When Thanksgiving Hurts
By Dr. John Neihof
President of Wesley Biblical Seminary
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls—Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, And He will make me walk on my high hills.” – Habakkuk 3:17-19 NKJV
Scripture is replete with examples of God-fearing people who faced disaster. In the midst of disaster, tragedy, and shattered hopes, they found “Praise God Anyway” moments.
– Abraham’s “Praise God Anyway” moment was “God will provide for Himself the lamb.” “The Lord will provide.”
– Joseph’s “Praise God Anyway” moment was “God sent me before you… to save your lives by a great deliverance.” “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”
– Job’s “Praise God Anyway” moment was “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
– Psalm after psalm, David choose to “Praise God Anyway.”
– Mary was unmarried and pregnant. Mary’s “Praise God Anyway” moment was her Magnificat!
What is your “Praise God Anyway” moment?
Habakkuk was a prophet of God to the people of Judah in the 7th century B.C. rabbinic tradition identified Habakkuk as the Shunammite woman’s son whom Elisha resurrected from the dead. Jerusalem was facing the attacks of Babylon, and Habakkuk saw certain judgment and destruction looming.
Habakkuk’s name is thought to mean “to embrace.” Various Biblical scholars have taken turns interpreting the meaning of his name. Jerome thought Habakkuk meant “that he wrestled with God in an argument” (Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 263). Martin Luther thought the name meant that Habakkuk embraced and comforted God’s people with an assurance of hope.
The prophet Habakkuk is clinging tenaciously to the living God in the midst of impending national disaster. He wrestles with God and the desperate reality his nation is facing. Judah is about to be conquered by Babylon. Jerusalem is about to be overthrown. The temple is about to be destroyed. He opens his prophecy with two desperate questions:
1. “Oh Lord, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear?”
2. “Aren’t you the just and holy God?”
God responds to the prophet’s questions with the answer that “The just shall live by faith.” In spite of the apparent caprice of disaster, God promises to uphold reality with justice, truth, and covenantal love. He promises to be just and true even in the face of impending judgment.
God describes for Habakkuk the list of Judah’s sins that are in danger of His judgment: drunkenness, pride, lust, conquest, greed, hoarding, covetousness, bloodshed, seduction, violence, idolatry, and neglect of holy worship.
In the face of divine judgment, the prophet prays for revival:
“O Lord, I have heard Your speech and was afraid; O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy.” – (Habakkuk 3:2 NKJV).
Habakkuk describes the creation and conquest of God over the whole earth. He celebrates divine activity, while simultaneously trembling before God and His work. Then he utters a hymn of closing, the most memorable words of His prophecy:
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls— Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, And He will make me walk on my high hills.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19 NKJV)
Habakkuk discovered that only the habit of praising God will sustain us in the hard times. He is practicing what H. Ray Dunning calls “but-if-not religion” and is at a “Praise God Anyway” moment.
Habakkuk describes hard times: fig trees without blossoms; vineyards without grapes; barren olive trees; fields without a harvest; empty stalls in the barn.
Poverty and starvation loom. Destruction and death are at the door.
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Habakkuk’s questions are not unlike our own questions in hard times. Where are you, Lord? Are you going to hear and answer my prayer or not? Why do you allow evil to win?
2018 has held deep grief for my family. My 49-year-old sister, a married mother of three (12, 14, 18) was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic, liver, and lung cancer at Christmas 2017. She has fought bravely through 2018. The doctors predict a handful of months to live.
These are hard times. I am certain that I lack the grace, spiritual maturity, wisdom, or understanding to face them. Nevertheless, Habakkuk inspires and encourages me. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord!”
Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk could say, “I will myself to focus upon God’s goodness, rather than the brokenness of my world.”
Habakkuk could say, “I will myself to rejoice in my God’s great salvation.” That choice to rejoice in God must be yours and mine. As we choose thanksgiving, we can say with Habakkuk, “My Lord and my God are my strength.”
Habakkuk pictures the Lord, “He will elevate and quicken my step, empowering me to triumph over adversity.” This road is an elevated one that explores the infrequently traveled heights. Habakkuk is saying that God will lead us on the “road less traveled” as we escape the enemy and triumph.
Robert Frost put it this way:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Ray Dunning writes, “In the rocky crags of tribulation, and of uncertain footing beneath, faith gives unerring guidance and stability to tread the precarious path,” (Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 289).
The less traveled road is the high road of praise and thanksgiving, especially in hard times.
A volitional thanksgiving is often an act of sacrifice. The sacrifice of praise hurts. It costs us something priceless. But only the habit of praising God will sustain us in adversity.
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The Brooklyn Tabernacle recorded a song by Joe Pace in 2006 titled “Hallelujah Anyhow”:
I believe I’ll testify,
God’s been good to me.
Through every test and trial,
I’ve got the victory.
The enemy has tried his best
To make me turn around,
Bring me down,
But my God’s never failed me yet,
So I’m gonna stand my ground.
No matter what comes my way,
I’ll lift my voice and say,
What adversity are you facing that must be met with the habit of praise?
Ray Dunning says: “This is a ‘but-if-not’ religion that does not depend on prosperity or wellbeing to keep its faith in God or its determination to be faithful to Him” (Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 289).
Does thanksgiving hurt? Do you face tragedy and adversity? Is God is calling you to meet head-on with the habit of praise this Thanksgiving season? Is this the moment that you must practice the sacrifice of praise and engage your faith in a living, creator God, with “but-if-not” religion?
So, this Thanksgiving, I will join my family. We will not meet at Mom and Dad’s home at in Eastern Kentucky. We won’t hike the trails of Kentucky’s Natural Bridge State Park or the Red River Gorge. I won’t be able to enjoy a campfire on a frosty mountain evening. I won’t visit my brother’s farm on Grassy Creek to cut firewood to heat Mom and Dad’s house this winter. We won’t gather in Fallen Bottom to eat Thanksgiving dinner and open presents.
Our entire extended family is traveling to my sister’s home in Florida.
We are taking a less-traveled road. We journey into the teeth of hard times. And in the teeth of the hard times, we shall praise God anyway.
The sacrifice of thanksgiving.