With the passing of the Thanksgiving holiday, it feels like we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel that is 2020. (Kindly refrain from any jokes about the light being a train, please. Just let us have this for now.)
In this season, I have been grateful for the reminder that biblical thanksgiving is not always the stuff of Hallmark and Instagram. Oftentimes, our offerings of thanks feel more like a sacrifice than an easy outpouring. When we are emptied; when we find ourselves scraping the bottom of our emotional, physical, and spiritual barrels; when all we have left to offer is the breath remaining in our lungs, to give anything more is a true sacrifice. Even in these times of desperation, our praise-offerings must not stop.
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!” – Psalm 107:21-22
Of course, it is good to give thanks to God when we are experiencing abundance, but it is perhaps more important to give thanks in times of utter want. We give thanks for His blessings more readily than we thank Him for the things He has delayed in giving or denied us entirely. Such a sacrifice of praise might be sung through gritted teeth or lifted high with feeble limbs, but it is still pleasing to God – a pleasant aroma ascending from the burning altars of our lives. (I recently heard this sacrifice described as “gratitude flavored by pain.” This strikes me as a fitting posture to adopt as we enter the Advent season of hopeful waiting at the end of a year of incredible loss.)
This is not to say that God relishes our pain! It’s our faithful worship that brings Him joy. Something about praising Him through dark times lets the light of His glory shine through all the brighter. As Psalm 50:23 says, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” Along with glorifying God before other people, our sacrifice of praise sets our own lives in order, patterning our thoughts and actions according to God’s will.
N.T. Wright puts it this way in his book Simply Jesus:
“Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes, and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite (violence, money, and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists. It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself…. Worship creates – or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself – a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord.”
In other words, worshipping God brings us back to the awareness that we are not of this world. This year, whether you have experienced intense isolation, suffered personal loss, or simply found yourself completely exhausted, I think we’ve all had the opportunity to be reminded of this fact: we are not yet home. And just as the Israelites continued to worship God from their exile, so can we continue to give thanks for who He is and what He has done. We thank God for His presence even in our isolation; we praise Him for His sovereign power to redeem any hardship or heartache.
In the midst of barren land, it’s hard to feel, much less articulate, gratitude for the experience of barrenness. What words can an empty spirit offer? Thankfully, we worship a God of simplicity, so we can worship Him simply. In the frustration and futility of this foreign land, we cling to simple prayers by the power of the Spirit of God. “By him we cry ‘Abba, Father,’” and remember our identity in Christ.
Another simple, all-encompassing prayer can be found in one word: hallelujah. I glossed over this word for most of my life; I knew it had to do with worship, but never thought much more about it. As I began to think about the word, I found out that the English “hallelujah” originated from two Hebrew words: halal (praise) and YHWH (Yahweh, the Lord, the God of Israel).
But thinking about the definition of “hallelujah” – “praise to Yahweh” – is not, on its own, a sufficient sacrifice of praise. Etymologizing is great, but “hallelujah” deserves to be sung. This word, properly projected, is designed to use up every ounce of air our lungs can hold. We may be stripped bare and starved, but as long as we still have a breath left, we can use it to thank God for it. If He gives us another after that, we return it to Him in the same fashion, scented with gratitude and flavored by pain – a sacrifice of praise.
“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” – Hebrews 13:15
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!” – Psalm 150:6
If words remain elusive, here is a playlist of some songs that (at least for me) have been helpful models for sacrifices of praise.