Thanksgiving is upon us, just a few days away, and so it’s appropriate that we take a look at what the Bible says about giving thanks. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of giving thanks to God; this morning we are going to spend some time with First Thessalonians 5:16-18.
The American holiday of Thanksgiving goes back, officially, to 1789, when President George Washington declared November 26 of that year to be
“a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
The dates shifted from year to year, and from state to state, until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday of November as the official date. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the holiday from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday of November. I’m not sure when the idea of acknowledging the “many and signal favours of Almighty God” turned into “stuff yourself silly and settle in for a day of football,” but that’s what Thanksgiving has become.
The Scriptures don’t call for a day of Thanksgiving, but a life of thanksgiving, as we see in First Thessalonians 5:16-18:
1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 (NASB95) — 16 Rejoice always; 17 pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
These three phrases sound very simple, almost simplistic. They might sound like the advice a parent gives a child: don’t worry, be happy. But the truth is that they are the advanced side of life in Christ. Why do I say that? Because of the nature of the commands.
We are to rejoice always. The Bible tells us to rejoice in the Lord, in His incarnation, in His union with the Father, in the promise of His presence, in the Gospel, in our salvation, and that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, among many other things. That is, we are to rejoice in all things God, in all that He does and says, in His purpose and His kingdom and will.
The Bible also tells us not to rejoice in knowledge, ability, our good works, being better than others, having money or possessions, or positions of power. That is, we are not to be joyful over the things with which the world is obsessed, the very things which occupy so much of our time and energy.
And we are to rejoice always. Not sometimes – always. Not when life is good or pleasant – always. This is what really makes this a God-focused command. The reason for joy – eternal life in Jesus Christ – never changes, and the source of joy – the Holy Spirit – never dries up. We are to think according to the will of God, we are to act according to the will of God, and we are to feel according to the will of God.
So often we don’t feel according to God’s will, and so often we simply can’t feel according to God’s will. What do we do then? We confess our weakness and inability, and cast ourselves on His mercy, secure in His care and love.
Pray Without Ceasing
We are to pray in Jesus’ name, which is not adding the words “in Jesus’ name” to our prayers, but praying for that which advances His purpose and mission of seeking and saving the lost. We are to pray according to the will of God. We are to bring our requests before God, and leave them there, accepting His answer as best.
And we are to pray without ceasing. If these words literally mean “Do nothing but pray” then no one – not even the Lord Jesus – has ever obeyed this command. It obviously doesn’t mean “do nothing but pray,” but rather “do nothing without prayer.” There is nothing that you do, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, that cannot be made the subject of a believing prayer.
Prayer is not about getting God to give you the things that you want. Prayer is about your submission and surrender to the Lord. It is a way of aligning yourself with God’s will and purpose and nature. It is an acknowledgement of His greatness and provision and will. Mature faith in Jesus Christ means preferring God’s will to my own, to having things my way, or getting what I want. Mature faith in Christ means that God’s “No” is always better than what I asked for.
Paul learned that lesson; do you remember? He experienced a period of suffering which he called “a thorn in the flesh.” He asked three times, he says, for the Lord to take that thorn away. And God’s answer was to say “No,” because the “No” was better.
2 Corinthians 12:9 (NASB95) — 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
In the end, we pray without ceasing because we are command to pray without ceasing. It pleases the Lord when we live by faith, and not by sight, trusting that His “No” is always better than what we asked for.
In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
“Everything” here means every particular circumstance, every specific situation.
Let me point out that Paul doesn’t write “FOR everything give thanks” but “IN everything give thanks.” As with pray without ceasing, this command means surrendering ourselves to the Lord. If your turkey turns out well on Thursday, then you can give thanks FOR the turkey. But if the bird burns, or doesn’t thaw properly, or the neighbor’s dogs break into your kitchen and eat it, you can still give thanks IN that situation.
This is true because you have a promise from the Lord, recorded in Romans 8:28.
Romans 8:28 (NASB95) — 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
There is NOTHING that happens in the life of a Christian which God does not use for his or her ultimate good, in the process of transforming that believer into the image of Christ.
Life in Christ is a process of transformation. Second Corinthians 3:18 says that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. He is constantly at work in His people, from the moment they trust Jesus Christ as Savior, to the moment when they blink their eyes in death and open them again to see the Lord Jesus welcoming them.
The Holy Spirit is the craftsman performing this task within you right now. The tools He chooses are the circumstances of your life. Have you lost your job? He’ll use that to advance your growth in Christ. Do you still have a job? He’ll use THAT to advance your growth in Christ. Today, somewhere, a Christian couple is having a baby; the Spirit will use that birth to grow them a little more. Today, somewhere, a Christian couple is losing a child; the Spirit will also use THAT to further their transformation into Jesus’ image.
So, in the midst of every circumstance, including the most painful imaginable, God is at work in you. He will not stop. He will not quit. He will not give up. And you can be thankful.
Maybe your growth is not coming as fast as you think it should, but He won’t stop until He is done. Maybe you think you haven’t made much progress over the past few months or years. But if you could compare yourself today with yourself before Christ, there is an eternal change that’s already taken place. And so you can be thankful, even in the midst of the agonies of life and difficulties you face. For Christians, the end is guaranteed. Eternal life is yours in Christ, and nothing can take it away. Jesus says,
John 10:27–30 (NASB95) — 27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
My mental image is that Jesus wraps His hand around us, and the Father wraps His hand around Jesus’ hand. The children of God are doubly held, safe and secure. Once eternal life has been given, it will not be take away; there are no spiritual abortions.
Jesus also says,
John 6:37 (NASB95) — 37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
Some think that while Jesus won’t cast anyone out, and no one can steal a Christian away from Him, a believer can voluntarily walk away. Understand, sin cannot separate you from God. He will not abandon you because you sin. Jesus died for EVERY sin you would ever commit, not just a few. You can’t commit a sin for which Jesus did not die. It’s not possible.
The only possible way to “walk away” is to abandon faith in Christ. And First John 2:19 says that those who voluntarily walk away were never in Christ in the first place:
1 John 2:19 (NASB95) — 19 They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
And so, no matter what you face, you can give thanks to God. He will outlast every circumstance you ever face. What troubles you today? Financial issues? He will outlast them. Illness or disability? He will outlast it. Heartaches and emotional suffering? He will outlast it. He never changes. He never breaks a promise. And so, you can give thanks to God.