"Give Thanks" 
1 Thessalonians 5:18 
Theme: God commands that our relationship with Him be characterized by thanksgiving ...

November 21, 1999
Thanksgiving Sunday

I have a friend from the former Soviet Union who has a wonderful habit.  Whenever I ask him how his family is, or how his job is going, he says, "Good!" and then almost always adds,  "Thank you, Jesus."  He immediately give thanks to the Lord for the good things in His life.  I have always appreciated that habit in my friend; and now, as I'm going about my daily work and dealing with the seemingly mundane circumstances of my own life, I often find myself  giving out a "Thank you, Jesus" -- much the same way he does.

My own adoption -- sort of unconsciously -- of that little, habitual expression as my own is one of the most precious gifts that friend could have ever given me.  It's especially precious to me because it's helped make me to think more deliberately about giving thanks to God as a continual habit of my life -- and not just as an occasional 'special event'.

I believe that habit of expressing thanks to Jesus in an ongoing way is important to think about as we come to the time of year when we celebrate "Thanksgiving".  When we think of "Thanksgiving" in our country, most of us automatically think of an event -- a big dinner with family and friends.  Most of us recognize that this "dinner" is in celebration of another event what occurred at Plymouth Plantation in 1621.  In that year, William Bradford -- the governor of the little colony of pilgrims -- arranged for a feast because, as after a dreadful winter, and a particularly lean harvest the following summer, they wanted to celebrated God's grace to them .  They had, as Bradford wrote, "found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all prosperity." And because the local Native American Indians had been so gracious as to provide crucial and life-saving help to the colony, the pilgrims asked that they join the feast as well.

I'm glad that we celebrate that day. But it was never God's intention that we only give thanks on one special day out of the year. Rather, God's intention for us is that our life-style habit be more like that of my friend -- that every area of our lives is punctuated with "Thank you, Jesus!" all the time.

One verse of Scripture that expresses this truth very well -- and that deserves our concentrated attention as we approach Thanksgiving -- is 1 Thessalonians 1:18; 

"... In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

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These words are found in a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he himself established -- a church in the ancient port city of Thessalonica.  The response of the people in Thessalonica to the Gospel Paul preached was remarkable.  In fact, the Thessalonian believers gained a reputation around the world for their dramatic conversion (1 Thess. 1:8-10). Faith in Jesus Christ was something that involved a personal cost for Thessalonian Christians.  Paul's letter to them makes occasional references to the things they were suffering.  He wrote, 

"For you , brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus.  For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their on prophets, and have persecuted us ..." 
(1 Thess. 2:14-15, NKJ)

He told them that none of them should be "shaken" by these "afflictions":

  "... For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it has happened, and you know" (1 Thess. 3:3-4, NKJ)

Among the reasons Paul had for writing this letter to them was so that he could express his thanks for all that God had done in them; and to encourage them to stand strong and persevere in their faith -- even when it was very hard to do so.  And he wrote those specific words about 'thanksgiving' to encourage them to persevere through their trials with the sort of attitude of heart that brings glory to God -- "... In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

Here, we find that "thanksgiving" isn't to be just a matter of celebrating a special day once a year.  We find instead that it's to be the ongoing, everyday character of our lives to say, "Thank you, Jesus."  God command in this verse is that our relationship with Him be characterized by constant thanksgiving.

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What is this "giving of thanks" supposed to look like?  Notice first to whom this "thanksgiving" is to be given.  God commands that our thanks is to be rendered to Him.

I used to believe that "Thanksgiving" was the one holiday we celebrate that could never be secularized.  It seems that every other holiday in our culture has had the religious significance almost completely secularized out of it; but I didn't think that anyone could twist the intrinsically God-ward focus out of a day that is dedicated to giving Him thanks.  I'm afraid that I was wrong in this, however.  I hear Thanksgiving being thought of increasingly as a day set aside to "give thanks" in a general sense to one another -- to family and friends, or even to no one at all -- but not as a day to give thanks directly to God.  I hear that some schools teach children that it's the day that the pilgrims established to say "thank you" to the Indians.  I'm even bothered when I keep hearing people refer to Thanksgiving as "Turkey Day" -- making the main-dish the focus of attention rather than the One who graciously provides us with our daily bread.

