Imagine with me for a moment the shame and degradation the Holocaust victims experienced. Imagine the pain of losing absolutely everything — family, friends, hope, confidence — even the semblance of humanity. Imagine the relentless reality that if you don’t die today, there’s a big chance you’ll die tomorrow — whether that be from starvation, or by any of the devised means of mass slaughter.
This is what Elie Wiesel went through as he endured the death camps during World War II. He was one of very few to survive. In an interview 12 years ago, he was asked whether, after all the tragedy he had witnessed, he still had a place for gratefulness inside him. Here’s his reply:
“Absolutely. Right after the war, I went around telling people, ‘Thank you just for living, for being human.’ And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are thank you. When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude . . . for me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”¹
And we think our trials are hard? We think our painful experiences are too much to get through? We don’t see how we’re going to make it from this moment even to tomorrow? Yes, I know I have considered such thoughts. Naturally, it’s hard to see beyond the present. And yes, life does hand us hard things, but could it be that we tend to look at things from the wrong perspective? Would God really allow something hard if He couldn’t make something good come of it? Could it be that the hard times are for our good?
I think so.
“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.”
“Kingdom of night” opens a vivid picture in my mind — my darkest trials, my most formidable situations, and my toughest circumstances. In other words, Elie Wiesel — the Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient — is saying that the hard stuff in life is the petri dish for deeper gratitude.
Wiesel draws from his prison experiences when he explains the reality of those who are trapped. Their minds build the prison walls, their thoughts line them with barbed wire. Internal judgements become the patrolling guards, and escape requires tunneling or climbing through those barriers, walking past the guards.
We may not be in a literal prison, but aren’t we the same? We build prisons in our minds by our thoughts and perceptions of situations, other people, and especially ourselves.
How do we escape? For Wiesel, the key that opens the prison door is the key of gratitude. There’s no digging, no secret planning, or anything like that; when we open our eyes to see the giftedness of life through gratitude, we walk out free. On our feet.
“This simple process [being thankful for what is positive in every situation] has the power to transform your life. If the dust settles and you’re still standing, there’s a reason for it . . . now start walking! You can leave [your] kingdom of night. You can start walking toward the gates right now. Your freedom begins with being thankful for the small things — gaining courage and strength to reach the big things.”²
This radical concept of gratitude isn’t some man’s idea; it came from God. Check out what the apostle Peter said almost 2,000 years ago:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6, 7)
Of course, the ability to give thanks to God, even when life is rough, is a gift in itself. Gratitude is definitely not our natural response in the face of challenges, but as we recognize and acknowledge the goodness of God to us in sending His Son, who was mocked, scorned, and hated by His very own creation, we begin to recognize that this life is not about us. It’s all about Jesus.
Because of Him, there is hope. And, as we consider His attributes and all that He has done for us, what is there not to praise? Isn’t Jesus entirely worthy of our gratitude?
“God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.” (Exodus 34:6, 7)
No matter what we face, Christ’s love for us rings true (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:39). He is always with us (Matthew 28:20), and we can always be thankful. Not necessarily for every situation, but in every situation.
“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
¹Retrieved on February 6, 2006, from http://www.oprah.com/omagazine.200011/omag_200011_elie_b.jhtml
²Retrieved on January 10, 2006, from http://www.pubs.org/eliewiesel/life/henry.html