Monday, November 21, 2016

In Everything Give Thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18)


Have you ever “sought God’s will”? Have you ever prayed for God to show you or make known to you His will? It is a noble aim, for who among does not wish to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. A problem arises, however, when we come down to how we go about seeking God’s will, or how we expect God to make it known. Often times, we expect God to make His will known by some sign or some experience or emotion. At times, perhaps, we expect others to inform us of what God’s will is. It is as though we believe that God has hidden His will away from us, and expects us to go on some odyssean quest to find it, not unlike some mythological adventure to lay hands on the Holy Grail. What this amounts to, in fact, is a mistaken notion of who our God is. He is not hiding His will from us, but rather desires to guide us in the doing of His will. And this is why He has revealed Himself and His will to us plainly in His Word, the Bible. Everything that the Bible says “do,” it is God’s will for us to do. Everything that the Bible says, “do not do,” it is God’s will for us not to do it! Now let us not be like the rich young ruler, to whom Jesus said, “Keep the commandments,” and he responded, “Which ones?” When Jesus began to enumerate them, the young man said, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matt 19:16-22). If we say, “Well, I am waiting for God to let me know what His will is,” the answer is that He has told you in His Word. And if we say, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”, then we lie to ourselves and to God. The fact of the matter is that we have our hands full with the doing and not doing of what is plainly stated in Scripture, and if we will but obey His Word, we will find ourselves actually doing His will as His providence directs our lives. Even if we reduce it down to the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor, beyond this, we are free in Christ to follow the desires of our hearts.

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find a passage in which several aspects of God’s will for our lives are spelled out specifically. It includes encouraging one another, appreciating those who labor for the Lord, living in peace with one another. It also includes admonishing the unruly, helping the weak, and showing patience to all; not repaying evil with evil, but always seeking the good of others. In verses 16-17, Paul says, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing.” And then in verse 18, he says, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” His will encompasses all these things, and others which are set forth in Scripture, but today – on the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving – I want to focus our attention on this singular aspect of God’s will for His people: “In everything give thanks.”

I. What does it mean to “give thanks”?

One of the greatest demonstrations of thanksgiving in the Bible is found in Luke 17. There we read about ten lepers “who stood at a distance” as Jesus passed by. They cried out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus did just that. He spoke, and they were healed of their disease. As they went away from Him, one “turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him.” Jesus said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine – where are they?” (Luke 17:11-19).

We all find ourselves somewhere in that story. All of us are like those lepers. We have nothing in and of ourselves to commend ourselves to God or for which to boast before men. Anything and everything we have comes to us from God’s gracious hand. And so, we are ever recipients before Him. Moments ago in this service, we collected an offering. In that moment, perhaps you thought, “I am a giver. I am giving what is mine to God.” No, for what we give to God is but a portion of what He first has given to us. So we are always the receiver, even in our giving. Now, there are some who, like the one leper in the story, who recognize this and render appropriate thanks to the Lord. Some see that apart from His provision, we would have nothing and be nothing. And so we give Him thanks. But many more, and all of us at times, are like the other nine. Having received freely from God all that we have, we fail to render thanks to Him for His mercy and grace.

To give thanks or show gratitude is to recognize God is the ultimate giver of all good things. As James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” He may give to us through intermediate agents, but He is the ultimate source of the gift. Suppose someone gives you a gift of some sort. It is right to give them thanks for their generosity, but then we must also give thanks to God, who put it in their hearts to give. A thankful person is one who recognizes this and acknowledges to God and man that all that we have and all that we are is ours because of the kindness of God.

The great Puritan Richard Baxter, in his monumental work A Christian Directory, devotes a great deal of attention to thankfulness. He begins, “Let thankfulness to God thy Creator, Redeemer, and Regenerator, be the very temperament of thy soul, and faithfully expressed by thy tongue and life.” And then he says, “An unthankful person is but a devourer of mercies, and a grave to bury them in, and one that hath not the wit and honesty to know and acknowledge the hand that giveth them; but the thankful looketh above himself, and returneth all, as he is able, to Him from whom they flow.” [1]

Suppose that you were to invite a guest to dinner at your home. In preparation for the occasion, you go out and spend a lot of money on special ingredients for the meal, and you slave away for hours in the kitchen and dining room. You make all the favorite dishes of your guest, and clean the house and set the table to perfection. Some of you will do this very thing this week. Now, suppose that your guest arrives. As you open the door for your guest, he or she walks past you without a word, plops down at the table and begins to bang the silverware on the table saying, “I’m hungry! Feed me!” Overlooking the impertinence, you serve the feast that has been loving and painstakingly prepared. Imagine your guest then helping himself or herself to excessive portions, depriving others of their own portions, and gulping them down hurriedly, before arising from the table and bolting out the door without a word. Maybe they pause at the door and turn back to you and say, “I will be back for breakfast in the morning!” And off they go into the night. How would you feel about that? Have they not been but a devourer of mercies? Have not your mercies been buried in the shallow grave of their ungrateful bodies? How offended we would be if such were to happen at our dinner tables on Thursday! And yet, we are all guilty of an ever greater ingratitude toward God on occasion, and some habitually.

