November 25, 2020 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
This has been a hard year. All of us have experienced in some way the scourge of the coronavirus, losing normalcy, health, jobs, or even loved ones. Yet this is Thanksgiving week. Can we be thankful in the midst of such difficult times? Scripture calls us to be thankful in all circumstances. Psychological research confirms the benefit of gratitude in hard times. The ability to thank God for his good gifts in difficult circumstances gives us resilience and even joy. So, without pretending that everything in life is great these days, let us thank God for his grace to us.
I think we can all agree that this has not been an easy year for many reasons. Our lives, like those of people throughout the world, have been complicated or even devastated by the novel coronavirus. Some of us have been inconvenienced in an unusually disruptive way. Others have been struck by serious illness or the loss of our livelihood. Still others have lost loved ones to the scourge of COVID-19. Last week, for example, the brother of a friend of mine died from the disease and she was not even able to be with him.
According to 1 Thessalonians 5:18, we are to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Is the Apostle Paul serious? Does he really mean “in all circumstances”? Or, as it says in The Message, are we actually to give thanks “no matter what happens.” Even if we’ve been desperately sick? Even if we’ve lost our jobs? Even if we’ve lost loved ones?
This verse in its original Greek calls us to give thanks “in everything” (en panti). This does not mean, by the way, that we must give thanks for everything, as if everything, including evil, was from God. But it does mean that even in the midst of suffering, even when we experience injustice, even when faced with a life-threatening, life-upsetting virus, we can and should give thanks. We thank God for his good gifts. We thank him for being present with us in hard times. We thank him for using life’s struggles to draw us closer to him and make us more like him. We thank God that nothing happens outside of his wise plan for history and for our lives. We thank God that ultimately his kingdom will prevail, with its justice and peace.
In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I referred to research on gratitude conducted by Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. In “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times,” Emmons responds to those who doubt it is possible to be grateful in the midst of dire circumstances: “My response is that not only will a grateful attitude help—it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life.” Gratitude, according to Emmons, actually helps us make it through difficult times. “Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude,” he writes, “builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall.”
Emmons affirms that gratitude is not primarily a matter of feelings. He encourages us to see being grateful as a choice. “[I]t is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points. But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.” The Apostle Paul would surely agree with Emmons. When Paul writes that we’re to “give thanks in all circumstances,” he’s not saying we have to manufacture happy feelings no matter what. Rather, he’s urging us to choose to thank God for God’s good gifts, even when we’re experiencing serious difficulties or suffering.
At this time of year, I have powerful memories of the difficulties my family and I were facing exactly four years ago. During the week of Thanksgiving in 2016, my mother was dying of cancer. The doctors had said she had only a few weeks to live. I remember what it was like to sit with my mom and my family on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We shared sweet memories together and Mom talked about her hopes for her children and grandchildren, who had gathered around her. Six days later she died while my siblings and I held her tenderly.
I expect I will always miss my mom in a particularly powerful way during Thanksgiving week. I miss her cooking, her joy over holiday traditions, her love of family and friends, and her embrace. My faith does not call me to deny my sadness over my mom’s being away from us. Plus, I am not compelled to be thankful for cancer, which took both of my parents from me and my family. But, while not denying what is painful in life, I am passionately thankful for my mom, for her energy, creativity, faith, and love. I’m grateful for her life and the life she now knows with the Lord.
I am not suggesting that I am great at giving thanks in hard times, mind you. I struggle with this as much as the next person, maybe more. But I do believe that the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, confirmed by contemporary research, encourages us to express our gratitude even in difficult times. Yes, this has been a hard year for many reasons. Yes, we have reason to feel sad or scared or discouraged or all of the above. But, without denying what is hard in our lives, we’re also called to pay attention to what is good, to see God’s gifts to us, and to give thanks for them. This is, as Paul says, “God’s will for you and me in Christ Jesus.”
Are you usually able to be thankful even when things in your life are hard? Why or why not?
What helps you to thank the Lord when your life is painful?
What gifts have you received from God in this difficult year?
Without denying the difficulties of your life, choose to thank the Lord for his good gifts.
Gracious God, first of all, I must confess that I don’t always obey the command give thanks in all circumstances. When life is hard, when work is scary and disappointing, when things in the world are so distressing, I must admit that it’s difficult for me to give you thanks. In retrospect, when I look back on my life, gratitude comes more easily. But, in the moment of suffering or sadness or fear or disappointment, I often have a hard time giving thanks. Forgive me, Lord.
Help me to do what this verse encourages. May I be truly thankful in every situation. By your Spirit, remind me of your goodness when I’m hurting or afraid. Make your presence known to me, Lord, so that I might offer you thanks.
Today, Lord, I want to offer a special prayer for those who have experienced terrible suffering this year. Millions have been painfully ill. Millions have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Tens of millions have lost their jobs and worry about when they will find a new one. Tens of millions are suffering from severe loneliness because of the requirements of social distancing. And there are so many other hard things in our world today. I pray for those who are hurting today, especially for those who have lost loved ones and will feel that loss so acutely in the holiday season, may they know your presence in their sadness. May they feel free to pour out their hearts to you honestly. And, by your grace, may they also be able to thank you for your good gifts.
For your grace, O God, your amazing grace, we give you thanks. Amen.
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Duke Ellington
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.