With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas upon us, I’ve been reflecting on family time and the deeper meaning of these holidays. The apostle Paul offers wisdom for us all.
In writing to the converts at the great crossroads city of Thessalonica, Paul encouraged them on some major topics in life: the second coming of Christ; theological correction; moral direction and general lifestyle choices. During this holiday season, it’s the last of these thoughts that has caught my attention.
Note the following passage from I Thessalonians 5:14b-18. It is filled with wisdom we would do well to practice during this time of the year. We are supposed to be relishing life, not frantic to crash down the doors of Walmart on Black Friday, or quietly critique the moist-o-meter from the Christmas ham.
“Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.” (The Message version)
I love Paul’s reminder to encourage those less fortunate, to make life less about “me” and more about the needs of others. It’s wisdom to guard our mouths when family can easily get on our nerves.
But then Paul throws in a line of text that has troubled many. Essentially, Paul tells us to be thankful no matter what happens. A traditional translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Really, is that what we are supposed to do, too?
As a pastor I’m often asked to shed light on God’s will for someone’s life. That is a pretty weighty request, but Paul gives us all some answers. In fact, Paul identifies “thankfulness” as God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. Did you catch that, or simply read over it?
God’s will for us is to live a thankful life, no matter what. It’s the “no matter what” part that gets to us. Did he really tell us to be thankful in all circumstances? Be thankful in sudden illness, when the car breaks down, when you discover what your kid put on Facebook, when creditors are calling? Being thankful in distress is the last thing we want to do, and it feels fake. I hate fake.
Let me clarify what many of us miss. We think God is asking us to be thankful for the circumstance. In other words we think God tells us to be thankful for the flat tire or the bad hair cut. Notice carefully the wording of this passage. Paul says to be thankful in, not for. Tragedy at any level is not God’s will, and neither is thanking God for it. So, what does God want, and how does this translate into real life?
In the circumstance, we can thank God that we are not alone. Jesus said that He would never leave us or forsake us. In times of trial, we can be thankful that there is comfort in the presence of a merciful and gracious God. We can be thankful that Jesus understands our pain — He endured the betrayal and shame of the cross. Being thankful does a healing work in the midst of circumstances. It doesn’t promise to remove them, but rather ti ease the weight of them. Thankfulness lifts our spirits and reminds us that life is more than the moment and bigger than the mountain.
The great reformer, Martin Luther, once said that when we think life is at it’s worst, we need only to reach down. I would humbly add, be thankful in the reaching.
Paul’s advice for this season and any other is to be an encouragement to those less fortunate, patient with all, attentive to the needs of family, to guard our hearts and mouths when life gets heated, to always look for the best in others, to choose cheerfulness over misery, to pray always and discover the many reasons to be thankful, no matter what happens.
If your holiday isn’t Food Network perfect, or filled with the laughter and glow of the Hallmark Channel, I encourage you to shift your eyes from the propped-up Hollywood “must haves,” to what you are blessed with.
Get out a pad and pencil and write those blessings down, put them on your mirror and refer to them daily.
Embrace Paul’s advice and learn to live a thank-filled life. I think you will discover more peace, joy and freedom whatever circumstance that life’s journey may take you through.
The Rev. Tim Johnson is senior pastor of New Joy Foursquare Church, 3 S. Colville St. in Walla Walla. 509-525-0733 • www.newjoychurch.org