Thankful in All Circumstances

By David Feddes

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Have you ever been tempted to take the Bart Simpson approach to thanksgiving? In one TV episode of “The Simpsons,” young Bart sits down to a meal with his family. It’s his turn to give thanks, and he says something like this: “Lord, my dad earned the money to pay for this food, and my mom worked for hours to cook it. What did you do, God? Thanks a lot for nothing!”

Bratty Bart Simpson is just a cartoon character, but aren’t you ever tempted to think the same way? Maybe you’re glad to be in the situation you’re in. You’ve got a good job, a fine house, a good car or two, you’re healthy, you enjoy friends and family, you own a few stocks that have done well and your finances are looking good—you have a lot to be glad about and not much to gripe about. But does that mean you have to be thankful to God?

Sure, you’re glad to have your job or business, but you’ve earned it, right? Sure, the house is great, but God isn’t paying the mortgage—you are. The car is a beauty, but you bought that car; God didn’t. You’re healthy, but that’s partly because you take care of yourself and partly because our society has excellent medical resources. What does God have to do with it? Your investments have done well, but God didn’t tell you where to invest—you made those decisions yourself. So yes, things are going well for you and you’re glad about it, but why should you thank God? Even your Thanksgiving dinner won’t be anything for which to thank God. You’ll be eating food that’s paid for and cooked by you or members of your family. What did God do? As Bart Simpson put it, “Thanks a lot for nothing.”

But maybe you have a different reason for telling God, “Thanks a lot for nothing.” Maybe you’d give God credit for good things in your life, but life just doesn’t seem all that good right now. If you’ve had problems with your job, or your business has gone under, how can you be thankful? If you’ve had family problems, how can you be thankful? If a loved one has died, how can you be thankful? If you’ve got chronic arthritis or you’re going through chemotherapy or face other health problems, how can you be thankful?

When Thanksgiving Day rolls around, most of us are glad for the holiday and the extra long weekend. But when it comes to actually thanking God, we may not feel like doing it. Giving thanks doesn’t seem fitting. If things are going well, why should we thank God for what we’ve earned? And if things aren’t going well, what can we thank him for? Thanks a lot for nothing!

Thanksgiving doesn’t come naturally to us, does it? And yet the Bible tells us, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Give thanks in all circumstances! Always thankful! That sounds like a tall order. Never thankful—that makes some sense if we adopt the Bart Simpson mindset. Or sometimes thankful—we might want to thank God when things go well. But always thankful?  Thankful in all circumstances? Thankful no matter what? Come on! How is that possible? What does this mean? And why should you and I be always thankful?

To get a grip on this, let’s look at a striking chapter in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 8. This chapter is part of a message God gave the Israelites through Moses 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 in the desert. Now they were ready to leave the hardships of the desert and to settle in a rich land. Their poverty was about to become prosperity.

As God spoke to the people through Moses, he knew that their experience of tough times in the desert might tempt them to be bitter about the hardships he had put them through. God also knew that, odd as it might seem, it would be even harder for the people to be grateful in the land of plenty. They would be tempted to become proud and self-satisfied and lose all sense of dependence on God and forget who was giving them everything. It’s easy to be ungrateful in the desert, but it’s even easier to be ungrateful in the land of plenty. To be always thankful, we need to know that in both the desert and the land of plenty, in both hardship and luxury, God is at work in our lives.

Thankful in Tough Times

Let’s consider first the desert experience. It’s not easy to give thanks in the desert. Maybe you’ve spent some time in the desert this year. You had a hard time of it. Your desert may have taken the form of a financial reversal, or the death of a husband or wife or child. Your personal desert may be a severe illness, or a shattered relationship, or something else that has been very hard for you. How can you be thankful in the desert?

In Deuteronomy 8 Moses was speaking to people who may have been asking the same question. They had just endured forty long years in the desert. Why should they be thankful? Well, if nothing else, they could be thankful for the fact that the desert was part of a bigger picture. Sure, the desert was hard, but where they had been before the desert? They had been slaves in the land of Egypt. So, no matter what troubles they faced in the desert, at least they weren’t slaves anymore. What’s more, they could be thankful that the desert wasn’t their final destination. They were headed for the promised land. They had a great future. So even if their present situation in the desert was unpleasant, they could be thankful that they had been rescued from a miserable and degrading past and that they were destined for a fantastic future.

How does that apply today? Well, it means that you can always be thankful to God, even in the desert of tough times, as long as you see and believe the big picture of what God has done in Jesus Christ. If you know that God has rescued you from slavery to sin and Satan, and if you know that you are headed for the promised land of eternal life, then you have great cause for thanksgiving, no matter what else is happening in your life. If you belong to Jesus, the tough times you’re going through are part of a bigger journey that leads out of Satan’s bondage and into God’s blessing.

