My first job out of college was at a Chicago homeless shelter. They provided drop-in services on cold winter nights and a year-round residential program for recovering homeless addicts. I did donor relations and lived in a crowded apartment above the shelter. I was invited to hang out with the residents whenever I wanted, including daily breakfast downstairs before work.
Every morning, 13 residents would get up from the tables to form a circle in the warm cloud of Cook Lula’s spicy potatoes and onions. The tallest resident would boom, “Hook up the cables! I need a jump start!” We joined hands and closed our eyes.
They thanked God for their warm beds and the roof over their heads. They thanked God for Mr. Jay and Mr. Brian teaching them how to stay clean and get jobs. Then one morning one man earnestly prayed, “I thank you, God, for the use of all my limbs.” Everyone nodded, murmured, and moaned their agreement.
Never, ever in my life had I passionately thanked God for the use of all of my limbs.
I never prayed for myself in those circles, or thanked God for things he gave me. The residents wouldn’t be able to relate. They once asked me to give a devotional and I couldn’t think of one story from my life that would resonate with recovering homeless addicts.
Just a half hour before I pulled out my cute journal and listed things I was thankful for: my new Coach purse, my new hot and funny boyfriend, my rent-free apartment, and my upcoming flight back home to Connecticut for Christmas. My bed, roof, employer, and limbs were a given.
One afternoon I walked the eight blocks straight down Madison Street to the train station. I was a regular on the street now, but some of the homeless I didn’t know still called out “Well looky here, we’ve got Miss Illinois walking down our street. [whistle] Got any spare change, darlin’?”
On the train I prayed another prayer I could never say in front of the residents: “Thank you, God, that I’m not homeless. Thank you that I don’t have to ask strangers for money. Thank you that I have all my teeth. Thank you that I don’t have drug addictions. Thank you that I’ve never had to sell my body for a place to sleep.”
Essentially, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them.”
My gratitude was fueled by comparison to other people. If I was winning, I was grateful.
I still do this on bad days. When I see a mom pushing her shrieking child in a wheelchair, or listen to my friend’s tragic divorce story, or read another status update about someone dying of cancer, I reflexively pray, “Thank you God, that I’m not like them.”
On worse days I can’t be grateful at all. When my kids are left out, my chronic pain is unbearable, and my new wrinkles get deeper, I get angry at God. I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes crawl out of this by thanking God my kid is not at the very bottom of the totem pole, or that I do have the use of all of my limbs, or that I don’t need botox yet. For a few minutes I’m relieved I’m winning again.
Most of the time I can accept that I’m always losing some comparison game. It’s very healing. Losing leads me to compassion instead of competition. It leads me to amazed gratefulness instead of petty anger.
Sometimes at those homeless shelter breakfasts the residents would testify. One woman made contact with her daughter. One man was six months clean. Healing was happening. Applause and gospel laughter filled the room. Half the people shouted “God is Good!” and the other half responded “All the Time!”
All the time. No matter what. Jesus, who preferred to hang out with losers, is right there loving me when I lose. His deep, deep love overwhelms me when I count my blessings and even more when I count my sorrows. God is good, no matter what.
Even if my kids have no friends and never go to a prom. God is still good.
Even if my pain increases and I can’t walk anymore. God is still good.
Even if I look like a plastic surgery before picture. God is still good.
Even if my kids have dozens of life-altering problems. God is still good.
Even if my marriage ends. God is still good.
Even if cancer attacks. God is still good.
This Thanksgiving my family will join hands in a circle and pray. My kids will thank God for our house, their toys, and the people that love them. I will nod and agree. I still probably won’t thank God for the use of all my limbs. But for the first time at Thanksgiving, I will thank God for who he is and remember, that even if the unthinkable happens, he is still good.
Growing in Gratitude
- Consider setting the timer for five minutes and thanking God for “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) in your life. Write down everything that brings you joy and then write “thank you, God” after it. No need to get lofty. Warm blankets, the color blue, your favorite Netflix binge, the curl in your toddler’s hair, your favorite jeans. I pray you feel rich in abundant blessings at the end.
- If things feel dark and the heavy, and the holidays are here to make you feel ten times worse, I encourage you to face it. Write down everything that makes you mad, sad, envious, afraid and try some “Even If” prayers:
- Even if my sister shows up drunk on Thanksgiving. God is still good.
- Even if my country’s leadership terrifies and offends me. God is still good.
- Even if I’m alone for New Year’s Eve. God is still good.
- Even if I lose my job two weeks before Christmas. God is still good.
- Even if we break up. God is still good.
- If you can only feel better about your life by looking down on someone else, examine that thinking. If your prayers are based in comparison, here are a couple questions:
- Do you think you’re better than that homeless addict or materialistic skinny mom? Why?
- Do you think God loves you the same? Why? What evidence do you have for your answer?
- Do you know anything about the person you’re comparing yourself to? If you’re up for it, consider praying for them, talking to them, and maybe even doing something to serve them. It will be hard. But it will be worth it.
“Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: ‘Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14