I gave a homeless man five minutes of my time, a smile, and a chance to earn a few dollars. In return, he taught me a valuable lesson.

Honestly, I had tried to avoid him at first. I saw him walking toward me as I pushed my grocery cart across the parking lot. He wore cutoff jeans, a t-shirt with holes in it, and some beat-up sneakers. His curly hair hung in a ponytail down to the middle of his back.

“Can I wash your windows for some spare change, ma’am?”

I hesitated, trying to remember if I had any cash on me. I finally said, “OK.”

“What? Really?” A grin spread across his face revealing a few missing teeth. “Wow.” He shook his head. “You caught me off guard ma’am.”

I wondered how many people had said “no.”

When I drove off a few minutes later, my windows sparkled. He smiled and waved.

Back at my apartment, I unloaded my groceries and wondered, “Do I show God the same kind of gratitude for his good and perfect gifts that this man showed me? If I don’t give thanks in good circumstances, how will I ever manage to do so during the not-so-good times?”

The Apostle Paul gave thanks locked in a prison cell or shipwrecked on an island just as readily as in the company of good friends. In his letter to the Philippians, he encouraged his readers to do the same: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).

Paul seems almost super-human in his contentment, doesn’t he? No food? No problem! Imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks? Praise God! But what about the rest of us ordinary humans? For those who have watched a loved one die, or for those who have known the heartbreak of a lost romance, the command to “rejoice always” seems nearly impossible to carry out. But I have good news. God does not leave us stranded on our own islands of discontentment. Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul shares his secret: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). Paul assumes that the Christian empowered by Christ can do the nearly impossible.

How to Rejoice Again

Paul also gives some “how-tos” to help his readers on their way. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

1. Don’t Worry

We read in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26). In this crazy world we take great measures to protect ourselves from harm. When we buy a car, we check consumer reports for the safety rating. When we buy a house, we ask about the neighborhood’s crime rate. When we buy a carton of eggs, we check to make sure none have already cracked.

And yet we know that at some point bad things will happen. So what do we do? We buy insurance: car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, home owner’s insurance, insurance for floods, fire, wind. There comes a time when we’ve done everything we can do. At this point we should sit back, kick up our feet, and give it to God, but instead we worry.

Worrying comes naturally to me. If this describes you too, don’t fret. When that familiar feeling comes, you and I can remind ourselves that we have direct access through Jesus Christ to the God of all creation, and then go to him in prayer. We can present our requests to God and remember to give thanks.

2. Give Thanks

When I took a typing class, my fingers moved clumsily across the keyboard. I made a lot of mistakes, and I typed slowly. Today when I type, my fingers move of their own accord, with little conscious direction from me. The muscles in my hand seem to perform automatically. Our minds work the same way. Once we establish a habit, we can use that built-in muscle memory to our advantage. Paul instructs his readers to dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8) for that very purpose. The more we think about praiseworthy gifts, the more we will give thanks and praise.

Let’s start by thanking God for the small things, the things we take for granted. When we wake up in the morning, let’s thank God for our comfortable beds. As we go through our morning routines, let’s thank him for indoor plumbing and a hot shower. We can thank God for a pantry full of food, and the electricity that keeps our refrigerators cold. When we imagine life without these conveniences, we realize how big these “small” things truly are. Look around your home. For what can you thank God?

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul instructs his readers to “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–17). How many times have we prayed to know God’s will or searched the Scriptures for answers? Right in this verse Paul says it plainly: God wants us to give thanks continually. Establishing thankful habits will prepare us to give thanks even in the not-so-good times.

God does not promise his followers lives free of suffering. When Paul pleaded with God to remove a painful circumstance in his life, God answered “No.” But he also said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God did not remove Paul’s pain, but he did enable Paul to praise him through it.

Maybe like Paul you have experienced a depth of pain unfathomable to most. But God’s truth remains true through any crisis. He commands us to give thanks in all circumstances, because in hard times a thankful heart leads us out of our pain.

Thanksgiving is not a quick-fix for our pain. Even in the most dire circumstances, we can find relief from our grief when we lift up a prayer of sincere thanks to God. When we see God and his good gifts through our pain, healing eventually comes, and through that process we learn worship. That worship turns our suffering into joy and our mourning into gladness.

After my encounter with the homeless man, as I was shelving my "basic necessities," which happened to include ice cream, I thanked God for his provision and the gift this man had given me. His abundant gratitude for my meager offering made me keenly aware of the meager gratitude I offer to God for his abundance. While I filled my refrigerator, thanks filled my heart, and I realized that God’s command to give thanks is a gift in itself.

Photo Credit: Jamie Henderson