Our congregation has experienced a devastating tragedy this week. Any time someone’s life is taken in their youth it grieves us deeply. Those of us who knew Ryan find ourselves numb. It was only last week that he was in our early worship service with his girlfriend and the friends he brought with him. Over these last few days we have battled feelings of confusion, anger, disillusionment, and a sadness that sucks the life out of us. We certainly don’t find ourselves feeling very grateful.
Yet the Bible is clear, even though it is difficult to hear. Paul says, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). The words are hard but we need to wrestle with them. This is a tough verse for many people,
- for the person recently divorced
- for the person who had a miscarriage of a baby they wanted badly
- for the person who’s body is devastated by the treatments they are receiving
- for the person who feels they are barely “existing” in the Nursing home
- for the person who is overwhelmed by financial demands
- for the person who has to helplessly see their child suffer
- for the person who lives with a cloud of depression over them
- for the person who recently stood at the fresh dug grave of someone they love
- for the person who feels suffocated by their loneliness
In each of these cases, the idea of “giving thanks” is very difficult. In fact, it’s not just difficult. It seems impossible. Let’s look at what Paul is saying and see if we can understand what his words mean.
Why God Commands us to Give Thanks in every circumstance
First, God wants us to give thanks in the good times because thanksgiving promotes God’s glory and develops humility in us. We all have a tendency to usurp the credit for the good things that God does. We must give thanks in the good times because it reminds us that every good and perfect gift is from above. We call a child that takes without giving thanks, a spoiled child.
We are to give thanks in the good times because giving thanks makes us appreciate what we have been given. A person who is always complaining and never grateful is a person who does not know the richness of life. When we take the time to count our blessings, when we make it a point to focus on the wonderful things we have been given, we appreciate life more.
Second, God wants us to give thanks in the difficult times because it is an act of faith. When things are tough it takes faith to thank God for our circumstances. We must really believe that God has a plan we do not see. We must really believe that His wisdom is beyond our own. Giving thanks in difficult times requires something more than superficial faith.
God wants us to give thanks in the difficult times because He wants us to learn to walk by faith and not by sight. We can’t always understand what happens in life. If we depend on our senses, life will be like a roller coaster. If we learn to depend on God, life will be steady. We can know peace even in the confusing times.
What Can We Thank God for in Tragic Times?
Let’s be honest. When tragic times hit, there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for. Are we to give thanks for the heartache? Are we to give thanks for the devastation? Are we supposed to be glad that our world is caving in? No. It’s o.k. to hurt. It’s o.k. to confess our pain and even our anger. God is not asking us to pretend. He’s not asking us to say that painful things are good. What He wants is for us to confess that HE is good. There are many things to give thanks for in the midst of heartache.
We give thanks for a God who is working beyond the circumstances. This is certainly a declaration of faith. In the midst of devastating times we usually don’t see anything God could possibly be doing in our circumstances. It seems shallow to quote verses about God working for the good. All the evidence tells us that the situation is NOT good. At least not from our perspective.
Does a football player feel grateful for hard workouts. No, it seems like cruel and unusual punishment. But is it good . . . yes, it is. Do we feel grateful when it comes time to exercise in the morning? Not usually. It seems like a dumb thing to do when we would rather sleep. But it is good. Do we feel grateful when money is taken out of our paycheck for retirement. No. We grumble. But is it good . . . when it comes time to retire we will be glad for the circumstances we grumbled about. Life is full of these situations.
What good could God be bringing out of a tragic accident? I don’t know. What good can God bring from cancer? I don’t know. What possible work can God be doing that would make a tragedy like Columbine seem to make sense? I don’t know. All I know is what He tells us. He has not abandoned His throne. He is still in control. He knows what He is doing. Someday, we will see His plan and we will rejoice and give thanks. For now, we can only give thanks for the promise.
We give thanks because we affirm, trust, and yes, even celebrate, the character of God . . . even when the circumstances make no sense. We give thanks that God is good. He is not evil. He is not arbitrary. God has a reason for everything He does. . . whether we understand it, or not. We give thanks that the world is not as chaotic as it often seems.
David said we should give thanks because, “the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” (Psalm 100:5) The Lord is good. What an important statement this is. The world is often evil. But God is good. His love never wavers. We may waver in our love for Him but He never wavers in His love for us. Max Lucado has written,
How wide is God’s love? Wide enough for the whole world. Are you included in the world? Then you are included in God’s love.
It’s nice to be included. You aren’t always. Universities exclude you if you aren’t smart enough. Businesses exclude you if you aren’t qualified enough, and sadly, some churches exclude you if you aren’t good enough.
But though they may exclude you, Christ includes you. When asked to describe the width of his love, he stretched one hand to the right and one to the left and had them nailed in that position so you would know he died loving you.
But isn’t there a limit? Surely there has to be an end to this love. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But David the adulterer never found it. Paul the murderer never found it. Peter the liar never found it. When it came to life, they hit bottom. But when it came to God’s love, they never did. They, like you, found their names on God’s list of love. [He Chose the Nails p. 115]
David tells us that God’s faithfulness extends to all generations. When others fail us, He does not. When others desert us, He stands with us. When we declare our anger, He continues to declare His love. God is consistent. He is good. He is loving. Even when we don’t understand the circumstances of life we should give thanks for the God who’s character is without question. This character is what we rely on.
We give thanks for a sure Hope beyond the grave. How do people survive who see this life as all that there is? The Bible tells us that when we die, we go to be with the Lord. We are given a home prepared by God’s loving hands. We are given bodies that will never decay, malfunction or embarrass us. We are reunited with loved ones who have died before us. And we will be with Jesus. Heaven is described by taking the most precious things of this life: gold, silver, precious stones . . . and making them the common things of Heaven. It is a reminder that this life is nothing in comparison to the splendor of the world to come. Heaven is depicted as a place of joy, singing, celebration. It is a place where wrongs are made right, where good is rewarded.