Now I admit; Paul doesn't say in this verse -- directly, anyway -- that we're to render our thanks to God.  But look at the context and you'll see that this is, nevertheless, what is meant.  In the verse immediately before this one, Paul urges them to "pray without ceasing"; certainly drawing their attention to God our Father.  And when he tells us that "this is the will of God", he clearly points to God as the subject of concern. Later on in this passage, Paul gives them the ultimate context for their thanks:

"Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it" (vv. 23-24, NKJ).

And so, the implication is that our thanks is directed primarily toward the God to whom we're called to pray, and who has committed Himself to faithfully bring us into full glory at the coming of His Son Jesus Christ.

In other, very similar passages, Paul puts the matter plainly -- that we're to give our primary thanks to God.  He says in Ephesians 5:20 that, under the rule of the Holy Spirit, we're to be "giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ ..." Or, in Philippians 4:6, he wrote, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God ..."  Or in Colossians 3:17, he wrote, "... whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him."

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be people who are characterized by thankfulness in every respect.  We should be quick to thank others for the kindnesses they show to us.  But our primary thanks is always due, and should always be given as a matter of first priority, to God the Father, in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Please pause and examine yourself in this.  Are you truly thankful to God?  What I mean by that is, do you understand God Himself to be the ultimate One from whom, as James says, every good gift and perfect gift" comes down (James 1:17)?  And understanding that, and believing that, do you actually, verbally express your thanks to Him first as a practice of life?  Do you actually say thank you to Him as you should -- not just "feel" thankful toward Him, but actually say thanks to Him? Let's make it our habit of life to express our first and most hearty thanks to God our Father.  Let's verbalize our thanks to Him.  Let's direct our thanks to Him as the first One to whom our thanks are due. Let's learn -- in the regular, daily routine, to say, "Thank you, Father."

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Second, we notice from this verse that God commands that our relationship with Him be characterized by thanksgiving in everything.  "... In everything," Paul writes,  "give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

As I read those words -- particularly the words "in everything give thanks" -- I realize that this is hard to do at times.  I have come to appreciate how painful some of the trials are that several of you have gone through in the past.  I've also come to appreciate a fraction of the pain you feel in some of the things you're going through right now.  Some folks who have gone through such things came out of the other side of them bitter and resentful toward God for allowing such things to happen to them -- certainly not "thankful".  How could it be that we're to give thanks in everything, when that "everything" includes such horrible experiences of pain and suffering?

I believe that it's important that we appreciate the careful way Paul says this.  He doesn't say to thank God "for" everything.  That would involve a passive, fatalistic "victim" mentality to the troubles and trials of life; and it seems to me that it would require that we "turn off our brains" and numb ourselves to reality.

Paul doesn't say, give thanks "for" all things.  Notice instead that this passage commands us to give thanks "in" all things.  There's a big difference.  To give thanks "for" all things is a matter of surrendering to those things in a passive way.  To give thanks "in" all things is a bold act of victorious, overcoming faith that recognizes that all is not as it should be -- but that God is still on the Throne and is able to bring about good through what seems so bad.  The Bible tells us that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28); and that we can "glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4).  Because that's true, we can give thanks to Him "in" all things because of what He's accomplishing "through" those things.

I believe God is pleased when He sees honesty in our thanks.  He doesn't want us to say -- in a fakey sort of way -- "Thanks, God, for all this pain and suffering.  I really like it."  He would much rather we say, "Father, I don't like what's happening.  It feels as if everything is falling apart.  In fact, I wish with all my heart that none of this was happening to me.  I don't understand why You've let this happen.  But I do know that You're in control.  I do know that, no matter what, You'll never change.  I do know that You have decreed a good purpose for these things that are happening to me; and that, through them, You are conforming me to the image of Your wonderful Son Jesus Christ.  And so, dear Father, because of all those truths, I thank You 'in' these things."

