by Joe Leavell

The Bible teaches us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Similarly, in Ephesians 5:20, Paul says, “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I have met and counseled many Christians who have suffered through the most heart-wrenching experiences who are confused by these commands. In the season of Thanksgiving, many who are struggling after suffering real losses are wondering how they can truly be thankful when they have suffered so much pain and heartache. They look at these verses that tell us to give thanks “for everything,” and wonder if this command includes all aspects of every situation, including the evil. But is God asking us to be grateful to Him for evil along with the blessings or is there a misunderstanding to what thankfulness in the midst of suffering really looks like?

As a personal example, on Thursday, our family will be facing our first Thanksgiving holiday without my brother who died from melanoma cancer just over a month ago. If I am supposed to be thankful in all circumstances, am I really expected by God to thank Him for the cancer and to be grateful that this wonderful father of three and husband of 15 years died because cancer ripped his body apart? As a biblical counselor, I know from being involved in the lives of hurting people that our family is not the only one struggling with pain this holiday season. In our own neighborhood, across the country, and around the world, we see countless people who are seeking to make sense of the sorrow which they now face. Are rape victims and the ones who have been molested in childhood expected to be thankful they were abused? The ones who have lost their children to drug overdoses or suicide, are they expected to be grateful for the death of their loved ones? After all, the text says to thank Him “for everything”, not for “most” things. How do those of us who are hurting make sense of this command?

An important point in understanding Scripture is that there will never be a place in the Bible that speaks contrary to a different place in Scripture. Rather, one passage works to clarify other passages. In this way, when it comes to gratitude, understanding God’s character and how He views evil is important to understanding how we can give thanks “for everything.” For one, God hates evil (Proverbs 6:16) and Scripture tells us that those “who love the Lord, hate evil” (Psalm 97:10). Because of our sin and because of His deep love to rescue us, God sent His Son to die on our behalf (John 3:16). God does not enjoy when we are grieved (Lamentations 3:33) and does not find pleasure in anyone’s death (Ezekiel 18:32). His hatred and wrath for sin was poured out on Jesus on the cross. He paid a very high price to destroy evil!

In addition to how the Father views sin and suffering, in all of His prayers to the Father, Jesus did not model thankfulness to God for our sinfulness, nor did He offer thanks to God for suffering and death. Rather, He came to destroy the sin that He hated, endured the cross, and looked forward to the joy that was before Him as the victorious conqueror of death and Hell (Hebrews 12:1-2).

For those who are suffering or grieving, gratefulness is a tremendous act of faith in the character and wisdom of God. While not rejoicing in the evil itself, we rejoice in faith, and we are thankful for our God who is the conqueror of that evil. We are thankful not for sin, but for the One who ultimately defeated sin and death on the cross! In this way, while not glorying and celebrating the cruel effects of cancer on my brother’s body, my family can thank God that Christ had the final word over cancer before my brother was even born. The one who is suffering from seemingly unending depression can give thanks in faith, knowing that their Shepherd is with them, leading them through the valley of the shadow of death. The one who struggles with addictive sin can thank God in faith, believing that His mercies will never cease, that he is forgiven, that His love will endure forever, and that God has positionally freed him from addiction and is leading him towards Christ-likeness. The person who does not understand how they could be betrayed and forsaken by a spouse can give thanks in faith that Jesus will never leave them or forsake them. The teen who feels like no one ever understands them can be thankful in faith that they have a great High Priest who is closer than a brother who understands all of us, including teenagers. Through it all, all of us who struggle with thankfulness because of real suffering, can give thanks because we know that the troubles we endure have a God given purpose in conforming us to the image of His dear Son. Finally, when it feels like the pain in our hearts will never end, we can give thanks in faith to the God who promises that our affliction is comparatively small and momentary in light of an eternity of joy with our Savior. As Christ looked to the joy that was before Him and endured the cross, we can look to our future of joy with Him with a grateful heart. This is how those who suffer are able to fulfill the command to be thankful in all circumstances. It is not because we are thankful for death, sorrow, and pain. It is because we know and serve a God who is greater than those evils. He reigns victorious! As a result, we can, in faith, look to our future joy with Him with grateful hearts for God’s unspeakable gifts.

For further reading:

http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-can-we-give-thanks-in-all-circumstances
http://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/mark-altrogge/12-things-to-thank-god-for-in-the-midst-of-affliction.html
http://www.ccef.org/thankfulness-even-when-it-hurts-0