Again, Richard Baxter says, “True thankfulness kindleth in the heart a love to the Giver above the gift.”[2] That means that we do not merely give thanks to God for the things He has given to us and done for us, but we thank Him for being a God who loves us and cares for us enough to provide for our needs. The gifts are great! But the Giver of these gifts is even greater! This is why it is beneficial for Christian people to periodically and prayerfully fast. Fasting is typically associated with giving up food or with certain kinds of food. But in reality, a fast can be of anything in our lives. For example, we might fast from such things as watching television or engaging in social media. Whatever it is that we choose to give up for the season of fasting, the purpose is to move our gratitude beyond the gifts themselves and focus our joy with laser-like precision on the Giver Himself. Fasting says, “God, you are greater to me than _____________.” And you fill in the blank with whatever it is that you are giving up. And in so doing, we demonstrate our gratitude for God because of who He is, and not merely what He has done for us or given to us.

The greatest lesson in thankfulness I ever learned was taught to me one night, many years ago, in a prayer meeting in another church I pastored. It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and I began the prayer meeting by having us sing together, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One By One.” And then I asked every person present to name one thing for which they were thankful. So it began, “my family,” “good health,” “the freedoms we have in America,” “my job,” “my home,” and so on. And as we came around to a precious elderly woman – one of the greatest prayer warriors and wisest students of the Bible I have ever known. She said, “Well, it’s not that I am not thankful for all those things that have already been mentioned, but even pagans can be thankful for those things!” And then, from memory, she began to recite from the first chapter of Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him, with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

Then she said, “That is what I am thankful for!” The room was silent. Some were embarrassed, some were ashamed, and some (myself included) were convicted! That dear saint, who is now with the Lord, taught me and a whole lot of other folks that night that, of all people, Christians have so much for which to give thanks! We have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ! We have been chosen, predestined, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, enlightened, saved, sealed with the Holy Spirit! So, as Baxter says, “True thankfulness having a just estimate of mercies comparatively, preferreth spiritual and everlasting mercies before those that are merely corporal and transitory.” And he goes on to specify what some of those spiritual mercies are: “The saving of our souls from hell, and promising us eternal life, besides the giving us our very beings and all that we have.” He says that these things “oblige us to be totally and absolutely His, that is so transcendent a Benefactor to us, and causeth the thankful person to devote and resign himself and all that he hath to God, to answer so great an obligation.”[3]

So what does it mean to give thanks? It means to ever recognize the goodness of God, who by His loving and gracious nature, has given to us all that we have and all that we are. It is to thank Him for the gifts, but most of all to honor Him as the merciful Giver and yield ourselves to Him in full faith and allegiance. Baxter says, “A creature that is wholly his Creator’s, and is preserved every moment by Him, and daily fed and maintained by His bounty, and is put into a capacity of life eternal, must needs be obliged to incessant gratitude.[4] And with this understanding of thanksgiving, we are prepared to tackle the more difficult question that 1 Thessalonians 5:18 raises for us. It is God’s will for us to give thanks, and to give thanks in everything.

The question we now consider is …

II. How can I give thanks in everything?

Most of you know that I am a tremendous nerd when it comes to Disney stuff. It’s been a lifelong obsession. Now, I take a lot of flack for that from some people. People say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” Well, I happen to agree with C. S. Lewis on what he said about children’s literature. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty …. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”[5] Elsewhere he said, “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.”[6] It is really fascinating to go back and revisit the stories, whether in book or movie, that I enjoyed as a child and see how they impact me now as an adult. It is an entirely different experience, and mostly for the better. One example of this is the Disney movie “Bambi.” When I was a kid, I really didn’t like this movie! It was so sad! I mean, who takes a kid to watch a movie in which such terrible things happen to the main character? Spoiler alert: less than half way through the movie, Bambi’s mother gets killed and his forest home goes up in flames! When I was a kid, all I could think about was how much this poor little deer lost. But now I’m an adult, and I realize that life is filled with loss. So Bambi is not unique in the losses he suffered. And I think that is one of the points of the movie that I get as an adult that I missed as a child. It’s not really about what he lost, but about what he had. At every stage of life, in spite of the hardships he faced, Bambi had the support of loving relationships to help carry him through.

You see, when the Bible tells us to give thanks in everything, we need to understand that it is not telling us to give thanks for everything. The idea is not here that we should stand on the side of the road after a terrible car accident and say, “Well, thank God for that!” If we fall down the steps, we don’t say at the bottom, “Thank you Lord for that fall down the steps!” I chose silly examples out of sensitivity and discretion, but you can imagine the scenario of far worse things. There have been many times when I have been in the middle of a sorrow- and shock-filled room saying, “Lord, why?” And the one thing I am always sure not to say to hurting people is, “Well, now, let’s give thanks to God for this terrible thing that has happened.” No, there are many things in life that we have encountered and will encounter for which we cannot give thanks.

