“Giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). How is this possible? How can any person do this? Being in constant pain? Dealing with a diagnosis that includes the dreaded disease of cancer? Experiencing terrible and permanent injuries from accidents or war? Losing one’s crop to devastating storms or drought, or one’s earthly possessions through job loss and economic collapse? Give thanks always for all things? It’s insulting! It makes one angry! How can anyone do that?
The answer is that not everyone can do that, nor does everyone have the right, ability, or desire to do so. Perhaps this sounds extreme and insensitive, but it is true! Thanksgiving is a spiritual exercise which only the believer in Christ can perform. The verse with which we began, written by the apostle Paul, was addressed to believers. The context deals with exhortations to holy living, walking in the light, and the duties of the Christian life. And this is not the only time or place that Paul deals with this subject: “For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many, redound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice! . . . Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4, 6). “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).
From these passages, several things stand out very clearly. First, thanksgiving is not a matter of particular or special occasions, but must be a constant attitude. Second, thanksgiving is not concerned with some things while others are excluded. Third, thanksgiving is a work of grace by the Lord Jesus Christ in the heart.
As believers, we must surely be reminded of these truths again and again, so that we do not fall for these false ideas of thanksgiving—that it is only a matter for special occasions, that we concentrate only on material things and set aside that which we consider evil in order to give thanks only for the good—but that we beseech God for the grace of a thankful heart.
The Word of God says that we must give thanks always and in everything. This means that giving thanks must be characteristic of our entire life and walk every day and every moment of our existence. It means that giving thanks must not be centered in things, for true thanksgiving is, first of all, joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we cannot and may not be thankful for “things,” but that in giving thanks for these, we may not pick some and exclude others. It must include all things— all our experiences in life, no matter what they may be, regardless of whether they be pleasant or unpleasant according to the flesh.
To be sure, we are thankful for all that is good. This includes our earthly life and all of its gifts, powers, and talents, health and strength to labor, daily bread, clothing, shelter, prosperity, and abundance; in addition, there are our homes and families and our place in church among the people of God. And we must not forget the rain, sunshine, fertility of the soil, growth of the seed, the grain of the fields, the fruit of the trees and vines, the market prices for our produce.
But there is also the other side of life described as “nothing but a continual death” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10–12), for which we must also be thankful. Death surrounds us on all sides; there is not only joy, but sorrow; not only health, but sickness, pain, suffering, and agony; not only abundance, but also scarcity and want; not only peace, but war and rumors of war including the threat of a nuclear holocaust; fruitful and barren years; rain and sunshine, but also hail, fire, and scorching heat. All of these are included in the exhortation to give thanks. Seemingly, it is a paradox. How can this be? Who would give thanks for poverty or the continual world crisis? Which one, who has been sick for weeks or months, gives thanks to God for the very bed of sickness? And when God comes and takes a loved one in the prime of life, who looks at it in such a way as to give thanks? What farmer praises the Lord for the storm that destroys his crops in a matter of minutes? Or for that virus strain that wipes out his animal herd in a matter of days?
It does, indeed, seem paradoxical to be thankful in all circumstances since “to give thanks” presupposes that we have received good things; it implies that we are conscious of them and that we count them, naming them one by one. Moreover, it presupposes that we rejoice because of the good we have received and do receive. At the same time it implies that we know that they are all gifts from God, that we merited none, and that we are unworthy of the very least of them. To give thanks is to point to the Giver of all these good things and praise His holy name for all His goodness, grace, mercy, and loving-kindness as such become manifest in all His benefits to us. But to give thanks implies more. It means that we give thanks and rejoice because of everything we receive and that we acknowledge our God as the giver of it all.
Such giving of thanks for the natural man is impossible, for though he may be rich in things, he is not rich in God. Consider, for example the parable of the rich fool (cf. Luke 12:16ff.). Here was a man of abundant wealth who did not acknowledge the fact that it all came from God. He was rich in the things of this world but not in God, failing completely to understand that corn is in no way food for the soul. To such, thanksgiving to God in everything is foolishness, for they are “men of the world who have their portion in this life” (Ps. 17:14). The apostle Paul described them in Phil. 3:19: “Whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.” So foolish are they that they think their houses will continue forever (cf. Ps. 49). They really do not give thanks at all, for they rejoice in things and never in the Lord. They don’t know the meaning of Christ’s words: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). What a cruel thanksgiving it would be if measured only by the abundance of things! That would mean it is only for the rich, with nothing to say for the poor. And so the rich eat, drink, and are merry, for tomorrow they die (cf. Luke 12:19–21). They do not glorify God, nor are they thankful.
Although hard for people to understand, favorable circumstances are not necessary for thanksgiving. Material prosperity is not necessary for us to have grateful hearts before God. We see this when men of God lift their hearts in praise even while caught in the deepest affliction and trouble. When Paul wrote “in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you,” he was in a dungeon with chains on his arms and legs and guards on all sides (cf. Acts 16). Regardless of all this, Paul could say: “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord have become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:12–14). Everything need not be pleasant and pretty before we can be thankful. In fact, we are to rejoice and give thanks for the troubles and difficulties themselves: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience; and let patience have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4).
True thanksgiving is possible only for the believer in Christ. Does he rejoice in evil, in pain and suffering, sorrow and grief, war and depression? Or does he, by the sheer power of will, set his fact like flint and show himself victorious over the sufferings of this present time as did the Stoic of old? Of course not! So how is it possible to give thanks always and in everything? BECAUSE HE BELONGS TO CHRIST! Christ is the solution to this apparent paradox because He is Lord of all. Before the foundations of the world He was anointed to be heir and Lord of all things (cf. Col. 1:16–18; Rom. 14:9). He is the Head of His body, the Church, for which He came in the fullness of time to realize their redemption by taking upon Himself their sins upon the accursed tree, carrying them away forever. But death could not hold Him. He was raised by God for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25). And at the appointed time He will come again to take His own unto Himself in heavenly joy and glory where they shall see Him face to face (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 22:4), or if we should live that long, usher His own into a new heavens and a new earth where only righteousness dwells (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10–13).
Thus, only the believer who belongs to Christ can be truly thankful because he knows that God is in control and by His providence governs and upholds all things. Therefore he can be patient and thankful both in adversity and prosperity, and for what is future, have complete confidence and trust in God, his heavenly Father (cf. HC Q28), because he knows that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), and because he “knows that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
I refer you to the example of Job, an Old Testament saint who belonged to Christ. Once a man rich in material things, in a very short period of time, Job loses all his possessions and then, far more precious, all of his ten children. Does Job rebel and curse God? No, instead he gives thanks in one of the finest confessions on record: “And Job said, ‘Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ ” (Job 1:21). Job did so not because of all his possessions, but because he knew something: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that He shall stand at the last day upon the earth, and though worms have destroyed my skin and body, yet in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job. 19:25–27).
Therefore, to belong to Christ means that He is my Lord in everlasting love, for I was in Him when He died and was raised and am now in Him by faith, looking for His return. That is why it is possible for us to give thanks always and in everything, for to belong to Christ does not only mean redemption and comfort during this life concerning my sins, but also that what seems evil in this present time is, in reality, for my good. Returning one more time to the apostle Paul with whom we began and who knew from experience much trial and suffering: “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11–13).