If you don’t know the reality of salvation in Jesus, then you need to put your faith in him before another day goes by. Then, even if you’re enduring the hardships of the desert, you can always be thankful for what God has done for you in Christ.

You see, when God tells us to be thankful always, he isn’t just telling us to psych ourselves into doing this. 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.

No matter what hardships you experience, you always have a reason to be thankful if you are in Christ Jesus. 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 are. Focus on where you came from and where you’re heading, and you’ll be able to give thanks.

But that’s not all. There are reasons not only to be thankful in the desert, but even to be thankful for the desert. God uses the desert experience to accomplish important purposes in your life. In Deuteronomy 8 Moses tells the people,

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).

You can thank God for the desert—not because you enjoy it, but because God is accomplishing some important purposes in your life. 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 God 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 remember one woman telling about her experience of World War II. She talked about fear and death, about dear friends who flew off on a mission and never came back. She told a number of stories, touching and heart-breaking, and then said, “Those were wonderful times.” Wonderful?!

I’ve 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 meal would come from. And I’ve heard some of them say, “Those were wonderful days.”

Wonderful? How could they use the word wonderful? Well, there’s nothing wonderful about losing loved ones in a war or being uprooted in a strange land. 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 testify how hard times 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. Thankful in all circumstances—not because life is always pleasant, but because God is always God.

Some people have still another reason to be thankful for the desert: God has used it to discipline them, to get their attention and bring them back to a relationship with him. Maybe that’s happened to you. Perhaps you wandered far from the Lord, and only when your life became a mess and you found it completely unmanageable, did you cry out to God. A prison cell, a hospital bed, a divorce court, a bankruptcy, an addiction program—terrible experiences, but they drove you to cry out for God’s help and mercy. Your troubles were God’s discipline to drive you to Christ. Maybe you can 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.

Paul tells about a painful affliction, which he calls a thorn in his flesh. He pleaded with God to take it away, but God said to him, “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 give thanks even when you’re poor and weak? How can you be thankful in hard times? 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 the moment, then you won’t see any reason to be thankful in tough times. But if you know the Lord, you can always give thanks that he has rescued you from slavery to sin and Satan; that even in your problems he has a purpose and provides for you; that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, so that when you are weak, you become strong in him.

Thankful in Good Times

So far, we’ve seen why it’s fitting to give thanks in tough times. Now let’s think about giving thanks when times are good. Strange as it may sound, it’s often easier to be grateful in the desert than in the land of plenty. It’s often easier to be thankful in a shack than in a mansion. It often easier to be thankful when you’ve got just a day’s supply of food than when you’re set for life.

Back to Deuteronomy 8. As the people of Israel were getting ready to enter the land of plenty, 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, rich resources—not just a day at a time, but enough for a lifetime. Isn’t that exactly where many of us find ourselves right now? 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 society in history. We’ve got medical care, insurance, pension plans—we’ve got it all.

We’ve got a lot to be thankful for. But unfortunately, once we’ve got it all, we tend to become proud and complacent. Many people in the rich nations of Europe and North America have left church and ignore Jesus, while many poorer people in Africa and Asia are flocking to Christ. Success and security sometimes make people and nations self-satisfied. They lose faith. They lose dependence on God. They lose gratitude to God. 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. (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)

Once we’ve got it all, we face the Bart Simpson temptation.  Our attitude toward God is, “Thanks a lot for nothing. My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.  All that I have, I owe to myself or my family or modern science. Why should I thank God?”

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 plenty. Once they got there, all the resources and the health and the ability to generate wealth were all gifts from God.

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. 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. He felt that even if he failed, he would still have God, and that mattered more to him than anything. Eventually the business turned around and took off. When it did, this man knew his success wasn’t just due to his own hard work. He’d been working just as hard back when business was bad, when loans were piling up and the bank was breathing down his neck. First God humbled him, and then God blessed him with success. If his success ever tempts him to become proud, he only has to remind himself how low he was, and he remembers the truth of God’s Word: it’s the Lord who gives him the ability to produce wealth.

If you live in a rich and stable society, and you become successful and prosperous, your day-to-day dependence on God isn’t as obvious as when you’ve got next to nothing. But don’t forget who gives you your health, your opportunities, your success. It’s not just you. It’s God. It’s the same Lord who created the world and brought salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. So remember the Lord, and give thanks in all circumstances.

What does being thankful involve? Deuteronomy 8 speaks of two forms our thanksgiving must take: prayer and obedience. We show gratitude to God by saying “Thank you” in our prayers and by obeying his commands in our actions. Always thankful means always prayerful and always obedient.

So whether you’ve been in the desert or in the land of plenty, in poverty or in prosperity, remember: the secret of gratitude isn’t in circumstances but in Christ. St. 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)

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.