1 Thessalonians 5:15-18: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
One of the most challenging instructions that the New Testament offers is to “give thanks in all circumstances.” It’s countercultural. And it’s counterintuitive. Our natural inclination is to thank God when things are good, for all that’s good.
We can be defensive about how selective our gratitude is. “It’s only right!” we might say. Even at the Thanksgiving table, we’re grateful for the gravy and the mashed potatoes, but (let’s be honest) not so much for the turkey, which really should have been taken out of the oven 30 minutes earlier, or Uncle Bob*, who manages to hold everyone hostage to his political rants during dinner each year. (*Names have been changed for security; apologies to all Bobs.)
In all seriousness: Given our times, when there isn’t just political polarization but also true injustice working its evil in people’s lives and circumstances, how do we give thanks “in all circumstances”? How are we to be grateful given the headlines, which report on the enduring wars in the world, the suffering of refugees, the violence, the inequities and iniquities?
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul acknowledges that we live amid evil. The gratitude that he admonishes the followers of Christ to display is active and contextualized. This isn’t gratitude as a rote response to the good things in the world around us. Instead, it’s gratitude as a discipline, reflecting God’s will and work in our collective life. It’s gratitude as movement—resistance through rejoicing, testimony through thanksgiving. And it’s gratitude as action, expressed through gestures of goodness and constant prayer. That can take so many forms—listening, feeding, nurturing, healing, believing, testifying.
We serve a God who will not let us go, a God whose steadfast love never gives up on us. There are times when that God feels more distant than we’d like. Then, and especially then, we cling to the testimonies of God’s faithfulness over the millennia. Then, and especially then, we hope in the tremendous truth of Jesus, God with us, who anchors us through the storms of this turbulent, unjust world. That fuels our joy. That inspires our prayers. And that calls us to active gratitude.