No kidding, it is humanly possible to be thankful in every situation.
THE THESSALONIAN BELIEVERS, whom Paul told to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thes. 5:18), faced great difficulties. They were persecuted; some had abandoned the faith. They suffered opposition from Roman authorities and leaders of the majority religions. Still Paul insisted that they thank God.
Later Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus. Now he himself was in jail. His circumstances were anything but rose-colored. Yet he urged them to give thanks “to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Despite all their problems, and despite his own problems, Paul urged them to thank God for everything.
This isn’t easy to understand. Surely we are not to thank God for what people do wrong, for God hates sin. But in the midst of the injustice and difficulties we can concentrate on the good things, for which we can thank God. We also know that God can use situations that are themselves wrong to make us more like Christ (Rom. 8:28).
Paul had a special view of circumstances. He believed all to be brought about by God for the believer’s good. Thus, in Ephesians 4:1, he called himself a “prisoner of the Lord” (NAS). He said nothing of the Jews and Romans who had imprisoned him. His eyes were directed toward his Lord, who could have prevented everything but instead allowed it. Thus Paul’s own example motivated people, to be thankful.
WHETHER WE PROSPER OR SUFFER
We naturally assume that prosperity is cause for thanks. When we achieve a goal, we’re thankful. When we want something and get it, we’re happy and thank God for it.
But when circumstances seem against you, how can you give thanks? And for what can you thank Him? You look for a job but don’t find one; you wish to recover from an illness but don’t; you want to move, but find no buyer for the house; your child is handicapped; you’re still not married and want badly to find the right mate. Or the boss is impossible to work with, the sermons by the pastor don’t build you spiritually, and you’re worried about the political situation in the world. Perhaps you’re at home all day with two little noise-makers. Whatever the situation, you’re unhappy.
What did Paul say? He said to thank God in and for everything. Nothing comes to us for which we cannot give thanks.
AN ACT OF FAITH
Thankfulness means sensitivity to benefits received. When we thank God, we acknowledge Him as Benefactor. Paul says that whatever the circumstances, God in Christ Jesus is working through them for our benefit. Therefore, we are to be thankful, even in misfortune, as an act of faith. We believe that God sees, loves, and cares for us and that He works everything for our good (Rom. 8:28).
It might not seem that way, but God promises that that is true, and so He calls us to believe it. When our feelings scream, “No!” our faith must respond, “Yes!” Such internal warfare makes us feel like doing anything but giving thanks.
We cannot be thankful unless we consciously involve God in our lives, not as a God whose plans for us are bad but as a Benefactor.
Last year, I had to visit someone who had become incurably ill. I expected to find sadness, dismay and desperation. Certainly he was sad. He didn’t deny his grief. But what impressed me was his thankfulness that made even tear-stained eyes shine. When I came home, I was spiritually refreshed; I had experienced God’s greatness – the greatness of His grace. Despite the difficulties, he could still thank God as his Benefactor.
Someone once said, “If you have learned to give thanks for your problems, then you have learned to live with them.” Thankfulness thus becomes a barometer of our spiritual lives. It indicates a deepening relationship with God in which one learns to receive even problems as if they came from the hand of a loving Father. It recognizes that since God has allowed something, He will give the grace to live and grow through it.
Paul had learned to be thankful for everything in all circumstances. What was his secret? I believe it was twofold.
First, Paul had faith. He had a steadfast trust that God, who gave His own Son for mankind, always had good intentions for Paul. Because of his faith, Paul could not think otherwise.
Second, Paul had surrendered his life. He could give thanks for everything in every circumstance because he had given himself completely to God. In his farewell to the elders of Ephesus he said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). His life was not his own. It belonged to God. Therefore, God could do with it as He pleased.
My spiritual barometer sometimes registers low. Then I have a hard time believing that God is my Benefactor. Without prayer and meditation I cannot find the answer. Sometimes my problem is lack of surrender – I only want to pray for God to relieve me of my trials. Then I never get to the point of giving thanks because that would mean admitting that God might want the problems to remain in my life, and I don’t want that.
Sometimes my problem is lack of faith. Somehow, although I can believe that God has worked toward my good through other difficulties, I can’t believe He’s doing it through the particular one I’m suffering at the moment. I haven’t learned from my own past or from the Scriptures. Then I don’t thank God because I’m not convinced that the problems really are for my good.
Either way – if I fail to surrender, or if I fail to believe – I suffer inner turmoil and tension. My spiritual life flattens out. The joy is gone. The growth slows or halts. And I find myself heading toward complaints and bitterness.
THANKFULNESS – THE WAY TO INNER PEACE
The Bible teaches us a different way of living. It teaches us to live by faith and to surrender our lives to God.
Sometimes it is as if Paul were standing beside us and saying, Stop worrying for a moment. Stop trying to pray your problems away. Look up to God and thank Him as your Benefactor. He knows you and loves you; with Him you can go on.
This doesn’t mean we can’t ask God to deliver us from difficulties. When Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything,” he added, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Certain situations can oppress us so much that we go to God in prayer and plead for something to change, or we ask for extra strength or wisdom. Still, even in this prayer we should remember to thank God for the very problem we’re asking Him to remove, since He has promised to use that problem to make us more like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29).
When we learn to thank God in and for everything, even if we ask Him to change our circumstances and relieve us of some burdens, we find inner peace. Sometimes it takes time before peace comes, but come it does. We can be sure of it because of God’s own promise through Paul that when we thank God, the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
We cannot intellectually explain this peace with God; it goes beyond understanding. If you don’t believe it will come, I cannot convince you of it. You can only experience it and so come to know it in your heart. And you can only experience it by practicing the thankfulness God prescribes. Then you will learn to say with David, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psa. 23:4).
Gert Doornenbal, Discipleship Journal, Issue 28, 1985, pp. 44, 45