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.

 

What Is Revival? Part 3

Revival

What Is Revival? Part 3

This will be the third and final part to the Messenger series on revival. The previous two parts also entitled “What Is Revival?” are available online. In this third part of the series, I’d like us to consider our cultural moment. Alvin J. Reid wrote a book entitled Firefall 2.0: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals. Throughout the book, Reid indicates that cultural moments of upheaval and uncertainty can become moments of opportunity for the people of God to seek him for revival.

Looking out over our upcoming election and cultural climate, I feel that we Americans together must not neglect our ownership of this cultural moment. I believe that we are in such a time of upheaval and uncertainty that God’s purpose for us now is to return to him in desperate, repentant prayer. The two major party candidates—regardless of what we think of either of them—largely represent our corporate choices. They represent us. Even if they were not the primary choices of some, we all contributed to this cultural moment. Nationally, we have committed sins against God, against our neighbors, and against the weak among us. Nationally, we have neglected obedience and faith toward God, resulting in injustice, a lack of mercy, and a twisting of truth and goodness. The time has long passed for us to “argue with God” or to “defend our righteousness” before him. He won’t hear these defenses. He’ll only hear repentance. The righteousness that we offer him is stained and filthy. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Romans 1:32 says it best,

And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!

It’s time for us to find our need for the gospel of Jesus Christ afresh.

Therefore, if these two candidates are descriptive of our general, national spirituality and character—and I believe that they are—then we must hit our knees and avoid bartering with God about a winner. There is no winner for us between these two. It’s like having to choose between Jeroboam or Rehoboam, like choosing between Ahab or Jezebel.

Here are five devotional thoughts—in no particular order—on biblical living for this current cultural moment. First, let’s agree with God about our guilt in this cultural moment. To our knowledge, Daniel lived a life that we all would describe as faithful to God. He was loyal to the point of facing death multiple times in key cultural moments for the people of Israel. Yet, read his prayer in chapter 9. In response to what he reads in the word of God, he owns the sins of his nation before God. He doesn’t excuse himself from the corporate sins of Israel. Let’s stop fighting for what we want, and start asking God what he loves. It’s an opportunity for the church to humble herself and repent and seek God afresh.

Second, pray carefully about our vote. There are many perspectives about how Christians should vote. Some say that we should vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Some see a vote cast for either major party candidate as approving a liar and adulterer on the one hand or a murderer and crook on the other hand. Others say vote for the Vice President that you prefer. Some say that a widespread Christian silence should be our voice in this election. Others say to be loyal to your party while being critical of its failures in attempts to reform from within. Some are considering starting or joining a new political party. Others plan to write-in the primary candidate that they had hoped would make it into the national election. The multiplication of our reasonings reveal the trouble in our hearts about this cultural moment. May God graciously persuade our national heart to accomplish his will—whatever that may be.

Third, pray for the candidates. Proverbs 21:1 in the ESV reads,

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

One of them will be our president. Interestingly, the apostle Paul instructed his son in the faith, Timothy, to pray for leaders even while they were living under Emperor Nero. Christian historian, Justo Gonzalez, quotes the Roman historian, Tacitus, to remind us of Nero’s cruelty to Christians that followed his false identification of them as the ones who started the great Roman fire,

Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illuminate it. Nero opened his own gardens for these shows, and in the circus he himself became the spectacle, for he mingled with the people dressed as a charioteer, or he rode around in his chariot. All of this aroused the mercy of the people, even against the culprits who deserved an exemplary punishment, for it was clear that they were not being destroyed for the common good, but rather to satisfy the cruelty of one person (The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, 35).

My brothers and sisters, if Paul could instruct his young pastoral protege and his church plants to pray for Emperor Nero and for a Roman culture that so despised the very existence of Christians, then I think we can pray for these candidates and for our neighbors regardless of their present political views. It is this kind of peaceful prayer that commends the gospel to a watching world. Read the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah in 1 & 2 Kings and in 1 & 2 Chronicles. You realize quickly that the story of every nation is one woven by the reigns of both good and wicked leaders. However, you also learn that there is a God who intervenes, hears prayer, and acts to accomplish his redemptive purposes throughout the whole earth for his glory.  Chuck Colson famously exhorted that our hope does not come out of Air Force One. May we be found as a people praying to this end for every candidate on the ballot.

Fourth, pray for the transition of power to result in the expansion of the gospel in our own nation and into the global community. It is true that moral and ethical legislation can be a common grace to all of us, but Christians know that real change results in the new birth of the human heart. This is why we need revival. The only news on earth that effects such a change of heart is the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lift up your eyes and look beyond to what God’s interests are in our world. He’s neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He has accomplished his aims throughout history in countries ruled by democracy, socialism, communism, dictatorships, monarchies, and even nations supposedly ruled by the theocracy of a false god. What I am saying is this: be more confident in your God to accomplish his purposes in our cultural and political moment than the political imaginations of humans. If anything else, allow this election season to solidify your identity in Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

Lastly, let’s be directly thankful to God for what we’ve been given. It is difficult to locate gratitude and thankfulness in the current climate. But honestly, how bad is your life right now? Really, how bad is it? Expressing thankfulness to God has a way of softening our hearts and a way of decreasing our complaints—even in times when it is genuinely and terribly bad. Remember the old hymn “Count Your Blessings” written by Johnson Oatman Jr.,

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,

Count your many blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Refrain:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your blessings, see what God hath done;

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?

Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?

Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,

And you will be singing as the days go by.

When you look at others with their lands and gold,

Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;

Count your many blessings, money cannot buy

Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,

Do not be discouraged, God is over all;

Count your many blessings, angels will attend,

Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

Perhaps, the Lord will graciously give a revival to our countrymen and women like he has in times past. I am thankful to be able to vote. I hope you are too, even given the circumstances. The pastoral role in these moments should continue to point people to God. We have one God and Savior, and he unfortunately will not be on the ballot this Tuesday. However, let us not forget that it is he who truly reigns over the affairs of the world as the Psalmist reminds us,

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting” (Psalm 93:1–2).

The Lord is an ancient monarch, who establishes the earth by the permanence of his rule. He’s seen it all. May this election cycle cause a renewed longing on the ballot of our hearts for the rule and hope of this ancient King of humanity.