How to Give Thanks in the Midst of Suffering
Rejoice always, 17 pray continually,
18 give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
How do those whose present experience is dominated by suffering give thanks? Thanksgiving feels like a celebration for the “blessed.” And, indeed it is. However, Jesus certainly redefines “blessed” (Matt. 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-26). How does he do so? In view of His coming kingdom. This means we have two reasons to give thanks to God when we are suffering (and when we are not).
Two Reasons We Can Give Thanks
The first is that when Jesus came, He came announcing the year of Jubilee. This is rooted in the Old Testament. Every fifty years, the people who had lost their lands or had debts, were forgiven and restored to their inheritance. Disciples were therefore called to forgive and to give. Through their acts of kindness and love, people who suffered were being restored. In the early days of the church, there were no poor among them (Acts 4:34). Therefore, as disciples set out to live in the restorative jubilee of the gospel, the poor, those who mourn, the lowly, those longing for justice, and those suffering persecution can begin to give thanks to God because the transformation of the world is beginning.
The second is that we give thanks in anticipation of the final coming of God, the completion of what has begun through Jesus Christ. In this case, we are rejecting the finality of the present state of things. Thanksgiving is a declaration that our King is at work and is coming to rectify all things. The implication is that all other powers better act now in line with His kingdom. John Chrysostom, the 4th century archbishop of Constantinople, commenting on Paul’s instruction, “give thanks in all circumstances,” said, “This then let us do! Thanksgiving is a great treasure; large wealth; a good that cannot be taken away; a powerful weapon!” Present suffering cannot take away thanksgiving that is rooted in the final victory of God over all things.
This second aspect of thanksgiving might be seen in how Chrysostom (elsewhere) understood Psalm 95:2.
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
While this English translation (NIV) of verse 2 is excellent and even preferred, Chrysostom read another possible rendering of the Hebrew. The word for “come” could also be read as “anticipate.” He read, “Let us anticipate His face with thanksgiving.” We are to give thanks as we anticipate the day when He has come and all others have submitted to His reign. Therefore, as we give thanks to God, we can go before Him with thanksgiving for what He has done in Christ and in anticipation of all that He is doing and will complete in Christ.
Our Future Hope Leads Us to Thanksgiving
Another way we might say this is that the great Christian hope of Christ’s return leads us from the future to give thanks. So not only are Christians pushed from behind (by what has already been done) to give thanks, we are drawn from the future to offer thanks to God. Nothing can take that away from us! Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way:
“The psalms of the final victory of God and of God’s Messiah (2, 96, 97, 98, 110, 148–150) lead us in praise, thanksgiving, and petition to the end of all things when all the world will give honor to God, when the redeemed community will reign with God eternally, and when the powers of evil will fall and God alone will retain power.” (Emphasis mine)
One day, the powers of evil will no longer have any power over our lives. Our faith in that truth increasingly frees us from their power today and enables us, indeed leads us, to give thanks to God today!
Present suffering often (and rightly) leads to petition, intercession, and lament. However, as believers we can give also thanks because of what God has already done in Christ and is already doing in our lives through Christ’s first coming. We can also give thanks because we know that the same God who came and began this work will complete it. In view of that day, we are truly enabled to give thanks in all things!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,