
As I further consider the paradoxical theology of integrating lament and thanksgiving in the psalms, I imagine that gratitude is stronger when one has truly experienced loss. But more importantly, God is relational with us. God deeply desires our most honest selves during our moments of divine encounter. The Psalms are not a set of detached statements about God’s goodness written in expository prose. Rather, the Psalms are beautifully poetic expressions that betray the full range of emotions befitting a divine encounter with our creator. We do not need to sanitize our complaints, nor our gratitude.
So during this season of pandemic, remember that God can handle your lament, your complaints, your cries, and your frustration. If that is all you can give, that is a good start. But prepare yourself for that cathartic expression to eventually lead to genuine gratitude during a season of loss. For even the Psalmist who was sinking was eventually lifted up.
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