“give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Does God really mean that in every circumstance that we are to be thankful? How can we possibly be thankful when things go horribly wrong? It’s easy to understand that we are to give thanks for all the blessings that come our way. Today is an entire holiday in the USA set aside for doing just that. People will gather with family and friends all over the country, have a big meal, and give thanks to whatever or whoever they think is the force behind their good fortune. But what do you do when it is hard to see the blessing in the midst of the tragedy?
I have noticed two approaches to the verse. One is hardly worth mentioning but the other is commonly thought to be the answer to the dilemma of being thankful in hard times. The first is to put on some almost other-worldly expression of thanks that totally ignores the reality of the situation. It is the person who is smiling in the midst of tragedy saying, “well praise God and give thanks in all things”. They come off as being on some sort of “spiritual ignore reality drug”. As to the second approach, often in the midst of tragedy there is some ray of hope that allows us to be thankful, like when you totally destroy your car in an accident but no one is seriously hurt. Certainly we can be thankful for that. But it still qualifies as an easily recognizable blessing that has come your way.
There is a great deal that is right and good in the second approach. In fact there is something that is very provocative about a faith that allows you to see the blessing in the midst of tragedy. It means that your focus is more on what God is doing for you than it is on what has gone wrong. It has a similar feel to Paul’s words to the Philippians when he said that he had learned to be content in all situations. He learned that because he kept his eyes on the sovereign Lord whom he served and not on his own expectations or desires or comfort.
But what do you do if the tragedy outweighs the blessing. It’s easy to give thanks when the car is wrecked but you are not. You and your passengers are worth far more than the car. What if two people died and you lived, then what? How do you give thanks then? How does a parent give thanks when a child dies? How does a young man give thanks when after just over a year of marriage his wife dies, having battled cancer the entire eighteen months? How does a city give thanks when airplanes crash into buildings and leave more than 2,000 dead? How do you give thanks when you are sitting on a bench in an African hospital praying with a 12 year old boy who is homeless, has AIDS, and is so malnourished that you can count his vertebrae through the thick jacket on his back as you place a hand on him while you pray. Does God really expect us to give thanks in situations like that? The short answer is yes.
Such situations may be the ultimate test of our ability to trust God no matter what. They bring us to the same place as Job when after the most unbelievable series of tragedies said, “Even though the Lord slay me, still I will trust Him”. There can come a point in our lives when we can’t find that bit of blessing in the hardship, when the pain far outweighs the good we can see. It is at that point that we must trust a sovereign God.
Whenever we gather for a time of corporate worship at Northland Church we remind people that we gather in order to worship God for who He is and for what He has done. We worship God for His character just as much as for the amazing things He does. Giving thanks in hard situations must follow that same wisdom. Even if we find it hard or impossible to thank God for some specific thing in our lives we can still give thanks for who He is. Paul did not say to thank God “for” every circumstance, but “in” every circumstance. The distinction is crucial. It means that even when you can’t find anything about the circumstance to be thankful for, you can and must still thank God that He is sovereign. You can still thank God for His love and mercy, even in a time when it feels so distant. You can still trust him as Job did. That trust will be evident in thanking God for who He is even when what He is doing makes no sense, is painful, and leaves you bewildered.
Today is a good day to begin to give thanks, not just for the good things in your life, but to give thanks to God for who He is. Ultimately that should be what we are most thankful for, that God is the kind of God we can trust no matter what our circumstances and not matter how limited our understanding of what He is doing in those circumstances.