Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 3 : 25. Giving Thanks
1 Thess 5:16-18 Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
I have in these last two meditations (somewhat with tongue in cheek, I confess) been starting from a point of cynicism, because that is what this verse can evoke in a shallow person. The response could easily be, “Be joyful always? You must be joking! Pray continually? That’s not possible! Give thanks in all circumstances? That’s not real!” That’s what a surface understanding of these verses could evoke, which is why we need to pause up and consider more fully each part of the verse. Thus we arrive at the third of these mini-commands.
So, yes, how is it possible to “give thanks in all circumstances,” when sometimes circumstances can be very bad. Well note, straight away, two things: first Paul doesn’t say, “Give thanks for the circumstances,” and second, he doesn’t say what to give thanks about while you are in those circumstances.
There was a brand of teaching going around a number of years ago (and it may still survive in some quarters) that taught “Give thanks for all circumstances,” and it was based on only a part understanding of what we will consider in the second part. Should we thank God that a loved one is being unjustly imprisoned and tortured, which will be happening somewhere in the world at the moment? Should we thank God that a homicidal maniac planned the murder of millions of Jews in the last world war? Should we give thanks for Lazarus’s death and the unbelief of the Jews in John 11? I add this last one because we find Jesus’ response to those things as follows: “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (Jn 11:33) and then “Jesus wept.” (Jn 11:35)
Solomon taught, “(There is) a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Eccles 3:4) Indeed if you look up the word ‘weep’ in a concordance you will find there are many times that the prophets speaking for God spoke of their weeping and anguish over Israel. Giving thanks for Israel being in a place of apostasy is both unfeeling and insensitive and plain unloving.
Perhaps we can resolve this more fully by considering the second thing we said: Paul doesn’t say what to give thanks about while you are in those circumstances. Now when we look at the big picture, we can see that God in His loving wisdom has given mankind free will and therefore whatever takes place – including all bad things – come within His permissive will. He permits it for the sake of granting us free will which is the key thing that marks us out as human beings. Now there is a difference between God being happy that the design and plan for this world is perfect in as far as there is not an alternative way for it all to be worked out, (especially in the light of the salvation He has provided for, through His Son Jesus, on the Cross,) and saying God is happy when He looks and sees people in distress. Love anguishes over pain and distress in loved ones, and God loves His world. Emotional pain – including His own – is the price God was willing to pay to give us free will and to see the wonder of salvation being brought about in the face of sin.
But there is more to it than that. Verses like Rom 8:28 – “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” – show us that God is active in His world constantly working (see Jn 5:17) to bring good in us and for us. Whatever the circumstance we can thank God that a) He is sovereign Lord over all things, b) He is there for us and c) He is working for our good in the midst of whatever is happening. Those things the Scriptures are clear about.
When we are praying and seeking to give thanks, there are lots of encouraging things about Him that we can give thanks for
– that He is all wise and wants to share His wisdom with us (I will leave you to look up verses for all of these because they are there!),
– that he is all powerful and His power is available to us through His Spirit who lives with in us,
– that He is unchanging and so we can always rely upon Him,
– that He is love and so we can trust that everything He thinks, says or does in respect of us is an expression of love,
– that He is perfect and so everything He thinks, says or does in respect of us cannot be improved upon,
– that He is faithful and will always be there for us.
There is just a handful of really deep truths for which we can give thanks. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances, these things are the same and they are true.