Counting our Blessings?

We sang “count your blessings” in morning prayers yesterday. There’s a line in there about “does the cross feel like a heavy burden to bear” (something like that) and prescribes counting your blessings. 
So, my question for your blog: what do we do with songs like this? Is there value in reminding people to count blessings? I remember people telling me all kinds of things that would “fix” me (more prayer, more bible study, more service to others, etc.). Some of them helped in small ways. None of them “fixed” me.

I hate to admit this, but the rebel in me wants to stand up after a song like that and read aloud Psalm 89, which begins by “recounting” God’s former blessings and promises and then abruptly jumps track and launches into a long list of all the curses that He has brought on His people. Singing about “counting your curses” might not send everyone away with a pleasant smile on their face, though.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament.

Songs like “Count your Blessings” often seem to downplay the reality and immensity of our troubles, sending the message that if we would just focus on the positive rather than the negative, all our problems would just go away. If only the solution were so simple! Formulaic, moralistic approaches to comfort are more likely to heap additional guilt, isolation, and wounding on a person barely managing to keep their nose above water. They don’t need another sermon; they need a life raft!

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.
Psalm 77:1-2

That being said, I do see a form of “Count your Blessings” in many of the Biblical prayers, Psalm 77 in particular. The psalmist doesn’t jump straight to the blessings, though. First he cries out his distress and troubles to God, refusing to be comforted until they have been properly addressed.

My heart mused and my spirit inquired: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Psalm 77:6-9

As he considers his current misery, he verbalizes to God the horrible doubts that his recent experiences have forced him to consider. These are the disturbing questions that have been simmering under the surface, questions about the character of God and the nature of their relationship. They seem too heretical to put into words, but if he doesn’t ask them his soul will remain in turmoil and their relationship will remain unresolved.

Even as the psalmist hears the questions stated out loud, he recognizes how preposterous they are. God “forgetting” to be merciful? Unfailing love that fails?

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy.
Psalm 77:10-13

The psalmist desperately wants to get beyond despair and back into praise, but he refuses to shortcut the process and shortchange the relationship. So instead he appeals to the history of God’s dealings with His people. He chooses to remember the things God has done in the past, to count the ways He has already proven His love and shown His goodness.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
Psalm 77:19

Memories of God’s incredible rescues and tender mercies come flooding in. In the past when troubles overwhelmed God’s people, He always showed up and delivered them, even when they couldn’t see Him doing it. This time will be no different. Finally, his soul can be a rest again. God has been good to him, and God will once more be good to him.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament. Interestingly, lament rarely manages to sustain itself for too long. Once it has served its purpose, lament fades away and leaves room for gratitude. And at that point, counting our blessings is a helpful life buoy in lifting our spirits back to joy.

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