Give Thanks in All Circumstances
In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians from Corinth in response to his friend Timothy’s report back, a good report coming back to him from Thessalonica. The theme of Thessalonians is “meant for more.” We looked at this a couple of years ago. What we mean by “meant for more” flows from the fact that this little letter is teeming with words like “chosen,” “entrusted,” “called,” “will of God.”
All of these highlight the fact that God is up to something really big and something really good, and he’s inviting us into that. And what he’s called us to is not ultimately dependent on us. Think about how he ends the book (5:24).
“He who has called you is faithful; he will do it.”
The caller is the doer. We are “meant for more,” more than giving ourselves to the worthless idols that promise everything and deliver nothing. God has called us to something much, much greater. And this promise, which he specifically states in verse 23 and which refers to complete sanctification at the coming of Christ, is following a set of three commands that I want us to focus on for a few minutes this morning. In verses 16 through 18, we are called to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. This is the classic Thanksgiving passage: rejoice, pray, give thanks. So, let’s observe at least three things about these three commands.
First of all, notice that they are comprehensive. When I say comprehensive, I’m not saying in the sense of negating other commands. I’m saying it in the sense that there is no part of our lives that doesn’t fall under the sphere of these three commands. Notice verse 16. And you fill this in. Help me out here. Rejoice when? Always. Pray how often? Without ceasing. Give thanks in which circumstances? Yikes! Notice there’s no wiggle room. No exceptions. No compartmentalization where I can say this part of my life does not relate to these commands.
The scope of these commands is dizzying. We reach for a barrier. We long for a limit. We think, “Okay, surely this doesn’t have to do with an avalanche of home repairs.” You know how they come in waves. So, the dishwasher is broken. Our house is full. The septic system fails. Our house is full of people. And then one thing after another. Does that mean rejoice always, give thanks in all circumstances? What about the conflict with my sister-in-law? What about the train that decides to stop on the tracks to park? That should be illegal when you’re trying to cross the tracks to get to an important meeting. What about when the doctor announces you have cancer? What about when you look at your living room that you just cleaned up which the kids just uncleaned up again? First of all, this is comprehensive.
It is all-encompassing. Number 2. Notice how these commands are connected. They’re related. They’re interdependent. What do I mean by that? Well, this comes out in the text a couple of different ways. First of all, the rapid-fire way in which they are written: rejoice, pray, give thanks. It’s like a mom saying to her son, “Joey, get yourself together, pick up your room, no more lounging around!” Are those three commands? Yeah, but they’re really one. You’re going after one thing. And in a similar way, there is a rapid-fire, one command after another that has a certain interconnectedness to it. As I rejoice, my prayers are energized, and gratitude overflows. The interdependence of these commands also come through grammatically.
In verse 18, where it says, “this is the will of God,” the “this” is singular. Now it could just refer to one of the commands, like to give thanks, but most commentators agree that it is better to see this “this” as referring to a way of living, a collective command. This way of living – a rejoicing, praying, thanking way of living which is “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” He’s not just talking about one part here. The “this,” which is “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” is referring to all three commands. They are connected.
Third observation. They are consumed. Consumed. And what I mean by this – look at verse 18 – “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In the original, it’s literally “into you,” which sounds weird to us in English. It’s “eis humas,” which is “into you.” This way of living, God’s will in Jesus, is worked into you, which sounds the opposite, because we typically take a command as coming from outside, but then having to be worked out of us, right? The command comes: “Rejoice!” and we’ve got to somehow summon up the joy that doesn’t seem to be ours, right? Get your act together. Start getting happy, start praying more, and be grateful!
And it feels weird for those to be commands because we think, “How do I just do that? Do I pretend to be happy when it’s not there?” Do I just, in the middle of a conversation, try to multitask, where I’m praying, and I’m talking, working? What does that mean?
And I think as we break this down, we see the language here is very much against a get-your-act-together, start-rejoicing, start-praying, start- thanking spirit. That’s not what he’s saying at all. Much more, he is saying,
“Believe who you are in Jesus Christ and his life and love is working this into you.”
How does that work? Think about who we’re talking about: Jesus Christ, the One who was about to suffer. He took a cup and he gave thanks. He took bread, knowing he was about to suffer and connecting this cup and this bread with the greatest injustice this world has ever seen, and he gave thanks. And then he turns to his disciples and says,
“This is for you. This is my body. This is my blood, which is for you. Eat. Drink.”
