Why Be Thankful?
Giving thanks to God in the midst of hardship.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Thanksgiving is the one holiday we celebrate that directly asks us to do some introspection. Each year it invites us to assess our life by reflecting on the blessings we are most thankful for. For many people, Thanksgiving is a joyful time, and reflecting on life’s blessings over the past year is often a blessing in itself.
Other years, however, life’s challenges can leave some of us feeling empty, sad, or discouraged. Certain circumstances—such as the loss of a loved one, family conflict, loneliness, or financial struggles—can make it especially difficult for us to be thankful. As we assess our life, we may in fact be left wondering why we should be thankful at all.
The Bible, however, instructs Christians to live a life of thankfulness and gratitude. Many of the Psalms, for example, direct us to give thanks and praise to God. The passage above even commands us to give thanks “in all circumstances.” But how can we be thankful in the midst of hardship?
Before we begin to answer that question, we must understand that Paul is not telling us to give thanks for all circumstances but to give thanks in all circumstances. He is not saying that we are to be thankful for our hardships in themselves, but rather that we are to have a posture of thankfulness towards God in all situations,despite the very real challenges that we might be facing.
Christians can sometimes feel as if they are somehow being less faithful to God if they are experiencing grief, unhappiness, or sorrow. This passage is not saying that, but rather that we are to be thankful even in the midst of circumstances which are truly painful.
So how can we be thankful despite our circumstances? The answer is tucked away in the first two verses, which instruct us to “rejoice always” and to “pray without ceasing.”
Commenting on this passage, Charles Spurgeon once said that “When joy and prayer are married their first born child is gratitude.” In other words, acts of rejoicing and of prayer are what lead us to thankfulness. It is only when we learn to rejoice continually and to pray unceasingly that we can learn to be thankful despite our circumstances.
A good definition for the word "rejoice” is activated joy. That is, when we rejoice, we are actively moving our hearts to remember the joy we have in God. Christians can rejoice “always" because Christian joy is not determined by our circumstances but is instead rooted in God himself.
Consider Paul’s words from earlier in this chapter: "For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). Here, Paul reminds us that our ultimate source for joy has been utterly fixed by God; we are not destined for wrath, but for salvation and to live with Christ.
One primary way that we can activate joy in our lives is through prayer, which we are commanded to do here “without ceasing.” This doesn’t mean that we are to bow our heads every moment of the day, but rather that we are to learn to silently acknowledge and remember God moment-by-moment. This passage teaches us that we have access to God at all times, which means that we are able to draw comfort from him in every situation.
When we learn to activate our joy through reflection and prayer, we will learn to be thankful no matter what circumstances we face in life. Because, no matter what, we can be thankful to God because of Jesus. It is because of Jesus that we have been given access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). It is because of Jesus that we are able to draw near to God (James 4:8). It is because of Jesus that we can hold onto the hope of eternal life (1 John 2:25). Even in times of suffering we have a source of joy and comfort that goes deeper than our heartaches, which is the love of God in Christ.
Let this be an unending source of joy and comfort for us that we may live a life of thankfulness to God in all circumstances and in every season of our lives.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.