Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thess. 5:16-18)
Really, Paul? Give thanks in everything? No matter the circumstance?
Already, you’ve rocked my world. You’ve told me to rejoice always – not just when life is going well. That means that even though I’m tempted to rejoice only in the good times, you want me to rejoice in the bad times too.
You’ve told me to pray constantly – not just when life is going badly. Here, you’ve dealt with the opposite temptation. Even though I’m tempted to pray only in the bad times (when I sense I need something), you want me to pray constantly – in the good times too.
Paul, you’re calling me to a way of life that doesn’t depend on my circumstances. And what bugs me about this call is that you aren’t some idealistic pastor asking me to do the impossible. You are doing this yourself. You’re writing from a prison cell. Your happiest, sunniest letter (Philippians) is written when your circumstances are terrible.
And now, you’re telling us to give thanks in everything. But how? I want to be thankful, but come on… even for bad things? Even for trials?
That’s when I notice you’ve provided the key to thankfulness in all circumstances. You talk about the will of God in Christ Jesus. Everything that comes at us in life comes through the filter of God’s love to us through his Son. Once we see the victory achieved in the worst of places (the cross), our view of our circumstances is turned upside down.
Paul, your gospel upsets all my expectations. I can no longer define good and bad circumstances the way the world does. The cross messes with me. There, the worst of circumstances brings the best of blessing.
Your command to thanksgiving reminds me of a story I heard about interpreting good and bad events:
A Chinese man lived on the border of China and Mongolia. In that time, there were battles and wars between the two countries. This Chinese man had a beautiful mare. But one day, that mare jumped over the fence and went over the border into Mongolia. The Mongolians stole the horse. The Chinese man’s friends came to him to console him, “O what terrible news!” they said.”Why do you think it’s bad news?” the Chinese man asked. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”
After a couple of days, the mare came back to the man, together with a stallion. The friends of this man came around him and said, “What great news!” “Why do you think it’s good news?” the man asked. “Maybe it’s bad news.”
Later, while the Chinese man’s son was riding the stallion, trying to tame him, he fell and broke his leg. The friends came again, “O what terrible news!” Again, the Chinese man said, “Why do you think it’s bad news? Maybe it’s a good thing.”
After a week, another big war broke out between China and Mongolia. A Chinese general came into the town and took all the young men with him to fight in the war. All those young men died, except for the son of the Chinese man. He couldn’t go to war because he had broken his leg. The Chinese man told his friends, “See? The things you thought were bad were actually good, and the things you thought were good were bad.”
So now, Paul, I’m starting to understand how little I understand. I’m starting to figure out that I haven’t got God figured out. I’m starting to see that resting in the providence of God brings comfort.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace,
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
Ultimately, I have two responses to trials. Genesis 42:36 or Romans 8:28. In Genesis 42:36, Jacob is going through a great trial, and he says, “All this has come against me!” It’s a self-centered view. I’m in the center of the universe and everything is happening to me.
But Romans 8:28 says that everything works together for good for those who love God. That picture puts God in the center, so somehow I know that even the bad things are working out for his glory and my ultimate joy in him.
The choice is now clear. I can look at my situation and see bad things that are against me or I can see them as things working for my good. Decision: Despair or Thankfulness. Thanks, Paul. You’re right. The gospel takes my despair and transforms it into thanksgiving.