We live in a world where rough things happen. Despite all our advances in technology, everyone in this room will still die. We still get sick. We still have financial challenges. We have the heartbreak of wayward children. We still have to deal with the perversity of sin that we can still find stirring under our own breastbone. In other words, as it says in Job, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. How are we to respond? If we want to avoid platitudes, tough times demand tough thinking.
“In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
“Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” (Eph. 5:20).
Summary of the Text
The context of the Thessalonians exhortation is this. Paul is delivering a rapid-fire series of exhortations to them, including esteeming your leaders, being at peace with one another, warning the unruly, comforting the feeble, and so on. He then tells them to pray without ceasing, and comes to deliver our text. Right afterward, he says not to quench the Spirit. Now this cluster of exhortations shows that Paul is not assuming that the Thessalonians are somehow living in a la-la land, where it is quite easy to “give thanks in everything.” There are tough challenges in the same breath. This is not an exhortation only for those who live under marshmallow clouds and glittery rainbows, and who cavort in the meadow with sparkly unicorns.
In Ephesians, we find something similar. Right after a warning that the “days are evil” (Eph. 5:16), leading on to a caution about drunkenness (v. 18), Paul tells them to fill up on psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and tells them to “give thanks for all things.” This is what it means to be filled with the Spirit.
Reasoning Within the Constraints of Scripture
We are Christians, and so we should want to do as we are told. We should not want, under pressure, to reinterpret what God must have “meant.” We were not told to be “realistic.” We were told to give thanks in and for everything. This means that it is time for us to put on our big boy pants. “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (1 Cor. 14:20).
We have to learn how to argue our case with God, as the psalmist frequently does. We must avoid, at all costs, murmuring in our tents, the way the children of Israel did in their tents in the wilderness. We may press our case with God, but we may never forget that His infinite and holy character is the only possible foundation for any sane argument. If that foundation is missing, then we have no argument, we have no complaint, and nothing is wrong with what is happening to us. You may appeal to God, and you may do so with loud cries. Jesus did that (Heb. 5:7). You may argue with God. Many holy men and women did that. You may not accuse God. You may not try to become a devil to God. You may not adopt into the premises of your argument anything other than the promises of God, grounded as they are in the character and attributes of the immutable and holy One. In short, whenever you argue with God, both of your feet must be firmly placed on the covenant of grace.
One Premise You Must Have
If God is up in Heaven, wringing His hands, and saying “oh dear” along with the rest of us, there is no possible way for us to do this. Since God wants us to do this, requiring it as He has, He wants us to get this premise down into our bones. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We live our lives “according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). And God saved us by grace through faith because we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
So we are not being asked to thank God in and for an isolated anything. Everything that happens is part of a purpose, plan, plot, stratagem, and so on. God is running a play. God is telling a story, and so you thank God for this verb’s place in the story. God is not telling you to thank Him for that same verb in an infinite, godless vacuum. No—there is no such place.
Of Course Not
Now it is psychologically impossible for us to thank God for the sin when we are in the middle of committing it. But that is a limitation created by the sinning. Such a limitation does not place our disobedience outside the story—others may thank God for how He is using our sin for His glory. Remember that whenever we thank God for the cross of Jesus Christ—which we are to do constantly—we are thanking Him for the worst murder that was ever committed on this planet (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28). We are thanking Him for the murder, and we are thanking Him in it. What we are not doing is joining in with the spirit of murder.
Now for the Hard Part
When the pain is sharp, when the burden is heavy, when the event is uncertain . . . the wait is long. We don’t mind waiting when we have something to divert us, but if the pain, or the burden, or the anxiety prevent us from being diverted, all we have is a long and interminable wait. “Wait on the Lord: Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: Wait, I say, on the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).
“But why do we have to wait?” we complain. We are happy to have patience, so long as we can have it now. But God does not want you in a day-at-the-beach story. He wants you in an adventure story. And have you ever noticed that your worst experiences are frequently the best stories later?
Walk it Through
Take “lousy experience x,” the thing that just happened to you this last week, and which still has you reeling. How do you process it? What precisely are you to do? You pray a prayer, something like this: “God in Heaven, I understand and believe that You govern all things for Your glory and our good. I believe that You are my Father, and that You do all things well. Therefore, I want to thank You in my trial and for my trial. Specifically, I want to thank You for lousy experience x, and ask You to receive my praise, as I sing the Doxology. ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow.’”
Say to Them of Fearful Heart…
So it is not enough to speak the truths of God. We must speak the truths of God, supported by thereasons of God. “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: Behold, your God will come with vengeance, Even God with a recompence; He will come and save you” (Is. 35:4).