As we were in Zimbabwe at the Back to the Bible Pastor’s Conference, I spent a lot of time asking the zimbabwe pastors about their testimonies, their stories, their ministries. Every story involved incredible hardship. It was inevitable – they live in Zimbabwe. Just as every story was marked by hardship, every story was marked by loss, loss that was very close to home, a parent, a child, a spouse. “Late” they call the ones they’ve lost. Such a benign term for such a painful reality, as if they are simply tardy, late, when really they are gone. Forever.
It’s a country with about a 90% unemployment rate, though some statistics belie that by counting having a little family garden plot as “employment”. I heard the women talking about not knowing how to feed their children, because they had no money. I heard barren women talk about the pain and ridicule they face in a culture where having children is absolutely expected; not to mention their own suffering as the children they long for are denied to them. I heard single women talk about the pain of being single, and the judgment and suspicion that they battle, just because they are single in a culture where that isn’t acceptable. HIV, starvation, physical abuse, affairs, substance abuse, not being able to afford your children’s education (education is HIGHLY valued there)…the list was endless of all the suffering these pastors have faced.
It’s not only the pastors who face hard times either. It’s a national epidemic caused by a number of contributing and multiplying factors. Many pastors shared that they pastored a group that were so needy, they could never expect any sort of salary for their work. How can widows and orphans who cannot feed themselves tithe to the church? Not only can they not support their pastor, but in a reversal that is perhaps foreign to American ears, the pastors feel a need to support their congregation. They are trying to figure out how to earn outside income so they can help feed and clothe those in their care. They are taking orphans into their own homes to raise as their own, when they have no money to feed their own kids – why? Because it needs to be done. Because in Zimbabawe, everyone is your “family.” Mostly importantly, because that what it’s like to be Jesus to the world around you; you look out for the lost, the least and the lonely.
I heard a lot of difficult stories. Actually, every story was difficult. Every. One. But you know what else I heard in every story? Every. Single. One? This little phrase: “I thank God because…” One woman lost the first 5 of her 9 children shortly after birth, they were being murdered by someone in her village, yet she said, “I thank God because…” Another woman lost her husband and a month later her son to unexpected illnesses, but she too said, “I thank God because…” A man shared that he was unjustly accused and fired from a company after 15 years and they had never paid him his salary, but he too said, “I thank God because…”
It was like being surrounded by African Pollyanna’s, all playing the “Glad Game”, every day of their lives. An entire culture built around the “Glad Game”. Can you imagine?! It was wonderful.
On and on the stories go, and no matter the trial, they all thanked God. It was striking to me. I have so much to thank God for, but I find reasons to complain. They have so much to complain about, but they find reasons to be thankful. In the end, I ask you, who is happier? Who has a more joyful outlook on life? The one who complains or the one who gives thanks? It’s not the one who has had the easier life, I can tell you that. It’s the one who has the right perspective.
In truth, although I only began to see this after I’d been there for quite some time, listening to testimony after testimony, there were some who said they thanked God, but I could tell deep down they weren’t completely overflowing with gratitude. They were choosing to thank God even though they might not have really felt it at the moment. On the other hand, there were also those who were truly feeling grateful and rejoicing despite what they had suffered. You could see it. They weren’t just saying they gave thanks, they really meant it. They were grateful, all over, deep in their soul.
Now, just because some may have felt more grateful than others, doesn’t mean that those who weren’t feeling it so much weren’t telling the truth. They were determining how they would respond, no matter how they felt. They didn’t let their emotions determine their response to God. They chose to give thanks in all things, even in suffering. They chose to “count it pure joy” when they faced trials (James 1). Some were still choosing their response; others were beyond that, their choices had become reality. But both began with the choice to thank God. And it began with the choice to thank him “because…”
That because is important. It means you choose to look for specific reasons to be thankful. It’s not just some nebulous sense of gratitude. It forces you to look for what God is doing in the midst of your pain and suffering and trials. It helps you find something specific to hold on to. It may be one little thing, or it may be a lot of things, but the “because” helps you find a reason to be thankful. It helps you find a purpose in your pain. It helps you find God in the midst of it all, and to see His loving kindness and his goodness towards you. It ensures than in your struggles, you have more than just your pain to hold on to.
I thank God because… It’s a powerful phrase. It’s a powerful lifestyle. When you think about your story, about the trials you’ve had, the pain you’ve faced, the struggles you are facing even now, how would you finish that statement? It’s often easier to do when you look at the past, hindsight being what it is. So perhaps it’s helpful to begin there, to practice looking at your past struggles and saying, “I thank God because…” As you and I learn to do that for the past, then doing that for our current struggles will get easier. It becomes a habit, a lifestyle, a choice we are used to making, a way of seeing things that becomes normal. How do I know that? Because that’s how it was in Zimbabwe.