There are 13 letters from Paul in the New Testament, and in 9 of them he explicitly gives thanks for the recipients of the letter (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4-8; Eph. 1:15-16; Phil. 1:3-5; Col. 1:3-5; 1 Thess. 1:2-3; 2 Thess. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Phm. 4-5). The only exceptions are 2 Corinthians (where he jumps in with a word of comfort), 1 Timothy and Titus (for whom he implicitly gives thanks), and Galatians (who were in danger of apostasy). The mighty apostle Paul was a man marked by gratitude.
Paul did not have an easy life. He was beaten, slandered, misunderstood, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, and opposed by someone almost everywhere he went. Nevertheless, he was profoundly grateful. Being grateful has little to do with your circumstances. Sure, it’s easier to be happy when everything is coming up roses, but we’ve all known people who seem to have everything, and yet are terrifically unhappy. Conversely, we all know people who seem to find hidden blessings in every trial. Grumbler or thanks-giver: we really do have a choice.
Think of the godliest people you know, the saints you most respect, the ones you want to be like when you grow up, the believers you want to emulate and imitate. Almost certainly, the people you are thinking of are thankful people. Cynics and critics may be celebrated on social media and on late-night television, but they do not make great heroes of the faith.
Despite his many earthly reasons to complain, Paul was constantly giving thanks to God—and not mainly for food or health or safety (though all are worth remembering), but for triumphs of the gospel.
Look at the beginning of Paul’s letter and notice what he gives thanks for in the churches.
- Have gave thanks for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
- He gave thanks for their love for all the saints (Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
- He gave thanks for their steadfastness, especially in trials (1, 2 Thessalonians).
- He gave thanks for their spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians).
- He gave thanks for their partnership in the gospel (Philippians).
- He gave thanks for their history and mutual affection (2 Timothy).
It’s quite a list, especially when I consider the things that I’m most naturally thankful for (my family, a house, a job, good health, safe travel, nice holidays). These are all gifts from God too. There is no shame in thanking God for a million different things. After all, every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). But Paul’s list reminds us of the greatest gifts: gospel faith, gospel partnerships, and gospel victories.
As most Americans gather around the table this Thursday, take a moment to put on your apostle Paul hat and share what gospel graces you are thankful for. And while you’re at it, think about the friends and family you’d love to be like. Chances are they are overflowing with gratitude, even more than they are overflowing with turkey and stuffing.