1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I think we can all agree that this has not been an easy year for many reasons. Our lives, like those of people throughout the world, have been complicated or even devastated by the novel coronavirus. Some of us have been inconvenienced in an unusually disruptive way. Others have been struck by serious illness or the loss of our livelihood. Still, others have lost loved ones to the scourge of COVID-19.
According to 1 Thessalonians 5:18, we are to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Is the Apostle Paul serious? Does he really mean “in all circumstances”? Or, as it says in The Message, are we actually to give thanks “no matter what happens.” Even if we’ve been desperately sick? Even if we’ve lost our jobs? Even if we’ve lost loved ones?
This verse in its original Greek calls us to give thanks “in everything” (en panti). This does not mean, by the way, that we must give thanks for everything, as if everything, including evil, was from God. But it does mean that even in the midst of suffering, even when we experience injustice, even when faced with a life-threatening, life-upsetting virus, we can and should give thanks. We thank God for his good gifts. We thank him for being present with us in hard times. We thank him for using life’s struggles to draw us closer to him and make us more like him. We thank God that nothing happens outside of his wise plan for history and for our lives. We thank God that ultimately his kingdom will prevail, with its justice and peace.
At this time of year, I have powerful memories of the difficulties my family and I were facing exactly four years ago. During the week, my mother was dying of cancer. The doctors had said she had only a few weeks to live. I remember what it was like to sit with my mom and my family. We shared sweet memories together and Mom talked about her hopes for her children and grandchildren, who had gathered around her. Six days later she died while my siblings and I held her tenderly.
I expect I will always miss my mom in a particularly powerful way during Thanksgiving week. I miss her cooking, her joy over holiday traditions, her love of family and friends, and her embrace. My faith does not call me to deny my sadness over my mom’s being away from us. Plus, I am not compelled to be thankful for cancer, which took both of my parents from me and my family. But, while not denying what is painful in life, I am passionately thankful for my mom, for her energy, creativity, faith, and love. I’m grateful for her life and the life she now knows with the Lord.
I am not suggesting that I am great at giving thanks in hard times, mind you. I struggle with this as much as the next person, maybe more. But I do believe that the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, affirmed by contemporary research, encourages us to express our gratitude even in difficult times. Yes, this has been a hard year for many reasons. Yes, we have reason to feel sad or scared or discouraged or all of the above. But, without denying what is hard in our lives, we’re also called to pay attention to what is good, to see God’s gifts to us, and to give thanks for them. This is, as Paul says, “God’s will for you and me in Christ Jesus.”
Gracious God, I must confess that I don’t always obey the command give thanks in all circumstances. When life is hard, when work is scary and disappointing, when things in the world are so distressing, I must admit that it’s difficult for me to give you thanks. In retrospect, when I look back on my life, gratitude comes more easily. But, in the moment of suffering or sadness or fear or disappointment, I often have a hard time giving thanks. Forgive me, Lord.
Help me to do what this verse encourages. May I be truly thankful in every situation. By your Spirit, remind me of your goodness when I’m hurting or afraid. Make your presence known to me, Lord, so that I might offer you thanks. Amen.
(✍️ Mark D. Roberts – edited NW)