On this Thanksgiving week, the last thing you want to think about this morning is another mass shooting. This is the last thing I wanted to write about as well. But it feels disrespectful to the victims and their families not to acknowledge the horrific tragedies of recent days. From the nightclub shooting in Colorado Springs on Saturday that killed five and injured twenty-five people, to the deaths of three University of Virginia football players, to the killing of four University of Idaho students a week ago, heartbreak has dominated our recent headlines.
We are commanded to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). When I read this text in hard times, I take refuge in the fact that we are to give thanks “in” all circumstances, not “for” them. God’s word does not require us to be thankful for tragedies and suffering.
However, Paul also left us this instruction: “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father” (Ephesians 5:20). Here we are told to give thanks always, in every moment and circumstance. We are to do so for everything, with no exceptions.
Does God really expect us to give thanks for mass murder? For a pandemic that has taken more than a million American lives? For an immoral and illegal Russian invasion that has killed forty thousand Ukrainian civilians and displaced fifteen to thirty million people? For North Korea’s escalating threat to launch nuclear weapons against the US and our allies?
The context is key
As is so often the case, context is the key to interpreting a biblical text. Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5:20 to give thanks “always and for everything” is preceded by his command, “Be filled with the Spirit” (v. 18). This is one of the most significant commitments and disciplines of the Christian life. It means to choose every single day to submit our lives to the Holy Spirit, asking him to empower us, guide us, and use us.
Everything that follows in the text is dependent on such empowering by the Spirit of God.
Paul continues: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart” (v. 19). Authentic worship, both private and public, flows from the power and leading of the Spirit.
So does a lifestyle of gratitude: “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). And so does a lifestyle of mutual service: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21).
To live a life of gratitude, we must first live in the power and leading of God’s Spirit. He then produces transforming “fruit” in our lives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). These “fruit” enable us to live gratefully no matter our challenges and circumstances.
But there’s more to the story.
“Love will ultimately win”
We are obviously not to be grateful for sin. To the contrary, we are commanded to “cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). We are to “flee” from sin and to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).
Nor are we to measure gratitude by feelings. Tim Keller was right: “It is one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do.”
Instead, we are to “give thanks” in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father” (Ephesians 5:20). These are actions we take, not feelings we try to conjure up.
Let’s take the UVA tragedy as an example. We are not to be thankful that three young men in the prime of their lives were senselessly and brutally murdered. We are not to be thankful that their grieving families will never be the same. We are not to be thankful that the entire UVA family is devastated as a result of this horrific tragedy.
But we can give thanks for Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry, who were remembered by their coach at a memorial service on Saturday as “being a light to the world.” Mr. Davis’s family said he always went to church when he visited his family and insisted on sitting on the first row despite his six-foot-seven-inch frame so he could be sure he heard every word. His coach assured those gathered that we have hope because of what Mr. Perry, Mr. Davis, and Mr. Chandler left behind. “Love will ultimately win,” he said.
We can give thanks that the families of these three young men and the larger UVA family are not grieving alone. Jesus is weeping as we weep (John 11:35); our Father “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
And we can give thanks that it will not always be like this. Even in the midst of tragedy, the writer of Lamentations could pray, “You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life” (Lamentations 3:58). And one day “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). We can claim this promise: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (v. 5).
“Every moment, thank God”
Rick Warren understands suffering better than most, having lost his son to depression and suicide. No matter our circumstances, he advises us: “In happy moments, praise God. In difficult moments, seek God. In quiet moments, worship God. In painful moments, trust God. Every moment, thank God.”
In which “moment” do you find yourself today?
NOTE: As we move into the bustling busyness of the Christmas season, I encourage you to reorient your heart and mind every morning through our Advent devotional, The Songs Tell the Story. In each short chapter, my wife Janet Denison provides the origin story of a well-known Christmas song. Then, with her typical biblical insight, she encourages us by tying that story to the truth of Scripture. Since the readings start Dec. 1, I encourage you to request your copy of The Songs Tell the Story today.