This is what I mean by consume. This is not something that we paste on from the outside. This is by faith. We live, experience, consume the life of Christ and as his life and love flow in and through us, it comes out in rejoicing, in praying, in thanking. The very One who is giving thanks at the worst time of his life is living his life in and through us. That is amazing!
And that’s what we mean by these commands are consumed by faith in Jesus, and then what God is commanding, God is providing. He’s not calling us to generate anything he doesn’t already give us in Christ Jesus. So, let’s test this in what we might think of as worst-case scenario.
Go all the way back to 1922. Corrie ten Boom. She was the first woman to be a licensed watchmaker in the history of the Netherlands. Remarkable woman. She was following her dad, who was also a watchmaker. When the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, the ten Booms began rescuing Jewish people who were being kidnapped and thrown on trains and sent to concentration camps.
Now they knew the risk, but the love of Jesus fueled them to do what they could do. They converted their watchmaker shop and home into a hiding place. This is all described in Corrie ten Boom’s classic book The Hiding Place. They rescued many, but a man pretending to be a friend in need turned them in. And Corrie, her sister Betsie, their 84-year-old father, and many other family members were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
It’s interesting that their dad even in his 80s was told,
“If you promise not to help Jewish people, we will not take you away because of your age.”
And he says,
“If you leave me here, I will help Jewish people.”
And they took him away.
Corrie and her sister Betsie ended up in Ravensbruck, which is the notorious women’s extermination camp. And despite being stripped of every piece of clothing, searched, and humiliated, Corrie miraculously was able to smuggle in a Bible. She and Betsie moved into Barracks 28. The building was rancid. Starving women were stacked on giant, square piers with hopelessness in their eyes. As Corrie and Betsie packed themselves into what was already an overpacked building, something bit them. It was fleas. Corrie heard Betsie praying,
“Show us. Show us how.”
What she meant was “show us how to live in a place like this.” Well, as soon as it was safe, Corrie took out her Bible and they picked up where they left off at the last camp. It was 1 Thessalonians 5. They came to verse 14. ”
We urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all.”
Betsie said, “That’s why we’re here. To minister to those we can minister to.”
And then they came to verse 15. “See that no one repays any one evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
They determined then they were going to seek to do good to everyone in their barracks and even to the guards. And then they read our text, verses 16-18. Now imagine reading this in Barracks 28:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Betsie exclaimed, “That’s it, Corrie! That’s his answer.” (His answer to the prayer, “Show us how.”) ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks.”
I stared at her, then around me at the dark, foul-aired room. “Such as?” I said.
Betsie, “Such as being assigned here together.”
I bit my lip. “Oh, yes, Lord Jesus!” “Such as what you are holding in your hands.”
I looked at the Bible. “Yes, thank you, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here.Thank you for all the women here in this room who will meet you in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie, “thank you for the crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly.
“Corrie,” she prodded. “Oh, alright. Thank you for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank you,” Betsie went on serenely, “for the fleas and for – ” “Fleas!”
This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” she quoted, “it doesn’t say ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us.”
And so, we stood in between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
So, for many months, they worked during the day. They would come home at night, hungry, hurting, sick, and they would open up the Bible when all was clear. And under a little light, they would read. And the crowd swelled. And as Corrie read, the Bible reading would be echoed down the rows, translated from Dutch to French to Polish to Russian to Czech and then back to Dutch.
What most of us would consider hell on earth, Corrie described, in one sense, she said these worship services, with all the languages, and all the crying out to God were previews of heaven. Many found hope in Jesus. Many lives were transformed, but the women could not figure out why there was no inspection.
There were inspections everywhere else, and it was many, many months later as they overheard a casual comment of a guard who would not go to Barracks 28, that they learned it was because of the fleas. And deep in Corrie’s heart, she realized, “Wow, something I refused to give thanks for was a means of so much grace.”
Now, I think it’s important for us to qualify that the text doesn’t say that we are to give thanks for everything in the sense that everything is good. Sin is not good in and of itself. Wrong is not good in and of itself. But when the Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” the “give thanks for all circumstances” is directly linked to the will of God in Christ Jesus being worked into you. It’s within the context of these sometimes very unjust, sometimes very horrible flea-ridden circumstances that God is doing his working in of the will of God in Christ Jesus, into us, through us, for us.
As Lore Ferguson Wilbert summarizes well,
“If we are only ever grateful for that which we enjoy or love or can see the eternal good in, we aren’t really thankful. We’re merely counting our blessings.”
