By Ethan Magness
My boys have a regular bedtime ritual. After a story (if there is time), a bath, teeth brushing, donning pajamas, a cup of water, and lights out, the boys and I pray. If I get rushed, there are some steps we can skip, but if I try to skip prayer, I am usually in trouble with my sons.
Everyone gets a chance to pray. My youngest (3.75) is on a bit of a strike right now from praying aloud, but my oldest (6) loves to pray. Our evening prayers are mostly thank-yous.
Lately we’ve been talking about how it is good to tell God other things as well. I’ve told my older son we can talk to God about our worries and fears and even tell him things we want. He has learned this motto: We can tell God anything.
Nevertheless on most nights it is a list of thank-yous. A pretty typical prayer segment sounds like this:
Thank you for this day and thank you that we got to play the Star Wars video game and that we got to eat apple slices for snack and that we got to make—what were they called (I whisper, “Wreaths”)—oh yeah, that we got to make wreaths even though Daddy wouldn’t let me do it by myself or use the—what are they called (I whisper, “Clippers”)—even though they are just like big scissors and I know how to use scissors. Thank you anyway, and thank you that Daddy is going to remember to put butter on the toast right away next time so it will melt, but thank you for toast anyway, because that is a special breakfast and it is important to be grateful even when we don’t get things exactly the way we want them. Thank you for getting to play at the tree house and thank you for my family: Grandma and Grandpa, Ama and Agong, Uncle Michael and . . .
And thank you for Mommy who is the best mommy in the world. Amen.
A couple of nights ago there was a surprise variation. After praying through a day’s worth of gratitude, he paused and said,
And God, about the bee, thank you and not-thank-you. Thank you that I found out that I am not allergic to bees and that it didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would so now I can be like Daddy and not be afraid of bees, but not-thank-you that I got stung today—it hurt and I didn’t like it.
Thank You and Not-Thank-You
I know it is a cliché to find profound truth in the startling honesty of children. But I make no apologies. Honest speech is sometimes in short supply when Christians talk about suffering.
I (and perhaps you) sometimes prefer platitudes to telling the truth. I (and perhaps you) would rather quote a random Scripture out of context than deal with the realities of suffering in Scripture and in life. We thank God for suffering because we think we should and we rarely dare to speak the “not-thank-you” that we feel.
You may even wonder if Christians are allowed to speak frankly to God and say, “I didn’t want this, and I am in pain. Did you do this, God?” My son spoke freely to God because he hasn’t been taught yet he shouldn’t tell God about the things he doesn’t like. He believed me when I told him he could tell God anything.
Great “Not-Thank-Yous” of the Bible
The prophet Jeremiah believed that as well. After one of his many beatings for proclaiming God’s Word, he brought his complaint to God. “O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7).
He knows that God can redeem even his suffering. “Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked” (Jeremiah 20:13).
But still he concludes, “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:18).
Apparently Jeremiah doesn’t struggle with a lack of honesty before God. He knows God is always righteous, but Jeremiah does not pretend to be grateful for his suffering.
This kind of speech is not unique to Jeremiah. Several psalms record the laments of David and other authors who cry out about the suffering and injustice in their lives. (See Psalms 5 and 89 for two examples.)
Even in the garden Jesus says something a lot like my little boy, “God about this cup, ‘not-thank-you.’” (Of course, I don’t mean to imply Jesus said, “No thank you” in the sense of a polite refusal, but rather that he frankly acknowledged that this was not a path he desired.)
Learning to Honestly Say, “Not-Thank-You”
This is precisely the kind of honest “not-thank-you” speech the church needs to relearn. If we cannot honestly say “not-thank-you” to the evil in the world, our witness to the world is radically diminished.
There is evil in the world, and everyone knows it. If we cannot say to God and to one another, “This is wrong, and life shouldn’t be like this,” the world will assume we are blind to reality and therefore our God must be equally blind.
Can a God who is blind to all that is wrong possibly make anything right? The irony is that our honest speech about suffering can open an opportunity to proclaim to the broken world that God knows that things are wrong and has done something about it.
Even more importantly, an inability to say “not-thank-you” diminishes our prayer life and denies the goodness of God. Sickness and death and war and disease and doubt and rebellion are all part of the fall and are not God’s plan. And so it is natural—in fact it is healthy—that you take no joy in the evil that befalls you, your loved ones, and all people. Through faith, you can find reason to thank God even as your child lies dying or as the world is torn by war. But God does not expect you to be thankful that your child is dying or that the world is torn by war.
To pray as if you are glad for suffering creates a spirit of dishonesty in your prayers that leaves but a hollow shell of the relationship God desires. Should Jeremiah have called out to God, “I’m so glad for this latest beating”? Would lying to God have made him a better prophet?
Our honest speech to God testifies that we know God is good and is working to heal brokenness. Jeremiah knows (and ultimately teaches) that God did not bring evil into the world, but is working toward its removal. God is not surprised to hear an honest prayer of “not-thank-you” when we suffer. God is not pleased by suffering either.
Learning to Honestly Say, “Thank You”
And an amazing thing happens when we have regained the ability to say “not-thank-you.” When we have learned to speak truthfully to one another and to God about suffering—it is in that moment that our “thank-you” takes on its true power. It is precisely when we admit the great pain of our suffering and the world’s brokenness that we can truly proclaim the great power of God to work good even in that.
This is the thank-you of Romans 5 or Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Considered with no context, this sounds like the worst of platitudes. But in the context of Paul’s life of real suffering and injustice, these are powerful words of hope.
When Paul lists all the things that cannot separate us from Christ, he speaks from experience. Paul knows that evil is evil and has prayed to be freed from suffering. He isn’t saying, “Suffering isn’t that bad; it is just God’s plan for your life.” He is saying, “I know that suffering can be big and bad, but God is bigger and better, and so even in suffering we can rejoice.”
This is why even as we suffer we say “thank you” and “not-thank-you.” Even as we suffer, and injustice encircles the globe, we say “thank you” because we know God is working and can miraculously use suffering to refine us and to heal the world. And we say “not-thank-you” because we are in pain and our heavenly Father cares about our pain.
Because I trust you God, I thank you for the good you will do even through the pain. Because I trust you God, I tell the truth that I do not want the pain.
And God, about the bee, thank you and not-thank-you.
ETHAN MAGNESS is pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland. He is a graduate of Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee, a blogger at http://onthewalk.besquared.org, and lead author of The Walk, An Introduction to Christian Discipleship.
Ethan is the son of Lee and Pat Magness, the husband of Betsy Magness, and the father of two boys.