The end of one year and the beginning of the next is often an occasion in church life for thanksgiving – and rightly so. In the words of the Psalmist we are to “praise the Lord. and not forget all his benefits” (Psalm 103.2). But can we thank God “no matter what happens” (1 Thess 5.18 The Message)? This is how Eugene Peterson translates the Apostle Paul’s injunction to the church at Thessalonica to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ (NRSV). Similarly the REB renders this verse: “Give thanks to God whatever happens”.
In one sense being grateful should not be a difficult task for anybody. There’s always something for which we can be thankful. If we can’t pay our bills, we can be thankful we are not one of our creditors. Even though we can’t have all we want, we ought to be thankful we don’t get what we deserve! If we think we haven’t much to be thankful for, we can at least be thankful for some of the things we don’t have!
However, the reality is that sometimes it is hard to give thanks “no matter what happens”. Over the last few years my mother has been gradually losing her sight. She can no longer read. True, she can give thanks for the ‘talking book’ service of the Royal National Institute for the Blind – indeed, these books have been truly a ‘God-send’ to her. But that still does not make her blindness easy to cope with. Furthermore, over recent years my mother’s shoulders have been giving her excruciating pain – and apart from prescribing her painkillers and morphine patches, there is nothing further that her doctor can do. True she can give thanks for those who care for her in the ‘rest home’ where she now lives – without exception the staff have been outstanding. However, she still has to cope with her constant pain.
When I visit my mother I encourage her to look back on her life and thank God for all the many happy memories which are hers. And of course, as a woman of faith she can look forward to the day when there will be “no more grief or crying or pain”, for God will have made “all things new” (Rev 21.3-5). But to thank God for the present “no matter what happens” remains a challenge. To write, as did one commentator, that “the Christian life is to be an unceasing eucharist” (E.J. Bicknell, quoted by John Stott) can seem pastorally inept. For those going through the mill it is not helpful to be told that one of the rabbis commented that Daniel in the den of lions had the consolation that when the dreadful banquet was over he would not be called on for a vote of thanks! Nor do I find it particularly helpful to read that John Chrysostom, the fourth century bishop of Constantinople, said that a Christian could even give thanks for hell, because hell is a threat and is therefore a warning to go God’s way!
I remember that one year we had a Christmas card from a fellow minister. On one side was just one sentence: “Rita is very very poorly” (still in her prime, she was dying of cancer); on the other side was his church motto: “Hallelujah Anyway!” Frankly in that context I found that motto offensive, if not downright blasphemous. The fact is that we should not thank God for everything, for some things are positively evil. I find it significant that the Apostle Paul did not write: “give thanks for all circumstances”, but rather, “be thankful in all circumstances”. Sometimes there are terrible things for which we certainly cannot give God thanks. Nonetheless, when everything goes wrong, we can thank God that he will have the last word. In the words of Rom 8.28: “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him”.
We see that in the Cross of Jesus. Never was there a blacker day in the history of the world than that first Good Friday. Evil did its darndest when men crucified the Son of God. None of those who stood at the foot of that Cross could have dreamt that that day could ever have been termed a ‘Good Friday’. BUT out of that cruelest of acts everlasting good has come. What was true of the Cross, can also be true of our lives too. Suffering and disappointment may not belong to the perfect will of God, but nonetheless God can use our suffering and disappointment. However bleak and unfair life may seem, with God the outlook is never hopeless.
My mind goes to the words with which James opens his letter:
My brothers and sisters, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure (James 1.2-3 GNB).
Experience shows that tough times can often be incredibly productive times. The Arabs were right: ‘All sunshine makes a desert’. Paul was therefore able to write: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Rom 5.3-4 NRSV). Marine biologists tells us that pearls are produced through pain – and so too are saints. Yes, even the darkest of clouds can have a silver lining.
Nonetheless, there is no place for glibness. For that reason I am not keen on the translation “Thank God no matter what happens” – for it can give the impression that what happens does not matter. It often does matter. Rather I prefer the traditional translation: “Give thanks to all circumstances”. God does not guarantee us happiness in this life – but he has promised that in all the ups and downs of life he will be with us. For that we can certainly give thanks.