A friend of mine recently commented about how, with Thanksgiving coming, she is trying to learn to thank God even for “the hard stuff.” She’s basing her belief on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, which says “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
There’s no doubt that Christians are supposed to be a grateful people. There is so much to thank God for—his love, mercy, righteousness and goodness, our salvation, one another, his coming reign on earth, answered prayers, not to mention the endless blessings he bestows on us day by day, often ones we hadn’t even thought to ask for. For example, when’s the last time we thanked God for the air that we breathe? We hardly ever think about air, unless we’re in danger of suffocation or drowning!
However, sometimes I think we try to be more “spiritual” than necessary. Yes, we need to be thankful. And we need to be thankful even when things are going wrong. But we do not need to thank God for bad things. There’s a big difference between thanking God in all circumstances, and thanking him for all circumstances.
When we’re really hurting, whether it’s physical pain or emotional anguish, it can be very difficult to thank God for the good things He has done. We tend to focus on the negatives, becoming discouraged and grouchy, or even depressed. It takes an act of will to remember that God is giving us blessings even in the middle of our distress. Yet, doing so will help us take our eyes off our circumstances and get them back on God, where they belong. I’m sure God appreciates our gratefulness, but giving thanks actually helps us.
Consider the story of the Works family. You may have seen their story in the news. About five years ago, they were attending our church, standing in the parking lot after the service, when a gunman opened fire on them. The dad was suffered gunshot wounds to his belly. Two of their three teenaged daughters were shot and killed. A bit later, confronted by a security guard, the shooter killed himself. It was senseless, horrible, every parent’s worst nightmare.
What amazes both of us is that, in spite of all they have lost, David and Marie exude joy. They are an incredible example of giving thanks in all circumstances, and what can be more painful than the death of your children? But should the Works thank God that a man with an assault rifle gunned down their daughters? It seems a bit masochistic to thank God for things that are truly evil.
Yes, they are thankful that their girls are in heaven. They appreciate how God is using their story in great and mighty ways. Their ability to forgive the gunman and love his parents (who also lost a child that day) goes against everything in our culture. Their witness to God’s love has appeared in the secular press. They’ve helped thousands of hurting people. There is no doubt that God is working all things “together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). That’s the part we need to be thankful for!
No matter what, we can and should thank God for his grace and mercy, for the love that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for our salvation. Nothing circumstance is so awful that we are absolved of our need to give thanks in the middle of it. That’s enough to challenge us. Nowhere does the Bible teach us to thank God for everything that happens to us. What a relief!