Though we cannot give thanks for them, however, we can give thanks in them. And that is what the Bible says here. IN everything, give thanks. No matter what it is that you are going through, there is something (likely, many things) for which you can give thanks to God! It is not always easy to do in the midst of disquieting circumstances, but if we will tune our hearts to praise and thank Him, we will find that even in the midst of the difficulties, His goodness abounds to us. Here again, Baxter’s words are so helpful: “If you cannot be so thankful as you desire, yet spend as much time in the confessing of God’s mercy to you, as in confessing you sins and mentioning your wants. Thanksgiving is an effectual petitioning for more: it showeth that the soul is not drowned in selfishness, but would carry the fruit of all His mercies back to God.”[7]  

When all you can think of is what you have lost and what you lack, it helps to discipline your mind to consider what you have, what you have not lost, and what you cannot lose. Baxter says, “Compare thy proportion of mercies with the rest of the people’s in the world. And thou wilt find that it is not one of many thousands that hath thy proportion. It is so small a part of the world that are Christians, and of those so few that are orthodox, reformed Christians, and of those so few that are seriously godly as devoted to God, and of those so few that fall not into some perplexities, errors, scandals, or great afflictions and distress, that those few that are in none of these ranks have cause of wondrous thankfulness to God.” And Baxter says this is true, even of “the most afflicted Christians in the world.”[8]

If we could but train our minds to ever rehearse all that is ours in Jesus Christ … it would change our perspective every day that we live. Whether on the mountain top or in the valley; whether at work or at home; whether in the hospital or the funeral home; if we could recount before God with thanksgiving all the blessings that He has bestowed upon us, we would know that no matter how bad things are, we are never alone, never forgotten, never abandoned, never unloved. This is why Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Again Baxter: “Let the greatness of the manifold mercies of God, be continually before your eyes. Thankfulness is caused by the due apprehension of the greatness of mercies.”[9]

So what are these manifold mercies which are to be continually before our eyes? Time does not permit me to quote Baxter at length here, for he expounds on a full fifteen of them. But let me summarize and condense as much as I am able.

  • The love of God in giving us a redeemer, and the love of Christ in giving His life for us.
  • God's grace, His pardon of all our sins, His justification (that is, He has clothed us in the righteousness of Christ), our adoption into His family, and the promise of eternal life.
  • His providence and the servants He used to bring us to faith in Christ.
  • The faith, repentance, and right desires, which He has given to us by the power of His Holy Spirit who dwells within us to put sin to death and purify us
  • He has placed us in His church, given us His word, and fellowship with His people.
  • The kindness that is shown to us by His people, even as they admonish, reprove and encourage us.
  • The preservation and deliverance of our souls from error, seduction, terror, distress, temptation "and many a soul-wounding sin."
  • “The mercies of adversity,” be they necessary chastisements, or the honor of suffering for His name, and His comfort that accompanies these adversities.
  • The fellowship we have with God in our public and private acts of prayer, meditation, and worship.
  • That He chooses to use the likes of us for the good of others.
  • His patience with us which preserves us in faith in spite of our "constant unprofitableness and provocations."
  • "Our hopes of everlasting rest and glory, when this sinful life is at an end."[10] 
    • “Let heaven be ever in thine eye, and still think of the endless joy which thou shalt have with Christ – for that is the mercy of all mercies; and he that hath not that in hope to be thankful for, will never thankful aright for anything. … The more believing and heavenly the mind is, the more thankful.”[11]

It is for these reasons, and countless more we could list, that the child of God who has been born again by faith in Christ can give thanks in everything! These are mercies that are ours in Christ for eternity. No matter what we lose in this life, and we will lose much because of sin’s devastation of the human race and this world, these things are ours and can never be taken from us, lost, or forfeited! When we have lost it all, we have not lost it all! We can give thanks to God for what those who have it all have never had! So the Christian does not have one day a year to call “Thanksgiving.” For the follower of Jesus, every moment of every day is Thanksgiving. Baxter says, “Aggravate these mercies in your more enlarged meditations, and they will sure constrain you to cry out, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” He is quoting Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion.

If you have yet to come into a personal relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you still have much for which to give thanks to God. Though you are separated from Him, His love knows no boundaries. He gives you life and breath and every good thing in your life. Most of all, He has given you this day called “today” and this moment called “now” as an opportunity for you to respond to His love and grace by turning from sin and self to cast yourself upon Him in faith and receive the infinite and eternal mercies of salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. With thanksgiving, would you turn to Him and be saved?

[1] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2008), 142.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 142-143.
[4] Ibid., 143.
[5] C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego: Harcourt, 1975), 15.
[6] Lewis, “Fairy Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, 38.
[7] Baxter, 145.
[8] Ibid., 144.
[9] Ibid., 143.
[10] Summarized, paraphrased, and condensed from Baxter, 143-144.
[11] Ibid., 145. 

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