November 21, 1993
“… give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
With Thanksgiving Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to think about giving thanks. For many of us, thanksgiving doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t seem very obvious why we should be saying thank you to God.
Some of us, whether we admit it or not, are like Bart Simpson. In one episode of “The Simpsons,” young Bart sits down with his family for a meal. When it’s his turn to pray and give thanks, he says something to this effect: “Lord, my dad earned the money to pay for this food, and my mom worked for hours to cook it. What did you do? Thanks a lot for nothing!” Bart Simpson is only a cartoon character, but he says what a lot of us are tempted to think.
Many of us are glad to be in the situation we’re in. We’ve got a good job, a fine house, a good car or two, we’re healthy, we enjoy friends and family–we don’t have a lot to complain about. We’re fairly pleased to be where we’re at. But that doesn’t make us thankful.
Sure, you’re glad to have your job or business, but you’ve earned it. Sure, the house is great, but who’s paying the mortgage? The car is a beauty, but that car is something you worked hard for. You’re healthy, but that’s partly because you take care of yourself and partly because our society has excellent medical resources. And every time you sit down to eat, you’re eating food that’s paid for and cooked by you or members of your family. So yes, things are going well for you and you’re glad about it, but why should you thank God, any more than Bart Simpson did?
For others of us, it’s hard to give thanks for a different reason: we just don’t seem to have much to be thankful for lately. If you’re one of those stricken by a flood or hurricane, how can you be thankful? If you’ve lost your job or your business went under, how can you be thankful? If someone close to you has died, how can you be thankful? If you’ve got chronic arthritis or you’re going through chemotherapy, how can you be thankful? What’s there to be thankful for?
When Thanksgiving Day rolls around, many of us have mixed feelings. Most everybody’s glad for the holiday and the extra long weekend, but when it comes to actually thanking God, it hardly seems appropriate. Whether we’re experiencing prosperity or problems, giving thanks doesn’t seem fitting. If things are going well, why should we thank God for what we’ve earned? And if they’re not going well, what do we have to thank him for? Thanks a lot for nothing!
Thanksgiving doesn’t come naturally to us, and yet the Bible tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Always thankful! That sounds like a tall order. Never thankful–that makes some sense if we adopt the Bart Simpson mindset. Or maybe sometimes thankful–when things go well, we might want to thank God. But always thankful? Thankful no matter what? Come on! How is that possible? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about.
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” If everything is going our way, it’s God’s will that we give thanks. If we’re going through terrible pain and hardship, it’s God’s will that we give thanks. “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
To better understand this, let’s go back to a striking chapter in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 8. This chapter is part of the message Moses gave to the Israelites as they stood poised at the edge of the promised land. Forty years earlier, the Lord had set the people free from slavery in Egypt, and for the past forty years, they had been wandering around in the wilderness. Now they were ready to leave the hardships of the wilderness and settle in a rich land. Their poverty was about to become prosperity.
What Moses did was show them how God had been at work in their lives during their wilderness experience, and remind them that what they were about to enjoy in the promised land was also God’s work. The temptation of the wilderness experience was to become bitter about the hardships God was putting them through, and the temptation of life in the promised land would be pride and complacency. To be always thankful, we need to keep in mind that in both the desert and the promised land, in both hardship and luxury, God is at work in our lives.
Let’s consider first the desert experience. It’s not easy to give thanks in the desert. For a lot of people this year, the desert took the form of a devastating flood. For others, it was financial reversal or the death of a husband or wife, or child. For still others, your personal desert has been severe illness or a shattered relationship.
Moses was speaking to people whose desert experience had lasted forty years. Why should they be thankful? One reason, said Moses, was because of where the desert fit in the bigger picture. He told them not to forget where they had come from and where they were headed: “the Lord your God … brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Dt. 8:14). The desert may be hard, but it’s better than slavery and leads to the promised land. So even if you’re enduring the hardships of the desert, you can thank God if you know where the desert fits in your overall pilgrimage, if God has rescued you from bondage and destined you for the land of promise with the people of God.
