Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5.18.
Three days ago, when I was feeling really poorly, I tweeted that “if I wasn’t coughing my head off and streaming with cold, I’d write something about how to rejoice in all circumstances.” It was meant as a wry comment on the way we can dish out good advice to others on how to cope with adversity until adversity actually strikes us ourselves (even if it’s only something as trivial as a bad cold) and how our advice can then ring rather hollow in our own ears. But it set me thinking about the text I had misquoted and that I now set out above … What does Paul mean exactly when he tells Christians everywhere to “give thanks in all circumstances?”
I imagine most people would say that he is simply exhorting us to “count our blessings” or “look for the silver lining” and show gratitude to God for all the good things there are in our life alongside this bad thing that is making us miserable or perhaps even causing us to despair. It’s a call to positive thinking. The antidote to our negativity (they will say) is to focus on God and his goodness towards us; and in the thanksgiving and praise that will flow from that fresh focus, we shall find new strength to overcome our adversity and gain the victory. Maybe they will add that a good example of this is found in 2 Chronicles 20 where a vast army of Moabites and Ammonites were approaching Judah to wage war on King Jehoshaphat. Humanly speaking, Jehoshaphat couldn’t win but …
“After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the LORD and to praise him for the splendour of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: “Give thanks to the LORD, for his love endures forever.” As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” (2 Chronicles 20.21-22).
The power of praise! Jehoshaphat and his people shifted their gaze from the forces arrayed against them and focused instead on the enduring love of God. In giving thanks for that, they opened the door for God’s resources and power to flood in and redeem their situation.
Or what about Acts 16? Another good example. Paul and Silas had been severely flogged, thrown into prison, and had their feet secured in stocks. But what happened …?
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.” (Act 16.25-26).
The same principle: look to God rather than at the adversity that besets you; give thanks and praise for his goodness and you open the door to victory.
Yes—OK. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Let’s not forget that Paul also wrote Ephesians 5.19-20: “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Give thanks … for everything. And “everything” means everything. Not just the things we perceive as blessings. Not just the goodness of God. But also—and perhaps especially—the thing we perceive as the adversity! Commenting on the word “everything” in this verse, John Chrysostom, one of the Early Church Fathers, said: “even if it be disease or poverty.”
Is that what Paul really meant? If so, it’s very different from the way we usually interpret his exhortations to thanksgiving.
Well, yes, there can be little doubt about it. Look at 2 Corinthians 11.18ff and 12.5ff. A catalogue of disasters—imprisonments, stonings, floggings, shipwrecks,starvation, disease—all of which Paul says he “glories” in. Why? Because, he says, Jesus has told him:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore, Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12.9-10).
This is a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it? So contrary to all we are taught and naturally believe. How easily we despise weakness in ourselves and others. And when difficulties, discomforts and disasters invade our pleasant lives, how strenuously we strive to rid ourselves of them. Meanwhile—until they are gone—we see thanksgiving as a coping mechanism which has little to do with the adversity itself.
But, for Paul, thanksgiving is far more than that. It is not merely counting our blessings and being grateful for them so as to put our adversity into perspective: it is being grateful for the adversity too, because (Paul insists) the adversity—however trivial or extreme—provides an opportunity for us to discover more of God’s grace and strength and provision. And underlying even that is Paul’s foundational belief that: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.“ (Romans 8.28).
Please note, however, that neither Paul nor I am saying that the “thorn” in our flesh is in itself good. The common cold virus is not good, nor is a malignant tumour, nor is a stillborn child, nor is a failed marriage or a defaulting debtor. But Paul’s core belief is that if those and similar things enter our life then, by their very entry into it, they become things through which God immediately begins to work for our good—and that is the reason we are called upon to give thanks for them. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and the Bible nowhere pretends that that in itself was a good thing. But later, when confronting his brothers as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph told them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50.20). The betrayal was bad but, in the life of Joseph, by the grace of God, it worked for good and, for that reason, Joseph could and did thank God for it.