1 Thessalonians 5:18
The season of thanks giving is here again! Regularly acknowledging our blessings seems to come naturally to most of us. We can agree pausing to voice gratitude to God for what is good in our lives is fitting and right. How do we respond, though, to Paul’s instruction about giving thanks in everything? After all, “celebrating” Thanksgiving Day while still dealing with pandemic uncertainty, sickness, and death seems disingenuous, doesn’t it? How are we to understand Paul’s words “in everything give thanks”?
Paul issues three challenges to the Thessalonian church and to us: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks. For Paul, living a joy-filled life, seeking communion with God, and expressing gratitude are essential components of faithfulness. For any of us to consistently embody all three of these seems virtually impossible; we acknowledge what Paul asks of us is profoundly difficult. Counting our blessings and expressing thanks are much easier when life is good. When life is hard, the last thing we want to do is say “Thank you, God”…but that is exactly what Paul tells us is essential.
With the phrase, “In everything give thanks,” Paul reminds us our circumstances don’t dictate our capacity to be grateful. Those of us who have participated in mission and ministry with people who live in poverty know what Paul means. How unexpected it is when those who have nothing choose to express deep gratitude to God. I remember clearly a comment our son made upon returning to the United States after a mission trip abroad. He said, “The contrast between the attitude of the poor we served and the entitlement of people I encountered in the U.S. airport when we arrived home is hard to understand. Those who had almost no earthly belongings were deeply grateful; people here are rich and fuss and complain about everything!” Convicting, isn’t it?
Please note Paul doesn’t say we are to give thanks for everything. Living means we will frequently encounter circumstances for which we are not thankful, i.e., pandemic sickness and death, instability around the globe, dysfunctional political systems, gun violence, natural disasters, war, broken relationships, systemic injustice, etc. Paul isn’t asking us to be grateful for situations that hurt people God loves. Flippant gratitude denies the very real pain and sadness people experience. No, we are not instructed to be grateful for that. We are, however, encouraged to remain hopeful and grateful for God’s ever-present care at all times and in every life experience.
I think the historical figure Hellen Keller embodied Paul’s instructions well. Most in her situation would have been tempted to become bitter and angry. Listen to what Hellen said, “For three things I thanked God every day of my life: God vouchsafed my knowledge of His works; God set the light of faith in my darkness; I have another life to look forward to–a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song.” For sure, Helen Keller was not thankful for impairments (blindness and deafness) in her life but she was able to cultivate a grateful spirit in spite of daily challenges. Paul doesn’t say for every circumstance give thanks, he says in every circumstance find God’s presence and know God’s love.
Why are we to give thanks in every circumstance? God asks us to do so. Throughout scripture, especially in the psalms, we are reminded to give thanks to God—for God is good and God’s unfathomable love endures forever. God created us with hearts made for gratitude. God designed us to be joyful people—not ungrateful, grudging, or envious. When we stray from our original design to be glad and grateful, we must acknowledge our own misunderstanding and/or spiritual immaturity. Paul is convinced even though there is much for which we are NOT thankful, God’s great goodness and generosity cannot be overshadowed.
What is blocking your thanksgiving?
We’ve been preoccupied with many things this year. Remembering to be grateful humans doesn’t come easily when we have so much on our minds, have seen so much pain and destruction in a very fractured world, don’t get what we want when we want it, and recognize what we thought was secure on earth, really isn’t.
Followers of Jesus do well to express gratitude every day of the year. Giving thanks is a spiritual discipline that takes the focus off me and my distractions and puts it on the unifying, healing love of God. One of my favorite memes this year titled “This is why dogs are happier” addresses the idea of focus. The scene shows a man sitting on a bench looking at a meadow and mountain, his dog sitting beside him. The man’s thought balloons divulge myriad topics occupying his mind at that moment—his house, his car, travel, money concerns, etc. The dog’s thought balloon shows a singular thought: the joy of sitting peacefully near the person he loves most.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could be that tuned in to God and to one another? Doing so would greatly enhance our capacity to be present and to give thanks in all things this Thanksgiving and every day!