Give thanks in all circumstances

“Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5.18), wrote Paul to the young church in Thessalonica. For them that was quite a challenge. Life was far from easy. How can we give thanks, for instance, when everything goes wrong. I think of my friend, Jim, who when his wife was dying of cancer, he sent his friends a card: on one side was just the sentence: “Rita is very poorly”. On the other side was the sentence: “Hallelujah anyway!” Much as I admired Jim’s faith, I think that he was misguided. I don’t think we can thank God for everything: some things are positively evil.

Certainly here in 1 Thess 5.18 Paul did not encourage his readers to thank God ‘for everything’, but rather ‘in every situation’ (New Revised Jerusalem Bible). I confess I find paraphrase in The Message unhelpful: there, after Peterson has written “Be cheerful no matter what happens”, he goes on “thank God no matter what happens”. Whether Peterson intended it or not, for me that sounds somewhat glib. When the bottom falls out of our world, there is no way in which we can “be cheerful”. Joy is not always a bubbly emotion. Rather, when everything does go wrong, joy is rooted in the belief that God is there with us in the mess – and that ultimately God, and not the mess, will have the last word.

I checked out my most recent commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, which is by Andy Johnson in The Two Horizons Commentary series, published in 2016. Andy Johnson made clear that within the context of the church’s life in Thessalonica:

Practicing this kind of prayer under extreme social pressure is possible only on the basis of, and would exemplify, an utter dependence on God and the hope of God’s coming public vindication of the faithful (4.13-5.11).

He quoted Joel Green, who in his commentary on Acts wrote: “Prayer of this sort allows for the infusion of a worldview [Green’s italics] centred on the gracious God, on dependence on God, on the imitation of God, and on the disclosure of God’s purpose for humanity, all understood against an eschatological horizon in which the coming of God in sovereignty and redemption figures prominently”. Andy Johnson goes on: “It is an activity which the Spirit continues to effect… sanctification”. Yes, out of the pain something positive can arise. In that regard I read that pearls are produced through pain:

A tiny parasitic worm bores through the shell of the oyster, and the movement of the water eventually carries a speck of sand into the now unprotected, sensitive body inside. To stop the irritation the oyster excretes a substance to cover the irritant; the irritation is never wholly removed by being covered up, so the process of stopping it continues and a pearl comes into being.

What is true in the marine world can also be true in our lives. What is more, at that point we can thank God and be grateful to him – not for pain, but for the way in which God blessed us in spite of the pain. This in turn reminds me of an article Tomlin entitled Gratitude help us see things in our life we didn’t create” in which Graham Tomlin ends that God’s “gift” which may have emerged through pain:

… becomes a token of love – a sign that, despite everything, there is a God who made us, thinks of us and cares for us, and even beyond that, gives Himself for us, an even deeper reality than the gift itself.

On reflection, that links very neatly with the three Greek words written by Paul in 1 Thess 5.18: en panti (in everything) eucharisteite (be thankful). This final Greek word is a pointer for me to the Eucharist, the service at which we thank God for all the blessings which God lavishes on us as a result of that first aweful (not just ‘awful’) Good Friday. Here indeed is food for thought.

One comment

  1. I very much agree with your well balanced view; We cannot deny the reality of pain, but we can know and give thanks that God goes through our suffering with us:
    “God is love: and he enfoldeth
    All the world in one embrace;
    …..And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
    Then they find that selfsame aching
    Deep within the heart of God” Timothy Rees

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