1 Thessalonians 5:18
18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’m sure that for some of you here this evening this is an easy Thanksgiving. And by that I mean a Thanksgiving where you have no problem finding reason to give thanks to God. I think of our farmers, for example, who had a rough start to the planting season back in the spring because it was so wet and that forced them to do some replanting or to get their crops in later than usual. And yet they experienced a harvest that in the words of most of them I’ve talked to was maybe not the best they’ve ever had but it was decent – “better than average” is the phrase I’ve been hearing And when you add to that the ideal weather conditions they had this Fall to bring in the harvest, I’m sure they are feeling very grateful for the way God blessed them.
Others of you have had a such a wonderful year that you’re maybe afraid of what the next year might hold in store for you because it can’t get much better and you know that sooner or later the tough times are bound to come.
Indeed, it’s easy to be thankful when things are going great – when God has provided an abundance of food, family, friends, health, and income. But what happens when circumstances are not so pleasant? How do you give thanks when it seems like God is a million miles away, or, as our text says, how do you give thanks “in all circumstances,” including the tough ones that different theologians and Bible scholars have referred to in a variety of ways, as “the dark night of the soul,” “the ministry of the night,” “the winter of the heart”?
David, who was once described in the Bible as a man after God’s own heart, knew what it was like to feel as though God had abandoned him. In Ps. 13 he writes these words that I’m sure all of us could relate to at some time or another in our lives: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.”
Often times when we find ourselves crying out to God like that we may feel as though he is angry with us or punishing us for some sin we’ve committed. And the fact of the matter is that sin – especially persistent, unrepentant sin – does have a way of disconnecting us from intimate fellowship with God. In fact, the Bible says we grieve the Holy Spirit when we allow things like bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and hatred to rule our lives.
But I would venture to guess that most of the time this feeling of abandonment or estrangement from God has nothing to do with sin. Rather I see it more as a test – a test of faith, a test in which God seeks an answer to the question: Will you continue to love, trust, obey, serve, and worship me, even when times are hard? Or to put it another way, Are you just a fair weather Christian, faithful to God only when things are going smoothly and well for you?
I remember when I was younger, my brother would always accuse me of being a fair weather sports fan. It seemed like I was always rooting for the team that was winning or that had the best players. And as I look back upon it now, I guess there was some truth to that. I wasn’t like you die-hard Cub fans who have stuck with your team through thick and thin, even though up until this year they hadn’t won a World Series since 1908.
Oh, that we would all have that kind of devotion, that kind of dedication to God, even when life doesn’t go according to plan. The question, of course, is, how do we do it? How do we attain that level of devotion? How do we praise God in all circumstances, including the ones where we don’t understand what’s happening in our lives and we can’t feel his presence? Well, that’s what I want to spend the rest of my time talking about this evening as we consider the theme “An Attitude of Gratitude.”
First of all, we need to be careful that we never base our faith upon our feelings. You know as well as I do that our feelings can be very fickle, very changeable. Sometimes I am amazed at how good I can feel, say, at the start of the day, ready to take on the world, but then comes that phone call or that criticism or that emergency. And as my stress level rises, my mood begins to swing more than Tarzan did when he’d go from vine to vine in those jungle movies I used to love to watch when I was a kid.
Well, if we don’t base our faith and our relationship with God upon how we feel, then what are we supposed to base it on? Simple. Base it on how God feels about us. In other words, base it on his Word. Base it on what he tells us in this holy Book that I like to refer to as his love letter to mankind. Base it upon the more than 3000 unshakeable and unchangeable promises that he gives to us here, like the promise that he will never leave us or forsake us; the promise that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age; the promise that he will walk with us through the deepest, darkest valleys we find ourselves in and he will even carry us, if necessary.
