in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
Being thankful can often be the most difficult thing to do, especially when going through difficult times. In those moments, the glass is half empty rather than half full, and what’s the point of making lemonade from life’s lemons? Being thankful is the biblical counterpart to positive thinking. In the world, man is made the centre of the equation and the Bible puts God at the centre. Positive thinking puts man’s mind in the driver’s seat, but being thankful puts God squarely in control. Thankfulness is intended as a way of life, whereas positive thinking is essentiall a conditioned response.
Many people assume that today’s verse reads ‘for everything give thanks,’ which is most likely where much of the problem comes in. It’s next to impossible, in our human frailty, to given thanks for extreme situations – the death of a loved one, for example, or poverty or life-threatening conditions. We can remind ourselves over and over that all things work to the good of those who love Him. We can repeat these and other verses continually, daily, over and over, but they don’t change the fundamental issues we’re facing or make it any easier to give thanks for them.
The other problem we face in the issue of thankfulness is that it goes against the ‘me’ grain. Praise is often much easier than giving thanks because it focuses on God entirely – who His, His nature, His works and His power. Being thankful, however, involves the me-God relationship. Being thankful is our response to what God has done for us. It’s personal, and as a result, it’s subject to our moods, emotions and state of mind.
Giving thanks to God is essentially the first ‘step’ in coming into the presence of God. There is, of course, no hard and fast pattern to our fellowship with Him, but there are principles that apply which explain much of the process. In thankfulness, we enter His gates. It’s us turning our attention to Him. It’s us recognising what He has done in the past for us. It’s an acknowledgement that we need Him which leads us to ‘enter in.’ Thanksgiving is the gateway to the presence of God.
Keep in mind that we enter in, not the other way round. Yes, we have Christ in us and that doesn’t change. But to live in Christ essentially means to live in an awareness of and surrender to Him and the life He brings. It demands interaction and engagement, and this same principle applies in giving thanks. Praise focuses on God, His nature, character and power, and so lifts our attention away from self and onto Him. Worship is the response of surrender and adoration that the focus on God leads us into. These are principles to help us understand the process, not hard and fast rituals we have to adhere to at all times. He is a God of logic and reason, even when He’s turning the wisdom of the world on its head.
Thankgiving, then, is our way of entering into the presence of God. Keep in mind here that it’s we who enter in, not God. We essentially step into His ‘territory’ in which His ‘rules’ apply, but it’s a stepping stone for us, a place of transition from me to Him. At it’s most basic level thankfulness is essentially an earthy response. It involves our carnal senses and engages our emotions, mind, will and body. First and foremost, the focus is on me. I am thankful for what He has done. It’s literal and it’s self-centred.
But this is the point where ‘in Christ’ is so important. Giving thanks leads us into Christ and the transforming power of His life in us. Consider how many times the Gospels mention Him giving thanks to the Father. Giving thanks was, for Him, a fundamental attitude. It was integral to who He was and what He did. He remained thankful in all things – which essentially means despite all things. Entering in through the gates basically means entering into Jesus, because He is the Way to the Father.
Thankfulness has a spiritual aspect that’s easy to overlook in hard times. It’s the means God uses to lift us out of the world and put us in Jesus, and so make it possible for us to reach him. Unthankfulness, on the other hand, leaves us outside the gate, hollering in frustration and wondering why God has shut us out. The truth is that we do the shutting out. It’s basically self inflicted. God hasn’t moved, but we having taken that first critical step towards Him. He won’t drag us in, but He will welcome us. He waits with faithful love and patience for us to adjust our attitudes.
Part of this spiritual transformation that giving thanks brings is the fact that it creates hope. People need hope, and the Bible acknowledges it over and over. We’re wired to respond to hope. The problem with hope is when it’s an illusion or unfounded, but hope which is based on faith in God and His Word is solid spiritual hope. This is the hope that emerges through thanksgiving. We recognise what God has done. We recognise that He is able and willing to do. Finally, we recognise that, if He has done and is able and willing to do, He will remain faithful to Himself and continue to do. Faith stirs into hope and hope encourages us to move forward.
It’s important to remember that giving thanks does not in any way belittle or disregard the reality of the situation we may be in. It doesn’t mean that we have to sift through the wreckage to find something, however ridiculous, that we can give thanks for. Some situations, in that moment, contain nothing that is thankful material. Thanksgiving was never intended as an emotional band aid but rather as an attitude, a way of life. It’s actually ridiculous to say: ‘well, Lord, my husband left me, but I give thanks for that because You saved me from a long, unhappy marriage.’ It makes no sense at all and makes a mockery of the entire principle behind thanksgiving.
Sometimes, there is nothing in the moment that makes sense or from which we can draw comfort. The attitude of thankfulness, though, looks to what is – what God has done, even though it may have little direct relevance to the current situation. Being thankful is essentially rebuilding the faith foundation. It is finding all the ‘bricks,’ the things God did for us, and using those to refocus our attention on Him, who He is and what He is able to do.
God intends that we live in Christ Jesus. While the principle of entering into the gates, the courts and the holy place is relevant, salvation brings complete, total and ongoing access to the presence of God. Jesus is with God. In Him, we are with God. We live the reality of this truth by living in the attitude of Christ whose entire focus was centred on the Father in thankful submission.
Like most things though, the attitude can be learned and reinforced by including it in our daily lives. We start by recognising and giving thanks for the small daily details – the unexpected parking space right outside the door, someone visiting when we need the encouragement, a chance conversation or random article we read which reminds us of His love for us. This is not at all like positive thinking, which trains the mind to repeat various mantras until they become a ‘thought habit.’ Thankfulness is an attitude of the heart, a spiritual dwelling in Christ. It’s astonishing, if we just take the time to look around us, how many things we can actually be thankful for – even when the sky seems to be falling on our heads.
A thankful attitude is a gift of grace. It’s a means provided by God Himself to enable us to overcome self and the flesh and reach out to Him. It’s the means whereby we live in Christ. Yes, we need renew our minds. This means recognising our own strongholds – wrong thought patterns that raise themselves up against the knowledge (truth) of God – and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Thankfulness is a manifestation of the obedience of Jesus. It speaks submission and surrender, an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God but also of His love, compassion and mercy. A thankful heart is one which has learned to trust in the certainty that God knows and is able and willing.
We’re intended, in Christ, to live separated lives. It is Jesus Himself who sets us apart. It is by Christ in us that we can be thankful despite the circumstances and in all things. Thankfulness connnects us to the joy of the Lord, which is our strength. But, like most things, it is a choice. We either receive the gift of grace or we reject it an wallow in our situation. God’s provision is perfect. Our response is usually the problem.
Thank You, Father, for teaching us so patiently. Thank You that You’re always there to welcome us, to draw us in and be our strength in our darkest, hardest moments. Teach us, by Christ in us and the work of Your precious Holy Spirit, to be thankful, to live thankful, so that our eyes may be fixed always on You. We acknowledge our weakness, our frailty, and our tendency to put ourselves first. Forgive us, Lord, and bring us to the place where we see only You.