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).
It is our heart’s desire to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly day by day. May this reading of your Scriptures and our time thinking over your Word tonight be instrumental in just those things, for the sake of your Son Jesus. Amen.I once had a woman, in another church, challenge me and scoff me when I pointed out 1 Thessalonians 5.18. “Oh come on Mike! How can that be? In every circumstance? Really?!?” It truly perturbed her, to say the least. But her challenge to me has made me think on this over the years, especially as I have run into some personal circumstances that were discouraging, discombobulating, and demoralizing; but also as I have stumbled into situations in other people’s lives that have looked dark and fearful. So, how can we give thanks in every circumstance?
God’s Will for us. I regularly hear people asking, “What’s God’s will for me in this or that situation?” Most of the time this is because we are confused or perplexed about a decision we are confronted with. “Do I marry Bobby or Ivan? Do I take this job at Chesapeake or that one at Bank of America? Do I attend Oklahoma Christian University or the University of Central Oklahoma?” I understand this perplexity. Coming back to Oklahoma and coming to this congregation (HPC) required a bit of contemplation about how to make the right decision. We prayed, we pondered, we talked with one another, and we talked with wiser friends. But no lightning bolts came out of the sky, no deep and thunderous voice shook the earth. The decision came from weighing pros and cons, listening to wiser and more observant friends, and Anna and I exposing our heart desires to God. If you’re in that situation right now then let me encourage you to read a little pamphlet titled: “Guidance: Have I Missed God’s Best.” I think you will find it insightful and helpful.
I bring all this up to come at this passage. There are simply some things that are indisputably God’s will for us! In 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8, for example, holiness in marriage, holiness in sexuality and holiness in singleness are God’s unquestionable will for us! And here (5.18) Paul says that giving thanks in every circumstance is God’s will for us! Indisputable! Undeniable! Unquestionable! Incontrovertible! But how?! How can I be thankful when I have loved ones who reject Christ, and whose lives are racing down the tracks of an emotional and moral train wreck? How can I be thankful when there’s more month than there is pay check? How can I be thankful when there are troubles at home, multiple crises at work, death lurking around a family member? It’s easy to be thankful when the sun shines, the bank makes a wonderful error in my favor, or my political candidate wins the election and actually fulfills his campaign promises. But we’re to give thanks in all situations and circumstance! I know it’s hard to fathom, but if we believe God is good (think of last week’s sermon), and that he has our best interests in mind, and wants us to glorify and enjoy him forever, then we must have it settled in our minds and hearts that Paul’s words here are God’s direction for us, and we’re to be thankful in every circumstance. And when we’re not, we may need to ask his forgiveness and turn toward gratitude.
But now I want to jog on over to the “How” of this. How can we be grateful and thankful in every circumstance?
But How? These are something I picked up from Jonathan Edwards, in his book The Religious Affections. He made a careful distinction between the gratitude of the hypocrites, and the truly grace-generated, gospel-grounded gratitude.
The gratitude of hypocrites is largely a gratitude for the benefits of God: “…when persons have affections towards God only or primarily for benefits received, their affection is only the exercise of a natural gratitude” (173). This is the person who only likes you because you give him chocolates, or a pay raise, or a gift. He might say, “Thanks a bunch for that” every time you give him something, but after a while you begin to wonder, “Is he pleased with the gift and doesn’t give much weight to me the giver?” The problem is the desire for the things, not the YOU who is giving the things. As Edwards points out further, when they hear the Gospel, they’re “pleased in the highest degree in hearing how much God and Christ make of them” (177). In other words, they are the center of their gratitude. They are the gravitational pull of their joy. They turn the 1st answer of the Shorter Catechism on its head, believing that God’s chief end is to glorify them and enjoy them forever!
But the grace-generated, gospel-grounded gratitude comes from the one who has “love to God for what He is in Himself;…” (173). This is the person who finds himself in amazement at God, who he is, how his love is rich and ravishing. He is “inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights and the cream of all their pleasures; it is the joy of their joy” (175). As Edwards says further on, the person swamped by the grace of God first rejoices “in God as glorious and excellent in Himself, and then secondarily rejoices in the fact that so glorious a God is theirs” (176).
Let me put it in the words of a pastor who saw his country crumble before his eyes, national enemies swarm his country, economic, judicial and educational chaos erupt onto every street and in every city in his day. Augustine, senior pastor of Hippo North Africa, said this: “Alas, it is easy to want things from God and not to want God himself, as though the gift could ever be preferable to the giver.” And in another place he said, “I call charity the movement of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for his own sake.”
Here I believe is the way forward. Here is how we can rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances: Instead of focusing, in the first place, on what I can get from God and have gotten from God (or not gotten from God), I start focusing on God himself; who he is in himself. And that can only be seen in Jesus Christ. As the Scottish theologian Donald MacLeod is fond of putting it throughout his writings, “There is no unChristlikeness in God.” That’s why Paul says here, that this is the will of God IN CHRIST JESUS for you! So, let me hand off to you three things that are really one thing:
1) When your world is caving in—like Augustine’s world was caving in, throw out the pity party, and ponder God. Ponder God as he has shown himself in Jesus Christ. Ponder his beauty, majesty, compassion, generosity, love, and holiness. Ponder that he is all these things without you, and before anything ever existed. Ponder that he is not unsettled by your pandemonium. Ponder that in love he willingly entered into our rottenly chaotic world, broken friendships (Judas betrayed him), religious and political and judicial crookedness at their worst. And after absorbing all this, he rises majestic, glorious, and triumphant. Ponder him; fall in love again with him. Embrace him for who he is. This is God’s plan for you; to enjoy making much of him, because he is THE greatest good!
2) Then, bring to him your circumstance. Bring him your broken heart, your fear and your anxiety. Give him your hand, like the little girl I once watched give her daddy her hand to reassuringly steady her as they walked across a treacherous road. And instead of looking for the divine fixer-upper to miraculously turn your rusty circumstance into gold, look for him in it. Look for his love and his careful gift of making you holier in it. Look away from your self-centered pleasure-seeking and your “My-comfort-first” mindset to see him growing you larger with the greatest gift possible: Himself!
17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal… 5.7 for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 4.16-18; 5.7).3) Finally, check yourself. Are you an idolater? Are you more in love with the things, the blessings (name-them-one-by-one), than you are with the Giver of the things? Thanksgiving really begins here—swamped and ravished in “God as glorious and excellent in Himself,” and then in “the fact that so glorious a God is” yours because of Jesus Christ. Or (to put it a bit more simply) in the words of Robert Hays, retired PCA minister and friend of mine and John’s, “Are we only thankful for the what, and not for the whom?”
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73.25-26).