Thankfulness is a complicated state of being. When life is good, and someone is getting what they want, it is easy to achieve. When life is hard, and nothing goes right, it is hard to have a spirit of gratitude. In fact, for many people, difficult times or circumstances are the easiest excuse to justify ingratitude.
The Bible has much to say about being thankful, and its message runs counter to the instincts of man. In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul wrote, “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).
Despite this seemingly difficult task for people, the Bible is full of hope, of God's unshakable promises, and the sufficient reasons needed in order to give thanks in all things, even in 2020.
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What Does It Mean to “Give Thanks in All Circumstances”?
As difficulties pile on, it can be easy to look around and see nothing good, sinking into despair, perpetual anger, and an inability to feel gratitude. The Bible does not pretend there is no suffering, with the Book of Ecclesiastes acknowledged there will be, “a time to kill … a time to break down … a time to weep … a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:3-4).
In order to be thankful at all times it is important to have sources of joy, something to always be grateful for, and reminders to turn to those sources of joy and good things when times are hard.
What should be the Christian’s ultimate source of joy? To get through loss, suffering, and chaotic times, it would need to be something permanent and unchanging. Jesus prayed to His Father, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). He wants those who love Him to have His joy, and to be thankful for those things which bring joy.
Jesus had joy when:
- A sinner repented and became saved: Luke 15
- When the Father’s will is done: Luke 10:20-24
- When thinking about eternity together John 16:20-22
The Bible also encourages believers to be thankful for:
- Jesus’ everlasting words: John 17:3
- God’s unchanging nature: Psalm 102:27
- Salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15:57
Ultimately, the Bible encourages believers to focus on eternal things. It is important to thank God for earthly blessings, but in order to always be thankful, there must be things to thank God for that do not rust, decay, or disappear. The way to always give thanks is to remember to thank God for His eternal gifts and promises.
When the Bible says to give thanks in all things, it asks people to thank God for blessings both visible and invisible. When He blesses, thank Him, and thank Him for the things unseen in which Christians place their hope.
Of course, the verse does not mean that every second of every day Christians should be muttering “thank you God” under their breath. Instead, it encourages an attitude adjustment, and a re-focusing of priorities. Thanking God for blessings through praise and prayer is the first step, and the second is by turning away from earthly wants and desires, and focusing on the future promises that will matter forever, that are guaranteed by the Word of God, so there is always something to thank Him for, even if current circumstances are difficult.
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What Is the Context of this Verse?
The Apostle Paul wrote the epistle containing this recommendation to be thankful to the church at Thessalonica, a Greek city with Gentile believers who had questions about their new faith.
One of their persistent questions was about the Rapture - the moment when the Lord returns to take His church to Heaven before the Tribulation - and when it would happen. The first eleven verses of chapter five focus on this moment, where Paul encouraged them to live diligently, waiting for the Lord, but not to give up everything and wait around for it either. Instead, they are to live for God, obeying His commandments and commissions out of love.
The rest of the chapter is a continuation of that encouragement about living a Christian life. His audience was eager to meet their Savior face-to-face, and earnestly speculated about His swift return. Paul wanted them to look forward to that return, but that living for Christ should be their priority. Part of living for God, according to this passage, includes giving encouragement to those who were weak in their faith, to work hard, to love and respect one another, and to reject evil. In the middle Paul told them to rejoice and be thankful, no matter what came their way.
Because these people were so eager to see Jesus, it was easy to look around at the broken world and be ungrateful for what God gave them, in light of the glory and joy of being with their Lord and Savior. Being encouraged to rejoice and give thanks for God’s blessings is one of the ways Paul wanted them to live for God.
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What Else Does the Bible Say about Being Thankful?
The Apostle Paul focused on thanksgiving in several of his letters to the churches in central Asia. At the end of his letter, Paul gave the Ephesians similar advice as he did to the Thessalonians; “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-21).
Paul is not the only contributor to the Bible who encourages an attitude of thankfulness, rooted in God’s blessings, and His eternal promises. King David was a man who experienced the highs and the lows of this world. He started as the youngest brother and a lowly shepherd, becoming the hero of his people, hunted by his king, then made king himself. He had an affair and lost the baby. His oldest son turned against him, and that son also had to die for David to return to his throne.
