Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Draw near: Praying to recognize the good

Lynne Baab • Wednesday February 8 2023

Draw near: Praying to recognize the good

Sometimes a phrase in another language gives insight into what a word or concept means. Last week I learned that in Hebrew, the phrase for being thankful is hakarat hatov, which means recognizing the good. Wikipedia describes hakarat hatov as an attitude that is a required part of Jewish life. Wikipedia gives two somewhat amusing real-life examples:

  • Your children are exhausting, but you have children.
  • You misplaced your car keys, but you do own a car.

The Hebrew language has a different term for giving thanks. These two terms help us discern that recognizing the good is an internal process, while giving thanks is more of an external action.

Maybe you’ve noticed the significant emphasis on thankfulness recently in wellness advice and social media memes, as well as in sermons, articles, blog posts, and other sources of Christian information. I’ve written quite a bit about thankfulness, too. I am convinced of the value of a committed, focused practice of thankfulness, whether that takes the form of keeping a list of things to be thankful for, starting all prayers with thankfulness, talking at mealtimes or bedtime about what we can thank God for, or any other pattern of gratitude.

Despite my own committed practice of thankfulness and all the writing I’ve done on it, I had never thought about this distinction between our inner attitude of recognizing the good and our actions of giving thanks to people and to God. Because many people pray silently, an action of giving thanks to God can take place in our inner self. Even if the noticing and thanking take place inwardly, they can be viewed as separate actions.

For many Christians, Romans 8:28 is a key verse. The version I memorized as a young Christian comes from the New International Version: “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.” I have always been adamant that “in all things” is quite significant, that the verse doesn’t say that all things are good. In all things, God works good. So our job is to recognize that good that God brings in every situation.

That’s why thankfulness prayers by ourselves or with others can be so helpful, because they make us stop and notice the good that’s there. My beloved brother’s car was totaled last week when he and my sister-in-law were hit by a car in a high speed chase. The speeding car was going 60 miles per hour when it hit the back wheel well of my brother’s car and spun his car around. Only a few feet difference would have placed the impact on the spot where my sister-in-law was sitting. Both my brother and his wife are okay after being very scared and suffering bruises. In that instance, recognizing the good is easy. I am still feeling a deep sense of relief (recognizing the good!) and thanking God for such a huge mercy.

Other situations are more complicated. In a horrific medical situation, a calm nurse or kind doctor can make so much difference. We might recognize that good briefly, but feel so overwhelmed by the medical challenges that the awareness of the blessing doesn’t stick with us, so we forget to thank God or thank that helpful person. With challenging family members, noisy neighbors, difficult bosses, or irritating co-workers, recognizing the good can really hard.

In my writing about thankfulness, I have often used the word “notice” to describe the first step of the process of gratitude. I looked up online definitions of “notice” and “recognize,” and there are subtle differences between the two words:

  • Notice – observe, pay attention, become aware of
  • Recognize – identify, acknowledge, admit the reality of

Our prayers can be fueled by the words in these definitions. Our prayers can also be influenced by an awareness of the difference between recognizing the good and then acting on it by thanking a person or God. We can ask God to help us recognize the good. We can ask God for wisdom in establishing habits that help us do that work of recognition.

I wrote last week about praying in liminal spaces, those times that feel in between, precarious, risky, and sometimes exhilarating. In liminal spaces, recognizing the good seems to be vital for navigating scary waters.

Wise and gracious Holy Spirit, as you dwell in us please help us identify, acknowledge, and admit the reality of the good that you bring to us in every moment. Help us relish those good things, and help us turn to you, Triune God, with our gratitude.

Next week: Names for God in prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab: “Origin of the Eagle Clan” totem pole, Washington Park Aboretum, Seattle. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

My book on grief and gratitude is now available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

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