Thanksgiving, a Cure for Bitterness

by Joe McKeever

All six of the people in the room were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. Three had lost adult children tragically, two were missing their mothers, and for one, it was her husband. We call the class "grief recovery" and for the most part we sit around talking about how they are handling the death of their family member. "I'm angry," said one, "about what the doctors did."  That's when the direction of the class took a major turn.

Everyone in the class admitted to carrying a load of anger.  One was mad at siblings, another at her estranged spouse, and the others at the doctors or the medical system in general. As far as I could tell from what was said, each had good reason to feel the way they did.  But, as pastor, I knew also that they were going to have to deal with their anger in order to get on with their lives.

I remember something Corrie ten Boom said about bitterness. After World War II, this survivor of Ravensbruck helped to establish hospitals in Holland to care for the sick who had come through Nazi concentration camps. In her work, Miss ten Boom observed a strange phenomenon. The health of those who refused to forgive the Germans for their cruelties declined and a large number of them died.

Those who chose to forgive their tormentors steadily grew better and eventually went home. Bitterness kills.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Canadian scientist Dr. Hans Selye pioneered studies concerning the effect of emotions on health.  During his lifetime, he wrote 30 books on the subject of what he termed "stress syndrome."

Selye saw how mental stress generates extra adrenaline in the body which speeds up respiration and heart rates. Tension in muscles leads to headaches and backaches. Anxiety and depression trigger pain or increase pain already present.

Toward the end of his career, Selye named vengeance and bitterness as the culprits most likely to produce high levels of stress in humans.  On the other hand, the cure for these—and the one response most beneficial to human health—is gratitude.  Gratitude heals.

In his book, Pain:  The Gift Nobody Wants, Dr. Paul Brand cites the work of Selye and adds, "People who view pain as the enemy instinctively respond with vengeance or bitterness—Why me?  I don't deserve this!  It's not fair!—which has the vicious-circle effect of making their pain even worse." He tells his patients, "Think of pain as a speech your body is delivering about a subject of vital importance to you. From the very first twinge, pause and listen to the pain and, yes, try to be grateful. 

The body is using the language of pain because that's the most effective way to get your attention." He explains, "I call this approach befriending' pain: to take what is ordinarily seen as an enemy and to disarm and then welcome it."

As I listened to the class members describe the resentments that have grown up around the loss of their loved ones, something from Colossians 3 kept coming back to me. I had been struck recently by how persistently Paul kept calling those early Christians to thanksgiving, even when he was dealing with other subjects.

"Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body and be thankful" (3:15).

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God"(3:16).

"And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father"(3:17).

Obviously, gratitude is not a separate discipline to be set apart and practiced as we can get to it.  Gratitude stands as an essential element in everything we are and do. Gratitude is part of our peace, an element in our praise, the very core of our service to Jesus.

But gratitude is a choice we have to make. Each of us decides whether to travel the descending route of bitterness and anger, or the ascending road of thankfulness.

I'm indebted to long-time deacon Atwell Andrews for a new way of looking at gratitude. In monthly deacons' meetings, my usual practice was to take a few minutes and present some problem the church was facing which we needed to address. One evening as I finished describing the latest crisis and returned to my seat, Atwell spoke up. "Pastor," he said in a gracious manner, "tell us what we're doing right." I was so dense I had to ask what he meant. "You're always calling our attention to the problems in our church. Have we done anything right?  We need to hear that." Zing. That was a word from God to my life and—in tribute to His marksmanship—right on target. This became my new definition for thanksgiving:  to tell someone what they are doing right. 

I said to a class member, "The doctors may well have failed your mother in the days leading to her death. But you have pointed out how they saved her again and again over the years as she went through various health problems.  What if you chose to give thanks to God for all the times they got it right instead of focusing on the one time they blew it?"

What if we rejected anger and chose to give thanks?

(Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, was published in 1993 by Harper Collins/ Zondervan.  The quote is from page 222.)

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