The Surrender of Thanksgiving

Grabbed by Gratitude

It stopped me in my tracks. Twice. In the same morning even. What was it? Thankfulness. The first time, a song provoked it, and the second time, a story in an upcoming film about a changed life connected to my heart. I felt genuinely thankful, particularly for my wife and children. Lyrics and stories have a way of moving and stirring our emotions.

Hooray for Word Studies: Εὐχαριστέω

Bible readers find the theme of thankfulness throughout the pages of Scripture. In the New Testament, the verb εὐχαριστέω primarily conveys the act of expressing

. . . appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks (BDAG).

It is used 37 times in the New Testament. The occasions for these usages vary: (1) regarding provisions from God (Matt. 15:36), (2) in the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:23; Luke 22:19), (3) in reference to answered prayer (Luke 17:16; John 11:41), (4) obligatory thanksgiving (Luke 18:11; Rom. 16:4), (5) thanksgiving for NOT participating in something (1 Cor. 1:14), but most often, (6) it communicates thankfulness about the fellowship of believers (Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2).

Spontaneous or Deliberate Thankfulness?

However, the Apostle Paul fashioned the word in a unique way in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. He issued it as a command:

. . . give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This is the one and only use in the New Testament of the imperative form—εὐχαριστεῖτε. “Give thanks; appreciate; surrender thanksgiving.” But isn’t thankfulness better when it’s spontaneous? Is thankfulness genuinely thankfulness when it is commanded? I mean how many “You-should-be-thankful-s” are chronicled in the history of parenthood, right?!?! Our experience of the feeling of thankfulness is often unplanned, which may cause one to ask, “How does one get better at such a command? Do I simply try harder to feel thankful?”

This command is interesting to me, especially in light of the holiday anticipation building as we enter Thanksgiving season. As I experienced a surge of thankfulness this morning about my family, provoked by song and story and genuinely enjoying how I felt, I wondered if there is yet a deeper experience of thankfulness available . . . something more consistent, longer-lasting, sustainable, solid. Is thankfulness something that must come from outside of me; is it out of my control; a dormant emotion only stirred by some kind of external stimulus? Or is it something to which I have constant access, an affection internal and awake, and able to be wielded, controlled, surrendered, and given? If the latter, then where may I find such an endless reservoir of gratitude?

The Surrender of Thanksgiving: Exposition of 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, God reveals some things to us about giving thanks that cause pause. First, he qualifies the command “Give thanks” with a prepositional phrase that describes the circumstances during which we should obey it—in all circumstances. Wait, what? Literally, the translation is “give thanks in any and every, or in every respect or way.” Most Bible translations have adapted the English to read, “in all circumstances.” We are commanded to give thanks for any one circumstance that may come at us from the sum total of all circumstances. In other words, E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Yikes.

Thanksgiving Commanded by God

Remember, a command implies that God has or is able to supply you with the necessary resources to obey the command. Notice also that the circumstances are not commanded to make people thankful, which would be worded like, “Circumstances, go and cause thankfulness among the people.” Rather, the readers (like you and me) are commanded to give thanks while living under varied circumstances. The command implies that the believer is in possession of thankfulness and then must choose to give it. Now, I think all of us can easily imagine turning over thanks for the joyous moments—straight A’s, making the team, winning the game (Go Lady Norsemen, btw), graduating, getting married, having the baby, going on vacation, church growth, career advancement, and the list could go on and on.

However, are we really to turn over thanks when we fail the class, when we don’t make the team, when we lose the big game, when circumstances delay graduation, when the boyfriend/girlfriend bails, when finances crumble, when the consequences of one bad decision keep piling up, when a child or a parent gets sick or dies, when the marriage fails, when the church splits, when the career tanks, and on and on? Does God really expect me to give him thanks in all circumstances?

Yes. Maybe the surrender of our thanks looks a little broken sometimes, but this is the command. He wants our thanks in any and every circumstance. Biblical thanksgiving seems to be the turning over of something that is both provoked and supplied by God again and again, rather than some uncontrollable emotion that suddenly sweeps over you by positive, external, spontaneous provocation. The giving of thanks is a matter of relationship between you and God. You can choose to give it or not to give it to God.

Thanksgiving in the Fullness of God

Back to the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The next sentence offers an explanation for the command to give thanks in all circumstances, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” A similar statement follows Paul’s command to be filled or controlled by the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18–20,

. . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In that passage, the giving of thanks is evidenced in the life of the believer who is yielding to the Spirit’s control. There again, as in 1 Thessalonians, the circumstances in which we give thanks are broad—always and for everything. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul explains that this always-giving-thanks-in-all-circumstances is God’s will. Comparing this to Ephesians 5:18, we may say that it is the Spirit’s aim.

I see here both the external motivation and the internal capability—both provided by God. The command to give thanks is the external word that comes from God to us, and that word is met in the believer with the aim of the Spirit, who dwells within and who aims to transform the believer into one who turns over thanks to God in all circumstances—making him or her thankful. In this way, the Christian is prompted both externally and internally to give thanks. The uniqueness of the Christian understanding of thanksgiving is that seemingly random circumstances are not in the driver’s seat, but rather our experience and relationship with God while living under a variety of circumstances.

Thanksgiving Under the Influence of Christ

Finally, the phrase “the will of God” is modified by two prepositional phrases: (1) in Christ Jesus and (2) for you all. What do these mean? Paul commonly employs the phrase “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus,” and what he seems to mean by it is the idea of “under the control of, under the influence of, or in close association with” (BDAG, 327–28).

Let me expand that a bit. We are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God for people under the influence of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Something so influential, at the soul-level, has happened in Jesus Christ for believers rendering them capable of fulfilling God’s will and command to give thanks in all circumstances. What happened? His death and resurrection happened. In other words, Christ’s gospel is the key to your ability to obey the will of God by giving thanks in all circumstances—good or bad, hopeful or despairing. You function in every circumstance with death-defeating, eternally-securing, resurrection-powered love.

Thanksgiving Surrendered to God

Now, let’s get real for a minute. The influence of the resurrection of Christ moves the believer to give thanks to God in painful circumstances. It is truly a surrender of thanks. These surrenders surface on the battlefield of the soul against the sinful nature that longs to withhold thanks from God. This is why Romans 8:26 says,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Later on during the same day that I felt thankful for my family, I received a call from a friend that makes a pastor’s heart shudder and ask, “Why God?” And I, of course, don’t have that answer. Yet, I know that the greatest power and love on heaven and earth is available to those who call on the name of Jesus. When you or I see the hurting person give thanks in all circumstances, we witness that power and love on display. We witness firsthand the external command of God and the internal working of the gospel by the Spirit uniting to produce a thankful believer.