Let me suggest a discipline in your life that will help you immeasurably to grow to give thanks "in" all things in this way.  I suggest that you grow in your understanding of the basic biblical doctrines about God the Father.  Learn the Bible's teachings about who God really is what what He is really like.  Learn about His perfect nature as the God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere-present.  Learn to appreciate what the Bible says about His attributes of perfect love, perfect wisdom, perfect holiness, perfect goodness, perfect mercy, and perfect truthfulness.  Study the names given Him in the Bible, like "The Most High God," or "The Everlasting God", or "The God Who Sees".  Study the names by which some of the saints who had personal experience with Him called Him; such names as "The LORD will provide", or The LORD is my Shepherd", or "The LORD of Hosts (i.e., armies).  Grow in your understanding -- and sense of wonder -- with respect to God the Father.

These are truths about Him that will never, ever change.  They provide the basis of a hardy thanks to God "in" every circumstance in life -- no matter how joyful or how painful.  And so, let's make it our practice to say, "Thank you, Father -- even in this."

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Third, this verse teaches us that God commands that our relationship with Him be characterized by thanksgiving continually.  The verb Paul uses is in a tense that involves a continual, ongoing action. He's saying that every circumstance and every situation is to find us in a state of continual giving of thanks to God -- not once a year or at special occasions, but always as an ongoing practice of our lives.  As Paul says in Ephesians 5:20, we're to be "giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ ..."

If someone does something kind for you -- sends you a card, takes you out for lunch, buys you a gift -- it's appropriate to thank them.  Once is probably enough in such cases; but saying thanks over and over and over again would be sort of strange.  On the other hand, if it was a gift that keeps on benefiting you -- if someone finances your college education and sets you on the course of a wonderful, lucrative career; or if someone performs an act of heroism and saves your life -- then just a single thanks isn't enough.  It's appropriate that the duration of our thanks be commensurate with the benefit being enjoyed.

That being true, then what sort of a thanks would be appropriate for an act of grace in which a Divine benefactor pulls you up from the depths of the pit of death that you were sunk into because of sin, washes you clean of all your sins by the shedding of His own precious Son's blood and clothes you with His Son's own righteousness, adopts you as His own child, makes you a joint heir with His Son, promises you an inheritance that is imperishable, is undefiled, will not fade away, and is reserved in heaven for you, and pledges that He will never, ever take His love away from you but will make you to dwell in His house forever?  What sort of thanks would we owe in such a case but an unending, continual debt of thanks?  Surely, no one-time-only thanks would be appropriate then. 

Rather a whole life that is one big, giant "thank you" is the only thing that is even remotely commensurate with the duration of the benefit being enjoyed.

In this respect, our debt of thanks to God is a remarkable kind of debt.  There's no other debt like it.  The more of it we pay off, the more we see that we owe.  And yet, the further into the debt of thanks to God we see ourselves going, the more satisfying it is to our soul -- until we're overcome with a sense of an eternal debt of thanks to God that will extend forever and ever in endless heavenly joy.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the case with us!  The nature of our thanks to God is to be an eternal, ongoing, unending, all-encompassing "life" of thanks to God.  It's the only sort of thanks that's appropriate.  If you or I were to be content with merely giving God an occasional word of thanks -- instead of a continual sense of gratitude to Him -- it would have to be because we have failed to grasp, in an experiential way, the depths of His saving grace, or failed to understand just how much He has done for us -- and continues to give us every single day -- in Christ!

Let's learn to say, "Thank you, Father -- again and again and again!" as an ongoing practice of our lives.

