In 1996, the elders of our church had the privilege of going to Albania, a small country in the Balkans just north of Greece. It was just five years after Communism fell. Albania was an independent Communist country that was closed off from the rest of the world. The dictator was fiercely anti-Christian: every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priest and every Muslim Imam was either imprisoned, deported or killed. The local Cathedral was turned into a basketball court. Every Bible was confiscated and destroyed. We met people who had never seen a Bible until the last couple of years. They had life in Christ that was powerful and exuberant, but they had no structure to understand how to live that life.
This is often observed in former Communist countries. The suppression of whatever Christian heritage they once had led to relational chaos and there is a need for clear instruction in basic Christian ethics.
That is just like the first churches we read about in the New Testament. Often, at the end of their letters, the apostles would give a series of simple, concise, rapid-fire applications that were designed to drive home the teaching found in the whole letter. In America, we do have a Christian heritage, which we tend to rely upon. While our culture seldom realizes it, they live on borrowed capital. And as things slide farther away from God, we also need these passages to remind us of the basic implications for life that gospel brings us under.
In this list, I would like to explore briefly verses 16–18. The series of statements are found to focus on several seemingly disconnected themes. These three verses are put together and the stand apart from what precedes and what follows. Let me make a few notes about the three verses.
First, these are all technically impossible commands to fulfill. Just take “Pray without ceasing.” How would that be possible? You can always do more than one thing at a time, but you can’t do them all well. Something will suffer. And prayer, the scripture tells us, requires concentration. There are spiritual limitations as well. Sometimes my heart is cold towards God – I don’t want to rejoice or pray. Some events in my life are so painful that I can’t authentically thank God. These are technically impossible and obviously they aren’t meant to be taken in a slavishly literal sense.
And, second, these all focus on a heart-direction and deal with our attitude toward God and his work in our lives. Like the word ‘maturity,’ these are never quite accomplished, but they point in the right direction. ‘Maturity,’ even in a simply human sense is a multifaceted concept. Physical maturity can be measured. But emotional, relational, vocational maturity, and so forth, is never complete. We all only attain a measure of maturity some more some less. No one is fully mature in every area of life.
These three brief commands are meant to focus our hearts to keep moving in the right direction. Every event, conversation, or situation can only cause us to rejoice if we can see the relationship between that event and the gospel. When we can see that, we can draw the line between the two and rejoice. That’s the direction our heart should be moving.
So, two basic guidelines: These are impossible to literally fulfill and these are designed to direct our hearts in the right direction in our relationship with God.
With that in mind, I’d like to focus our attention on v 18. In this week in which, in America, we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate to look at this verse:
1 Thess. 5.18: Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Even with the above two points, I find this to be the hardest one to understand and to put into practice. Like many things in life, this instruction is easy as long as things are going well and hard when they aren’t.
Let’s break the verse down into its three components, and explore each one. First, “Give thanks;” second, “In all circumstances;” third, “For this is the will of God.”
“Give thanks”: This means that we should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King.
To give thanks simply means to acknowledge someone with gratitude for something they have done for you. In relationship with God, that call us to acknowledge with gratitude that God is the source of what you receive in life.
This, in the Bible and in the history of Christian faith, has been regarded as a human duty. God, being the creator and Lord of all of life, ought to be acknowledged by his image. In our day, duty is often viewed in a negative light – many seem to think that the only proper motivation for worship is gratitude. While the highest, purest motivation is gratitude, I’m not sure duty and gratitude should be thought of as opposites.
Now, in this case, we are to thank God for two aspects of his character. This will become more plain as we go on but essentially we must thank him for both his greatness and his goodness. That God is our creator means he is all-powerful, he is “great” in the fullest sense of that word. He is far above us, unlike us, frightening in his eternal power. But if we didn’t know that he is also good, we wouldn’t be able to thank him properly. Yet, for those who trust him, God tells us, he is not only the eternal, majestic, all-powerful God who controls all things; he is also our loving spiritual Father. He is good. What is best for us is his purpose and aim. That’s who we are to thank for all that we receive in this life.
Second, “In all circumstances.” This is where it becomes more difficult. We should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. At every point of our experience, in whatever comes into our lives, we are to thank him.
Again, this is easy when good but hard when bad.
I know that everyone responds differently to life’s stresses, but I tend to see every difficulty as being either my own fault or the fault of someone else’s faith; I don’t customarily blame God. When something goes wrong, my first response is to figure out what I or someone else did wrong that brought about the situation. That is not what the scripture teaches that I ought to do.
Scripture tells me that ultimately, God is behind every event of life. Whether it is something that I experience as good, or something that I experience as difficult, even if it is something I experience as tragic, it has come into my life for a purpose to accomplish God’s will for me. In fact, scripture tells me he allows it to come into my life for the purpose of shaping me to be more like Jesus Christ. Now, the event may still have come about as a result of something I did, or something another person did, or a combination of many people’s actions. But behind it, God has a purpose. God is actively using the choices of human beings, weaving them together, and overseeing all, to accomplish his purpose.
Now, this is the most hated teaching of the Christian faith in this generation. I want to hear me acknowledge that up front. The idea of God’s ultimate control as Lord of the universe is despised by modern thought. According to modern thought, all things must be explainable only by mechanic processes that can be observed in the universe. This is called Scientific Materialism. That doesn’t mean all scientists hold to it, thankfully; it means that those who represent modern thought in a philosophic way make this a pillar of their religion: There is not spiritual realm, they say, and even if there were, it has no relevance for the physical universe in which we live. So, any idea that there is a God who is before, behind, and in control of, the natural processes of life must be rejected.