Do you see the danger of that? Because I mean it’s fine to count your blessings, name them one by one. That’s good. But if that’s all there is to our gratefulness, that when the blessings don’t appear, then our gratitude dies, right? Or when we’re struggling in a situation like this to count our blessings because all we can do is count the fleas, then our gratitude is gone. What she’s saying is
“True gratefulness means seeing and trusting and believing entirely that what comes our way is God’s good and best will for us. It means trusting – really trusting – that if we don’t have a thing we desire, we aren’t intended to have it today. It doesn’t mean we can’t still long for it, hope for it, and ask our Father for it (and we should), but it does mean the troubles we face today are sufficient for today. And the manna (the grace) we have been given today is enough for the day.”
And for that, we rejoice always, we pray without ceasing, we give thanks in all circumstances. So, a couple of questions to think about.
First of all, what can’t you thank God for today? Now think about it. This is a really good test of the basis of our gratitude. It is fine to think of the many blessings that he has poured out on us. But where some of us are stuck is that thing that we feel like we can’t thank him for. And what I mean specifically is not that that thing is good in and of itself. It may not be. But what circumstances am I having trouble giving thanks for? Because that will suck away my joy. I won’t be able to rejoice always. I won’t want to pray because why talk to a God who has shafted me, and gratitude will fade. So, what is it? Think about it.
Some of you can immediately think of it. You know. And for others of you, it may be buried. I think it’s important to wrestle with this. What am I, that I’m currently walking through, am I refusing to give thanks for?
And the second question that flows from that is why, what am I waiting for? If I’m waiting till I can understand why he gives it… It’s easy to look back on the story and say, “Oh, that’s why the fleas were there.” But every one of us is experiencing things right now or will or have where we don’t have an answer yet as to the why. And God never says, “Hey, show gratitude when you figure out why,” because we might not right now, we might not in this life.
We will one day because as Revelation says all his people will cry out, “Just and true are your ways, Oh, Lord God Almighty.” One day, we’re going to look at all his ways, even the really broken ones to us, and say, “I get it.” but God never promised immediately or all the time we’re going to even have any idea why this is happening.
I live with a constant sense that I could have done more, and I could have done better. And I’ve realized that it is that craving, some of which is good because it’s true. I could have done more, I could have done better. But the lie in that can blind me to what God is doing and suck away gratitude. So, what is it that’s holding you back from freely and fully giving thanks? If you live your life trying to be smarter than God and figure everything out before you can give thanks, you will be a very sullen person.
And then finally, will you give thanks? If your faith is in Jesus, gratitude is an act of faith. It is an act of faith. You notice, God called Corrie and Betsie to give thanks way before any of it made any sense. Right in the middle of the mess, right in the middle of the uncertainty.
There’s something energizing about gratefulness that actually fuels us to be able to persevere, to open our eyes to what God is doing. And we begin, and it builds on itself. We begin to see more of what he’s doing, which fuels the rejoicing, which makes us want to pray and express gratitude, and those things are all connected.
So, will we today give thanks? If you don’t know Jesus Christ, this would be a beautiful time to humble your heart and say, “Jesus, this way of living, I can’t do.” It’s true. That’s why Jesus died for you. He paid for all your sin and all your inability, and he longs to live his life through you. And that miracle begins by saying, “I believe. Jesus, my confidence is in you, not myself. My faith is not in me. I can’t do this. But you live your life through me.
You wash away my sin. You turn my eyes away from my entitlement, stinginess, sullenness, greed, all those things that suck away the life of my soul. And fill me with your love and life that fuels me in a way self-determination will never do or never sustain.”
Father, we thank you for this short, powerful life-changing passage, and we pray that you would continue to grow the life of Jesus in us. Our confidence is in you. Your joy flows through us. Jesus, you were in constant communication with your Father on earth and that prayerful dependence flows through us. Your gratefulness in the face of the cross flows through us. Lord, you are not calling us to a delusional, fake it through hard times. We are honest about pain and fleas and hard things and horrific injustices. We face them squarely and we call them what they are, but in the midst of those, we are confident you are transforming us into the image of your Son, and for that we give thanks.
So, we pray that you would continue to grow us as a church in gratefulness, even as our culture heads in the opposite direction. May we shine as lights at work, in our community, simply by giving thanks, simply by pointing to the very source of all our good gifts. And may you receive the glory, in Jesus name. Amen.