At my fifth birthday party, I demanded a particular piece of the cake my younger sister and I were sharing for our joint celebration. As I made this demand, I informed the guests—my friends—that they would all receive party favors and that they should therefore “Be grateful!” for whatever piece of cake they were allotted. Cute. Selfish. It’s all on a video somewhere … hopefully in an obsolete format!
We often consider blessings to be positive: a good gift, value added, something we wanted. That’s certainly true; blessings are those things, and we can thank God for them. What about negative blessings—blessings that come only through the wilderness?
Telling someone to “Be grateful!” or “practice gratitude” in a valley isn’t wrong but it can sound like a thin sentiment. Why? Because they might start counting positive blessings, and when those don’t seem to outweigh grief and loss, your appeal to “good stuff” may be insufficiently comforting. Also, when gratitude is not directed at the Giver it can be just a coping mechanism. It can keep us from digging deeper under our disappointment and asking, “What is God like? Can I trust him?”
Psalm 145 is one of my favorite Psalms. It carried me through an anxious season in college, when I was grasping for control as I realized how much uncertainty lay ahead. Notice how the rich promises of provision (verses 14-19) are given only after an extended meditation on God’s power, unsearchable greatness, splendor, righteousness, goodness, gracious and merciful love, enduring kingdom, and faithfulness across generations.
The pilgrim road of following Christ goes between mountains, not just on top of them. We can’t see what is ahead but we can see who is ahead: We are following our Forerunner, Jesus Christ, who suffered great grief and death on a cross, that we might inherit eternal life in his unshakeable kingdom. He conquered the grave, ascended into heaven, and gave us his Spirit so we might walk in freedom, even now, even in suffering. “And joy, it is severe, when the way is rough and steep,” sings Josh Garrels. Hard-won joy is the “negative blessing”—and the pilgrim road is the only way to it.
I’m writing this on my March birthday. If I’m remembering correctly, my fifth birthday cake had a frosted scene with a road on it. God doesn’t tell us what our piece of road is going to look like, and we can’t demand one piece above another. Psalm 145’s posture of praise recounts what God is like, what God has done, and what God will do. So keep walking, knowing he is near, he opens his hand, he fulfills the desires of those who fear him. The same God who did not withhold his own Son gives us food “in due season.” When the Giver gets the glory, that manna turns into cake.