But there is a religious form of this today. It is called “Open Theism.” Such philosophers who want to retain some religious thought but accept this , say that God doesn’t know everything. Because he created free creatures who make their own choices, God cannot know something until the creature creates it by his or her choices. Thus, God cannot know the future; he knows all that has and is happening at every moment, but he cannot know the future. If he could know the future, he could change it. But God, like us, is caught up in the material laws that he has created; he is dependent on our choices to create the reality he can then deal with. This is why things seem to happen by chance, they say. It’s because of the choices of humans. This absolves of any responsibility for evil in the universe. But, it also absolves him of any power to change it.
The biggest problem with this, according to the Bible, is prophecy. If God doesn’t know things until they happen, how could he predict in detail things that would happen hundreds or thousands of years after he predicted them. All that to say that the God of an open theist is not the God of the Bible. You may not like the God of the Bible, but you shouldn’t try to make him into something else, something less that he himself claims.
Just consider two verses. One from the Old Testament, one from the New.
Isaiah 47.8–10: “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old;for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
Eph 1.11: In him (Christ) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
This is the teachings that Christians have always called “Providence.” I have found the following statement to be helpful that was written in the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563.
Q27. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A27. Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.
That is a good description of what scripture so clearly teaches. It is a difficult fact that you and I must deal with in life. God doesn’t reveal himself to us as the therapeutic god, the god who is supremely good but can’t really change things. He isn’t a god who says, “Let me come down to your level and put my arm around you and comfort you because I have been broken by sin as well. That’s what we do for each other in the midst of pain.
God has been broken by sin; that’s the meaning of the cross. But God in Christ was broken by sin so that he might break the chains of sin and set us free. If you want to have a God you can understand, a God who does nothing that will ever shake you, will never make you question or doubt or struggle, then you have a God who can’t do anything. Listen: A God with whom you never have to struggle, is not a God worth worshiping. Read the psalms! Listen to the struggle! These songs were written to teach you how to bring your heart to the eternal God and ask you to see him as he is and bow to his eternal purpose. But, remember, his purpose is good, because he is not a supernatural tyrant; he is a loving father.
Providence is great when you hear a groom tell a story as I have heard at weddings. He was lonely and wanted to be married. But he wanted to be faithful to God as well. So, he trusted God and waited, because he wasn’t just looking for a woman; he was looking for a wife. And in God’s time, not his, God brought into his life a wonderful woman. And he feels gratitude to God for what he has done and expresses it.
Providence is not so easy to understand or to accept when the story is the loss of a job, or a mental illness, or the death of child.
I’m not pretending this is a simple concept. We should note that the verse doesn’t say, “Give thanks for all circumstances” as though we should be grateful for house fires and car accidents. It says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” which is something different altogether. But it’s what is behind this verse. How can you “Give thanks in all circumstances,” if you do not believe that the eternal creator-God who rules the universe according to his eternal purpose is not also your loving heavenly Father who seeks your eternal best?
So, we should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. But there’s one more part of the sentence we need to consider: “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
In reality, this phrase relates to all three of the brief little directions God gives here. To understand it, we need to consider what is meant by the words “will of God.”
“The will of God” of course simply refers to God’s choice or intention about something. In scripture, it can used in one of at least three ways.
- The most rare but important, is what I’ll call God’s sovereign will, or better, his eternal will. This is God’s eternal purpose and covers all things that actually come to pass in his creation. Scripture refers to this as a single decree by which God, in eternity past, determined all that comes to pass. The eternal plan of salvation is included in this comprehensive plan. Scripture refers to it and it is helpful to us to know that there is such a thing. What God decrees is helpful to us only as we look back on what has unfolded in history; it doesn’t help us to live the Christian life. It is a mystery to which we are not encouraged to seek to pry into.
- A second way scripture refers to the will of God is what I will call his permissive will. God, in his eternal will, doesn’t unilaterally determine all that happens. Based on his foreknowledge, he weaves human choices, even sinful choices into his purposes. He permits things and weaves them into his eternal purpose without directly willing them, since God cannot choose or think or do evil. That also is helpful so that we know that, while God may have allowed sinful actions and their consequences, he doesn’t directly will them. Yet he uses them.
- But then, there is what we can call God’s preceptive will. These are the precepts, or instructions, that he gives to us about how to live. The ten commandments, for example, are part of God’s preceptive will. They tell us what God requires of us; they don’t tell us what is going to happen in every case. Obviously, these three verses are a part of God’s preceptive will which is the most helpful aspect of the will of God for our everyday life.
The life God intends for us to live and the life that will result in the greatest blessing is a life of thankfulness to him. A thankfulness that is not a sentimental, Christmas dinner kind of “God’s blessed us this last year, hasn’t he.” Rather a daily reckoning with the reality of life and a free choice to thank God for the way he is actively working to conform us to the character of Christ.
So, let’s finish our sentence that’s we’ve been building from this verse:
We should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King, in everything that comes into our lives, so that God receives the glory and we receive the blessing that he intends.
Why do I say that this kind of thankfulness results in God being glorified and our being blessed? Because it is, “the will of God in Christ Jesus” for us! It is how our choices magnify the eternal purpose of God in Christ. In Christ is found all the riches of God. It is God’s way of blessing us so that life reflects him and his glory.
Oh, that we would see this at Thanksgiving. That we would look beyond ourselves and, regardless of our circumstances, see that God is intimately involved and concerns with everything in our lives. O, that we could rest in the providence of God and rejoice that “all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”