You see, the Bible doesn’t tell us simply to psych ourselves into being thankful always. The Lord tells us, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Being thankful always is possible only in Christ Jesus. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus has set his people free from the slavery of sin and from eternal death. He has set his people on the path to the promised land of eternal joy in God’s presence.
So apart from anything else, no matter what hardships you experience, if you are in Christ Jesus, you always have a reason to be thankful. Just as God delivered his ancient people from Egypt and brought them to a new land by way of the desert, so he rescues his people from sin and brings them to heaven by a pilgrimage that is sometimes hard. So don’t just focus on where you’re at. Remember where you came from and where you’re heading. No matter what your immediate circumstances, remember God’s gift of salvation in Christ, and keep on saying, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Deuteronomy 8 offers some reasons not only to be thankful in the desert but even to be thankful for the desert. Moses tells the people to remember God’s purpose and his provision for them in the wilderness. He says,
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
We can thank God for the desert, not because we enjoy it, but because he is accomplishing some important purposes in our lives. The desert is a place of humbling and testing, a place of dependence and discipline. In the desert, you don’t trust God because he makes your life comfortable, but simply because he’s God. In the desert, you have to live a day at a time, depending only on God. In the desert, you learn that God is all you have and that he is all you need. The desert is a place where you’re forced to live by faith, where you trust God’s purpose for you and rely on his provision.
I’m deeply impressed when I hear certain Christians describe some of the hardest times in their lives. I remember one woman telling me about her experience of World War II. She told about the fear and death, about the dear friends who flew off on a mission and never came back. She told a number of such stories, touching and heartbreaking, and then, just before we parted, she said, “Those were wonderful times.” Wonderful?!
I’ve also heard Christian immigrants talk about the hardships of immigration, of starting with nothing, of being in a strange land, of hardly knowing where the next day’s meal would come from. And heard some of them say: “Those were wonderful days.”
Now, there’s nothing wonderful about being uprooted in a strange land or losing loved ones in war. But the sense of dependence on God, the testing and strengthening of faith, the courage and heroism called forth by great challenges, the solidarity with others facing the same challenge–these were wonderful. Many people can testify to how their experience of the desert drew them into a deeper, more trusting relationship with God. They found that man does not live by bread alone, or by prosperity and security alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
This is something the prophet Habakkuk learned. When Habakkuk complained about how bad things were, God’s answer was that things would be going from bad to worse. A terrible army would be invading, bringing death and devastation. God’s people wouldn’t be able to take any comfort in their circumstances or in what they saw. “The righteous will live by his faith,” said God. Their lives would not seem worth living, aside from their faith in God. The Lord then gave Habakkuk such a deep sense of his majesty that, even in the face of war and famine, the prophet wrote:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Thankful always–not because life is always pleasant, but because God is always God. “I will be joyful”–not because everything is going my way– but “I will be joyful in God my Savior.” The Sovereign Lord is our strength, and he is with you and me every step of the way when we walk by faith in Christ.
Some people have still another reason to be thankful for the desert: God has used it to discipline them, get their attention, and bring them back to a relationship with him. Only when their life became a mess when they found it completely unmanageable, did they cry out to God. Maybe you’ve experienced that. A prison cell, a detoxification center, a hospital bed, a flooded field, a divorce court–terrible experiences, but they drove you to the foot of the cross and to cry out for God’s help and mercy. Maybe you can now echo the words of Psalm 119: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your words… It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees… I know, O Lord that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness, you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort” (Psalm 119:67,71,75-76).
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The man who wrote that sentence, the apostle Paul, knew how to be thankful always. Paul described his situation this way: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Paul knew that if he had nothing but Christ, he had everything.
A little later, Paul tells about a painful affliction, which he called “a thorn in my flesh.” He writes:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore [says Paul] I will boast all the more 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 12:8-10).