Even during the lowest points of his life, David’s Psalms are full of praise and thanksgiving. He declared, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1). David could thank God for the good things in life when he had them, and for God’s eternal love and goodness when he had nothing.
From the Biblical perspective, being thankful is inherent to being a created being. God gave life to humanity, therefore people should give thanks. God provided a way for people to be redeemed, and that is something for which people should be grateful.
The Book of James summarizes the nature of God’s goodness, and the characteristics that inspire gratitude in people when it says, “ Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). In essence, in this life, God gives everyone what they need – physically and spiritually – by blessing them with opportunities to take those blessings and turn them into investments in eternity by sharing the Gospel and helping others. He has the same character yesterday, today, and forever, as described in Hebrews 13:8.
Because God is constant, His promises will be fulfilled, His loving character does not change, and His will does not alter. Because of this consistency of character, and His blessings, meditating on these truths inspires gratitude, which should frame and form the way Christians go through life. This attitude shift makes a more consistent feeling of thankfulness possible, allowing believers to give thanks in all circumstances - even persecution.
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How Can We Give Thanks, Even in Hard Times?
In 2020, the world has faced a multitude of calamities all at once. From COVID-19, to political unrest, and financial hardships, it seems harder to find the blessings for which to be thankful. Everything seems chaotic and uncertain. Focusing on blessings can seem difficult, so find simple and creative ways to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and thank God in all things.
1. Count Your Blessings
This piece of advice can seem cliché, but it can be effective. Making a list of past, present, and future mercies and gifts from the Lord will remind you of how generous He is. Making lists or putting sticky notes in places around your home can be visible reminders to give thanks.
2. Reflect on How God Has Redeemed Your Troubles in the Past
God always takes the bad things that happen and uses them for our good and His glory, making us more Christ-like in the process (Romans 8:28). “ As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). While some of those moments will remain shrouded in mystery until Heaven, the Holy Spirit does clarify some of the times God worked in that way. Pray and meditate about how God pulled you through hard times in the past, and be assured He will get you through these trying times.
3. Give Back to Others in a Meaningful Way
One way to focus less on oneself is to be generous, and it does not have to be financial. Ask your pastor if there are church members in a nursing home who would appreciate a phone call. Set up a virtual game night for a group of kids who have not seen each other in a while. Pray the Lord will put someone on your heart to invest in, and thank Him for the opportunity to be a blessing to someone else!
4. Spend Some Time Reading about Heaven
It can feel like God’s promises are far away, and when life is full of daily pain, financial hardship, and loneliness defines daily life, focusing on distant blessings is hard. The Bible gives its readers glimpses into what eternity with Jesus will look like. Study some of these passages and focus on the blessed assurance of the future.
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A Prayer to Be Thankful in All Things
When the temptation to wallow in ingratitude begins to creep in, or when the Holy Spirit nudges with a gentle reminder that God should be thanked for His many, daily blessings, go to Him in prayer.
Holy Father, I come to You, in all humility, to thank you for the many blessings that You bestow upon Your people. Thank you for taking care of us, and loving us. Thank you for providing exactly what we need, when we need it, according to Your wisdom and not ours. Most importantly, thank you so much for sending Your Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price for our sins, and thank you for His resurrection from the dead. Help us to remember everything You have done, and continue to do, for us. Holy Spirit, please remind us frequently of God’s mercies, and increase the fruit of gratitude in me.
Lord, there are so many difficulties in this world. We face trials, temptations, disease, chaos, uncertainty, and evil. In our human weakness, we struggle to be grateful. Give us the power, the heart, and the attitude to be thankful in all things. Even in the darkest times, You love us, You are with us, and You saved us from our sins. And for that we are grateful. Help us remember these facts and be thankful.
In Christ’s name, I pray,
Hitchcock, Joel. Thank You God The Power of Giving Thanks in Everything and for All Things. Independently Published, 2019.
Kamin, Rabbi Ben. The Blessing of Sorrow: Turning Grief into Healing. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2018.
Mohler, Mary. Growing in Gratitude. Epsom: Good Book Company, 2018.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.