“In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NASB).
If I take what the apostle Paul wrote here about giving thanks too literally, then I might appear a little nutty to some folks. So, it is a good idea to put it into context. In fact, let’s look at what Paul wrote just before this: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). Always rejoicing, always praying, giving thanks in everything frankly seems impossible if taken literally. If that is what Paul says I must do in order to follow Christ then I am not sure if I can even come close to the standard.
So, is Paul being literal here? I think the answer is both “yes” and “no”. When a friend or loved one dies, when I am enduring a trying medical diagnosis, when I see people gunned down at a concert or while gathering for worship on Sunday…rejoicing and thanksgiving won’t be my first impulses. Praying, yes, rejoicing, no.
When life isn’t just throwing curve balls that are hard to hit, but bean balls aimed at your noggin, it’s hard to give thanks. When the hurricanes and floods come (metaphorically or physically), rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and sometimes (if we are honest) even praying can become difficult. So, is Paul just some super disciple who always rises above worry, pain, and trial to give thanks in everything? Does he expect that of me too? The answer is “yes” and “no”.
Paul suffered for the cause of Christ in unimaginable ways and he stayed constantly concerned for the churches he had established (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). He wasn’t always literally rejoicing, literally praying without ceasing, or literally giving thanks in everything. However, it is clear from multiple Scriptures that these things were his goal and his desire, and more often than not a reality in his life. If we could actually count the times he rejoiced, prayed, and gave thanks we would surely see a life dedicated to these things.
My grandfather and grandmother Gunnells lost their youngest child in a tragic accident when he was only three years old. There was no rejoicing at the loss. There was no thanksgiving for the accident. There were many prayers of frustration and lament, and for comfort and peace. As time went on, the pain lingered but their hearts also turned toward a new day. When my grandmother was near death herself, after battling cancer, her heart was turned toward seeing her young, innocent son once more. She knew he was safe in the arms of Jesus and she longed to see him again. The blood of Jesus led her to rejoice, to give thanks, and to pray without ceasing to the One in whom she had placed her trust to redeem her pain.
When I struggle with doubt and find myself down and out for what I do not have or what I have lost, I will often list out my blessings. When I do, I can rejoice. When I think honestly of what the Lord has done for me and what He has promised, I can give thanks in everything and my prayers never cease.