Over the past several months as we’ve experienced the awful ramifications of the coronavirus, horrific wildfires in multiple places, major hurricanes, disturbing rioting and fighting, enmity between politicians, flooding, gale force winds pummeling millions of acres of cropland, intense conflicts around the world and even our own inner battles, it’s challenging sometimes to be grateful. And yet, in this holiday season we’re entering, we do have so much for which to thank God.
I remember when the worship song Give Thanks became popular roughly 30 years ago. It spoke to my heart—and the hearts of many others—that we should give thanks to the Holy One for all he’s given us, including his Son. It spoke of the weak becoming strong because we have a God who cares for us. I, for one, need to be reminded of this—that God cares for me and provides so much for me and for my family that I should pause on a regular basis and give thanks.
In three of some of the shortest verses in the Bible, Paul says to the church in Thessalonica: “Rejoice always (v. 16), pray continually (v. 17), give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (v. 18)” (1 Thess. 5).
What do we do with these impossible commands? If Paul had said, “Rejoice a lot, pray as often as you can, and give thanks whenever possible,” maybe that would be doable. But, Paul just lays these unreachable commands out there without any additional instruction. What is Paul really saying here?
Does “rejoice always” mean that we must always go around with a smile on our face and a bounce in our step? Am I sinning if I ever feel sad, depressed, upset or grieved? That can’t be, because neither Jesus nor Paul were always happy. My view is that even within the difficulties of life, this command to rejoice is to be viewed not primarily as a matter of feelings but rather of obedience. When we face difficult trials, we have a choice: We can focus on those trials and fall into self-pity, or we can set our minds on the things above, where Christ is, and rejoice.
We also don’t need to feel thankful before we give thanks. When hard trials come or simply living in the midst of what I listed in the first paragraph, we often don’t feel thankful. But because we know it’s true, we can say, “Lord, I trust that you are good and that you know what you’re doing in this difficult situation. I know who you are and that I can depend entirely on you.” So, like rejoicing always, giving thanks in everything is often our choice to believe and trust God in difficult circumstances.
I know a lot of people who have become depressed during this pandemic. I too have felt really down at times. Our lives have been turned upside down. It saddens me that this feeling of depression can go to the extreme for some. This is when we must take care of our souls. This is when we spend more time with Jesus and turn to him when things seem overpowering. This is the time for “rejoicing, praying and giving thanks.” This is when we need to remind ourselves that these days will pass, one way or another. Our real home is heaven, we’re just foreigners here in this broken land. When I remember that, things turn right side up again.
Then, along with the psalmist, we can proclaim, even in the midst of world’s ugliest stuff, “Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
Don Morris is the USMB national director. He and his wife, Janna, live in Edmond, Oklahoma, where they attend Cross Timbers Church.