What does 1 Thessalonians 5 18 mean?

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When the Bible changed my mind about thanksgiving

November 21, 2023 -

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a Bible sitting atop a wood table. By 4Max/stock.adobe.com

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a Bible sitting atop a wood table. By 4Max/stock.adobe.com

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a Bible sitting atop a wood table. By 4Max/stock.adobe.com

It can be frustrating when the Bible corrects my “biblical” theology.

One of my most common observations over the years regarding Thanksgiving came from 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I pointed out that “give thanks” is a present tense imperative, an ongoing command for all time. “All circumstances” leaves no loopholes—in every moment of every day, we are to “give thanks.”

But, I said, there is a loophole: the text calls us to give thanks “in” all circumstances, not necessarily “for” them. I taught that this saves us from being thankful for hard times and places. We’re not required, I told my people, to be grateful for such challenges, though we are required to find ways to be thankful in them.

If you’re dealing with cancer, for example, you need not be grateful for the malignancy, but you can find other reasons for gratitude: your doctors, medical advances, the care of your family, the compassion of your friends, and so on.

There is always a way to be thankful in your circumstances, I assured those I taught.

“Always and for everything”

Then I found Ephesians 5:20, which changed everything. Here the same writer enjoins us: “Give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Did you notice that the “in” we find in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is now “for”?

I looked it up in the Greek, hoping for a way out of my conundrum, but none was found: the Greek word huper means “for, on behalf of, because of.” The other conditions apply: “always and for everything.” Again, there are no exceptions or contradictions. Except this time, we are commanded to give thanks for our circumstances, whatever they might be.

How can we possibly do this?

Does Paul mean that we are to thank God for our cancer? For the death of a loved one? For Hamas’s horrific invasion of Israel? For the rise of antisemitism around the world? For growing persecution against Christians in our culture?

What are our options here?

Three unhelpful approaches

One approach would be to deny the reality of suffering, viewing it as Hinduism does as maya, illusion. It is human nature to react to pain in this way, using denial as a defense mechanism when we don’t have the capacity to deal with it at the time. However, denying problems seldom makes them go away. Cancer, when left untreated, usually metastasizes.

A second, opposite answer would be to consider evil to be good and pain to be pleasant. This kind of nihilism or masochism is directly contradicted by Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ grave and deep agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. No one can read the book of Job and still believe that pain is not painful or that it is somehow intrinsically pleasant.

A third approach would be to believe that everything that happens is a direct expression of God’s perfect will. Since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he can only want the best for us. As a result, suffering, no matter how painful, must be for our best since God caused it. I know believers who apply Reformed thinking in this way.

My problem here is that God’s perfect will is not always done in this world. He “desires all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4) and is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). However, all are not saved. This fearful scene is quite clear: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

This fact shows us that God has not only a perfect will but also a permissive will. I have no doubt that our sovereign Lord must allow all that happens in our world (Matthew 10:29). But I do not believe that he causes much of the innocent suffering of our world, from the Holocaust to Hamas’s October 7 invasion. Such actions are such a direct contradiction of his holy character and benevolent love (cf. James 1:17) that I do not believe they can be an expression of his perfect will.

In such times, I do not think we are to “give thanks always and for everything” because God caused “everything” and it must therefore be intrinsically worthy of thanks. To thank God for sin is sinful (James 1:13).

Thanksgiving “upon the bed of pain”

How, then, can we be thankful “for everything” this Thanksgiving week?

I propose a different approach, one that is grounded in my conviction that God redeems all he allows.

If this is true, we can know that God is working through all that happens in our world to achieve a greater ultimate good. I’m not suggesting that we will see or even understand this greater good in our lifetime. I have not seen enough good from the Holocaust to justify the murder of six million Jews. But I am convinced that one day, perhaps not until heaven, we will understand why he allowed this and how he used it for an even greater good than if it had not occurred (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

In this sense, I can give thanks “for everything” when everything is hard by thanking God, not for the pain, but for how he will redeem it. I can thank him for all the ways he will use this hardship for his glory and our good. If I am struggling with cancer, I can thank him for doctors I would not have met and compassion I would not have experienced apart from my illness. If I am grieving the loss of a loved one who died in Christ, I can thank him that, through death, they are home and well. If I am lonely and discouraged, I can thank him for his presence in my pain and use it to trust him with greater dependence.

As with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), we can trust God either to remove our pain or to redeem it. Such thanksgiving positions us to experience his presence (Psalm 100:4). And it serves as a powerful witness to others—when they see us trusting God with gratitude in the midst of suffering, they can know that our faith is both real and relevant. And they may be drawn to make our Father their Lord.

Charles Spurgeon testified, “I am certain that I never did grow in grace one-half so much anywhere as I have upon the bed of pain.”

Is there a “bed of pain” through which you can “grow in grace” today?

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