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Fourthly, this verse teaches us that God commands that our relationship with Him be characterized by thanksgiving as His expressed will for us. "... In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

The cultivation of a spirit of thanksgiving toward God the Father in these ways isn't dependent upon the worthiness of the circumstances, or upon our own sense of feeling like doing so.  Very often, the circumstances don't seem to provoke a spirit of "thanks" from us; nor do we always feel particularly thankful.  Rather, the cultivation of a spirit of thanksgiving toward God is based on a very practical fact -- it is His will that we do so.

Why has God commanded us to give thanks to Him?  The reasons may be many more than we could ever know; but three very important reasons come to mind.  First, giving thanks to God is commanded of us because it is, in the end, what He has saved us to do.  It is His purpose for us as redeemed people to thank Him.  He has told us, in 1 Peter 2:9:

"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9, NKJ)

For us as believers, to not be giving thanks to God is to act contrary to our design.  We were saved by Him for the very purpose of proclaiming His praises; and so He expresses that it's His will we give Him thanks.

Another reasons why God has commanded us to give thanks to Him is because giving thanks to God is the essential characteristic of true worship.  True worship involves taking a good, long look at who God is and what He has done, and responding appropriately to what we see. Thanksgiving is an essential element in that response. Consider that a refusal to give thanks to God is the essential characteristic of ungodly people.  Romans 1 tells us that the first step in the downward slide of the ungodly is that they refuse to give thanks to God.  Paul said, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:18-21).

So, if such people knew about God, why didn't they worship Him? They are without excuse, Paul says:

"because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man -- and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things" (Romans 1:23-24)

It's a dreadful picture, isn't it?  Paul is telling us here that all false-religions, all cults, all pagan forms of worship and idolatry, have their beginning point in first knowing the truth about God, second suppressing that truth in unrighteousness, and third, refusing to glorify Him and give Him thanks.  What a dreadful downward spiral unthankfulness toward God sets into motion!  I believe one reason God commands us to give thanks to Him because it makes our hearts right before Him and keeps us worshiping Him as we should.

A third reason is because giving thanks to God blesses us.  It should make sense that, if we've been redeemed by God for the expressed purpose of giving thanks to Him for what He's done, we'd be most blessed -- most happy and fulfilled -- when we're doing what we've been designed to do.  Giving thanks to God in all the different areas of our lives is what makes our worship of God practical and down-to-earth.  Giving thanks to God is the best preventative we have against becoming cynical and bitter. Giving thanks to God now is how we begin training this very moment for the work we'll eternally be doing in heaven.

Are you seeking the will of God for your life?  I can tell you what the will of God is for your life on the basis of the authority of His own word.  His expressed will for you is this: "In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

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And so, you can see that when my friend taught me the habit of saying "thank you" to God in the little areas of life, he taught me more than just how to make the Thanksgiving holiday more meaningful -- he has taught me one of the essential disciplines of the Christian faith.  To be a Christian in the truest sense is to be characterized by continual thanksgiving to God for His amazing grace to us -- a continual "Thank you, Jesus."  And so, we should no more accept the idea of giving thanks to God only once a year than we would accept the idea of behaving like a Christian once a year.

But where do you start?  This leads us to the final characteristic of thanks that this verse presents to us -- that our relationship with toward God is to be characterized by thanksgiving that is in Christ  "... In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

The only real starting point in giving thanks to God is to begin by placing your trust in His Son Jesus Christ.  It's God's expressed will that we give thanks to Him in everything "in Christ Jesus".  Anyone who seeks to offer an expression of genuine thanks to God must offer it "in Christ."  As it says in Hebrews 13:12-15;

"... Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.  Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.  Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifices of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Hebrews 13:12-15, NKJ)

To give an acceptable thanks to God, you must be "in Christ".  You must first admit to God that you are a sinner in need of His saving grace, then place your trust in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for your sins -- expressing your trust to God in prayer and giving Him thanks that He gave His Son to die in your place and pay for your sins.  Then -- and only then -- will you have the greatest of all reasons to "give thanks".

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