Now you might be wondering, “But can I really, truly, and completely trust God?” Well, you tell me. Do you think you can trust a God who knit you together in your mother’s womb, as David says in Ps. 139, and who made you the unique human being that you are? Can you trust a God who loves you far more than you could ever comprehend and certainly far more than you deserve? Can you trust a God who left his throne in heaven behind and came down to this stinky old world so that he could be born in a stinky old stable and become your Substitute and do for you what you could have never done for yourself, including rescuing you from an eternity of separation from him? Can you trust a God who would offer himself as the supreme sacrifice for your sins and die the hellish, sin-paying death that you deserved to die?
Listen, my friends, no one has proven himself more worthy of our trust than God. So when those times of darkness invade your lives, cling to his promises. Hold fast to his faithfulness. And he will see you through one way or another.
Then another thing we can do to help us maintain a thankful spirit even in the face of adversity is to be honest with God. Tell him how you feel. Pour out your heart to him. This is what Job did. Remember him? Sometimes we idolize him as though he was this perfect man in the face of suffering. We speak of the patience of Job. And yes, at first he did a pretty good job of handling the extreme difficulties that God had allowed Satan to bring into his life. But later on he kind of loses it. In Job 7:11 he says: “I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. I must complain in my bitterness.” In chapter 29:4 he laments: “Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house.”
Did you know that being honest with God, admitting and expressing your hopelessness to him, can actually be a statement of faith? Remember the father who brought his demon-possessed child to Jesus? He was at the end of his rope and the end of his hope. And when Jesus questioned his faith, he offered this classic reply: “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” So don’t be afraid or reluctant to be honest with God about how you’re feeling. He’s a big God and he can handle your expressions of doubt or disappointment or despair.
Then thirdly, focus on who God is, especially on his unchanging nature. Remind yourself over and over again of what Satan is going to try his best to get you to doubt, namely, that God is good, that he loves you, he cares for you, he knows what you’re going through, and he has a good plan for your life. One author by the name of V. Raymond Edman puts it this way: “Never doubt in the dark what God has told you in the light.”
When Job’s life was falling apart and it seemed like God was silent, Job still found things for which he could praise God. Scattered throughout that book are Job’s affirmations that God is good and loving, that he is all-powerful, that he notices every detail of our lives, that he is in control, and that he is the Redeemer of our bodies as well as our souls.
Then one more thing you can do to maintain a thankful spirit in the midst of adversity is to remember God’s track record in your life. Focus upon what he has already done for you. This is what David did in that 13th Psalm that we looked at earlier in this sermon. After crying out to God from the very depths of his being, at the very end of that psalm he adds these words: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”
And guess what? God has been good to us too. In fact, if he never did anything else for you than what he’s already done for you through Jesus, he would still deserve your highest praise and thanksgiving for the rest of your life and for all of eternity. After all, as we noted before, Jesus died for you. And it was that death that secured for you the blessed hope and assurance of one day spending eternal life with him where all the trials and troubles that are so much a part of this world will disappear forever.
Unfortunately, like the old saying goes, familiarity breeds complacency. And because we’ve heard the story of Jesus’ suffering and death for so long, we tend to forget the cruel details that accompanied it. That’s why I appreciated so much Mel Gibson’s film that so many of us saw years ago entitled “The Passion of the Christ.” Yes, it was graphic. Yes, it was gory. Yes, it was gruesome. But so was all that Jesus endured for us throughout those hours of agony and torture.
And yet the one thing that Mel Gibson’s film could not fully capture was the spiritual side of Jesus’ suffering, the literal hell that he experienced as he was actually separated from his Father on the cross, forcing him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words and film could never begin to describe the agony of that moment. But why? Why did Jesus do it? Why did he willingly put himself through all that? I hope you know the answer to that question, but in case you don’t, let me tell you. He did it so you could be spared from the agony that would accompany an eternity in hell and so you could share in his glory forever. You know, he could have saved himself at any time during his Passion. But had he done that, then he could not have saved you. So he gave up everything so he could one day give you everything that heaven has to offer. That alone is worthy of our continual thanks and praise. That alone should give us great reason to truly give thanks in all circumstances.