“In all things give thanks!” That sounds like superficial pious nonsense, a sugary platitude spoken by an armchair philosopher or prosperity gospel preacher surrounded by gilded opulence. Who would dare offer such advice to a world filled with suffering, conflict, evil, violence, poverty, and death?
Before we dismiss the counsel, we best listen to the author’s description of his life’s experiences:
“Five times I have received. . . the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27).
While he was languishing in prison, waiting execution, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4: 4).
So, we can’t dismiss the Apostle Paul’s advice as some Pollyanna denial of reality or escape into a fantasy world of contrived positive thinking or feigned faith. He knew something we desperately need to know!
We all know hardships and struggles. Sometimes life’s suffering and anguish overwhelms us. For many, loss and grief are constant companions and tears frequently flow uncontrollably.
We live in troubled times: lost public decency and civility, hateful political warfare, desdaain for people who are different, mistrust of institutions, widespread shameless deception and crudeness, violence and threats of violence, needless poverty and injustice.
It is hard to hear someone admonish us to “in all things give thanks”. Perhaps, though, we need to learn some of the Apostle’s secret.
Paul doesn’t say that we are to be thankful for all things! He wasn’t giving thanks for shipwrecks, persecution, violence, suffering, hunger and poverty, dangers, and his own imprisonment and future execution.
He said in all things give thanks! The preposition makes a significant difference. Paul was convinced that within all circumstances there is potential good for which gratitude is an appropriate response.
The Apostle’s advice is grounded in his faith. The core of that faith is expressed in these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
There is more at work in our circumstances than meets the eye. God, whose very being is Love, is working with us to bring some good from whatever befalls us and the world. He was adamant that nothing in all creation, in life or in death, could separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:18-19).
I can’t comprehend the mess the world’s in today. Things are happening that I thought impossible only a few years ago, especially in the realm of politics, public policies, popular discourse, personal behavior.
What possible good can emerge? What is good is God working to bring? Maybe the failure of our politics and policies, the collapse of civility, and the exposure of personal immorality will point us toward God’s vision of a new creation. It is a world of compassion, justice, integrity, generosity, hospitality, and peace.
Neither can I explain the personal suffering, grief, and tragedies which encompass so many lives. I do know that from my own experience that love outlasts everything, that what the brain forgets, the heart remembers.
I know that when all seems to be lost there comes an unexpected and fleeting smile, or a moment of recognition, or a squeeze of the hand, or a passing glimmer in the eyes. And, just when I feel all alone, a note arrives or the phone rings or a knock is heard at the door.
Yes, I am learning that it is possible to “in all things give thanks”!