In the midst of many tragic times death is lurking somewhere in the picture. The pain is either caused by a death of someone we know or by the threat of death. Knowing that there is life beyond the grave softens the heartache. Knowing that this life is not all there is a blessing we should thank God for.
We give thanks for the Savior who made this hope possible. We should give thanks for God’s plan to save us. We should give thanks for the baby in the manger, the teacher on the hillside, the Savior on the cross, the resurrected Lord, and the coming King. We give thanks for Jesus in every circumstance because He is our reason for hope. It is faith in Him that has made us new. It is faith in His provision that brings us eternal life.
We give thanks for a supernatural strength to get through devastation. We give thanks for a God who really does understand our pain. We are told that Jesus was “acquainted with all our grief”. He lived this life. He knew what it was like to be rejected. He knew what it was like to face temptation of every kind. He knew what it was like to lose people He loved. Most people believe that Jesus’father died while he was young. Jesus knew what it was like to be misunderstood. He knew what it was like to hurt. And Jesus knows us. There is no one who understands us like He does.
We give thanks for the Spirit who prays for us with groans too deep for words. We give thanks for the God who sticks closer than a brother. He listens when we need to vent. He understands when words are absent. He gives strength when we have none of our own. He is the one who carries us when we have no strength of our own.
Why We Often Neglect to Give Thanks in the Good Times
We’ve looked plenty at the hard times. But some of you don’t feel that sense of devastation in your life. For some of you life is going really well. Everything seems to be falling into place. Sometimes these are some of the most dangerous times of life.
When times go well it is easy to take things for granted. The simple pleasures are overlooked. Blessing is expected rather than received with gratitude. Have you ever thought about how many things we take for granted every single day?
Why do we do this? Here’s some ideas,
- Sometimes we neglect to give thanks because we feel we have earned what we have. We have worked hard and things have worked out. We seem to feel that our blessings are the result of our goodness. We don’t need to give thanks because we have “earned everything we have.” I don’t think I need to point out what a dangerous situation this is.
- Sometimes we neglect to give thanks because we are too greedy yearning for more. We are too busy looking at what we would like to have rather than thanking God for what we do have. As a child I remember always feeling somewhat impoverished at Christmas. I’d look at the Sears Christmas Catalog and see all the stuff I didn’t have. In the process I neglected to be grateful for the many things I did have: the material stuff, two parents who loved me, a warm home, great sisters, good food at [almost] every meal, the opportunity for a good education, a Christian upbringing, a large extended family . . . and so very much more.
- Sometimes we neglect to give thanks because we have taken what we have for granted. When was the last time you gave thanks for the simple things, like those mentioned above. When was the last time you really said “thank-you” for God’s grace, His forgiveness, His Spirit who guides, directs and empowers you? When was the last time you thanked God for the Bible and it’s ability to get to the heart of any problem? When was the last time you gave thanks for the many teachers, authors and influential people God has brought into your lives? When was the last time you thanked God for His church and the people who stand at your side? R.C. Sproul sings it, “We’ve Grown Accustomed to His Grace”. Giving thanks keeps us from taking the blessings of life for granted.
When we don’t thank God for the good times, we lose our ability to recognize that they ARE good times. We shouldn’t need a tragedy to wake us up to the things that should be cherished. James tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” We need to work to give more than superficial thanks to God in the good times just like we have to in the bad.
Yes, we are to give thanks in ALL circumstances. And to help you do that, may I suggest some simple ideas?
- Sometime when you are alone slowly look around your home and NOTICE the things you have to be thankful for. Look at the pictures and thank Him for the memories that the pictures represent. Notice the possessions and thank Him for the ways He has provided for you. Notice the things others have given as gifts, and thank Him for the blessing of friendship. Notice the things that remind us of those who have already gone on to their eternal reward . . . and thank God for the way you were enriched by those lives. See the television, the computer, the stereo and thank God for the joy those machines have brought you. Thank Him that you are living in such a time as this. Look at the stains on the carpet or the furniture and remember the things that caused them. Notice the wall where you marked the height of your children and give thanks for them. Notice the things left lying around and give thanks that signs of life surround you.
- In some quiet night sit in the dark and list as many things as you can in God’s character that you can be thankful for. Remember where you were when He changed your life. Remember the times of crisis you thought you could not survive but did, by His strength. Recall some of the life changing lessons you have learned or some of the Bible passages that have become your foundation for living. Dare to think about the place that He is preparing for you and thank Him in advance for the riches He gives.
- Make it a point to say thanks to those you cherish. Be specific. Maybe you’ll need to write it down. Maybe you’ll need to make a phone call. Maybe you’ll need to go out to a gravesite . . . but do make it a point to be grateful. It will mean a great deal to you . . . and it may mean even more to those who receive your words.
- Before you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, look around the table. Really see the faces that are there. Don’t focus on the food . . . focus on those you share the meal with. Be old fashioned, go around the table and express your gratitude [Maybe you’ll want to do this before the food is put out]. Go ahead and say a prayer. Thank God for the food and for your family.
- And if this is a hard Thanksgiving. Take the time to talk about the Lord. Remind yourself and those around you that He is good, his love endures forever, and His faithfulness will never cease. Remind yourself of when days were better. Tell stories of the past. Remind with fondness and maybe with tears. . . . . and then look forward to the future day when the tears will be dried, the pain will be gone, and the smile of Jesus will bring a joy this world has never known.