How can you rejoice in the desert? Only through faith in the grace of a God who saves and sustains his people. If the only measure of your life is whether you’re feeling pleasure or pain at a particular time, whether you’re happy or sad at a given moment, then you obviously won’t see any reason to be thankful in the sad times. But to people of faith, it’s possible to be poor and still say, “I am rich,” to be weak and still say, “I am strong” and to give thanks with a grateful heart for what the Lord has done.
Always thankful. So far, we’ve seen how God makes that possible in hard times. Now, in the time we have left, let’s consider the importance of gratitude in the good times. It’s ironic, but in some ways, it’s easier to be grateful in the desert than in the land of plenty. Sometimes it’s easier to be thankful in a shack than in a mansion when you’ve got just a day’s supply of food than when you’re set for life.
As the people of Israel were getting ready to enter the promised land, Moses told them,
Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and revering him. For the Lord, your God is bringing you into a good land–a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills (Deuteronomy 8:6-9).
Quite a change from the desert, isn’t it? Water, food, mineral resources–not just a day at a time, but enough for a lifetime. Many of us find ourselves in just such a situation. We’ve got it made. We’ve got homes that are beautiful and comfortable: water just by turning on a tap, climate control at the push of a button, light at the flick of a switch. We’ve got stores full of fresh fruits and vegetables and various kinds of meat. We’ve got more time and money to spend on leisure and entertainment than any civilization in history. We’ve got medical care, insurance, secure retirement–we’ve got it all.
We’ve got a lot to be thankful for, but unfortunately, once we’ve got it all, we’ve got a tendency to become proud and complacent. That’s why we need to remember where we came from and who gave us what we’ve got. Before the Israelites entered the land, Moses told them:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws, and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
Once we’ve got it all, we face the Bart Simpson temptation. Our attitude toward God is, “Thanks a lot for nothing. Everything I’ve got, I owe to myself or my family or modern science. Why should I thank God? My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”
That’s why the Lord says, “Remember where you came from.” The Israelites had been nothing but slaves. In the desert, they would all have died within a week without the Lord’s provision. God had carried them through the hard times. Without his help, they’d never have made it to the land of prosperity, and once they got there, all the resources and the health and the ability to prosper were all gifts from him.
A friend of mine certainly knows this. He’d been successful working for a company, and when he decided to strike out in business on his own, he was confident of success. However, he ran into hard times, and for several months, his business teetered on the brink of ruin. There were lots of tears and sleepless nights and prayers in those months, but also a growing trust in God’s care no matter what happened. When his business eventually turned around and took off, he knew his success wasn’t just due to his hard work. He’d been working just as hard back when the bank was breathing down his neck. God had first humbled him and then blessed him. Now, if his success tempts him to become proud, he remembers how low he was, and he remembers the truth of God’s Word: it’s only the Lord who gives him the ability to produce wealth.
Once we enjoy the benefits of a rich and stable society, our day-to-day dependence on God isn’t as obvious as it is when we’ve got next to nothing. But let’s not forget who gives us our health, our opportunities, our success. It’s the same Lord who created the world and redeemed us through the blood of Jesus Christ. So remember the Lord, and be always thankful.
Deuteronomy 8 reminds us of two forms that our thanks must take: prayer and obedience. We express our gratitude by praising God in our prayers, and by following his commands in our actions. Always thankful means always prayerful and obedient.
So whether you’ve been in the desert or in the land of plenty, in poverty or prosperity, remember: the secret of gratitude isn’t in circumstances but in Christ. Paul wrote,
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:12-13).
My friend, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Father, every good and perfect gift comes from you, and we thank you. Thank you for the supreme gift of salvation in Christ. Thank you for rescuing us from sin and setting us on the pilgrimage that leads to heaven. Thank you for the time in the desert when we were forced to give up on our own strength and lean on you. Thanks for all the good times, for the beauty of the earth, for the blessings of each hour, for the joy of human love, and again, thank you most of all for the gift of yourself. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.