As we continue our journey through 1 Thessalonians 5 and discover what characterizes us as believers in Jesus, this past Sunday we looked at verse 18, which is yet another short, simple phrase: “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
But as we’ve been discovering, short verses can carry a great deal of depth and meaning.
Now as we look at the idea of gratitude, of course we realize that the way God looks at gratitude is different than the way the world looks at it. But that’s not to say the world doesn’t value gratitude. In fact, a secular journal once deemed gratitude the most important mental exercise you can do for psychological and emotional health!
But how are we as believers to look at gratitude — the act of giving thanks? First, let’s consider a definition: Gratitude is the outward expression of something going on deep inside you. Gratitude is what’s inside our hearts — thankfulness and appreciation and gratefulness are what comes out.
On that note, as we dig into this very short verse, we immediately see the importance of a single, small word: “in.” The verse reads “give thanks in all circumstances” — not “give thanks for all circumstances.” You see the difference? God would seem to understand that it’s difficult to give thanks for a trial or challenge or deep pain in our lives. However, as we continue to mature in our faith, we come to a place of depth where we can see God doing complex work in our souls and realize that IN a particular trial or hardship, we can experience amazing growth. And that is something to give thanks about!
As we grow from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, if we’ve experienced the challenge of dealing with limits, we get to learn how to see the good amid hard circumstances. Now, here’s another definition: Gratitude is a condition of the heart that fosters the tendency to focus on good. It’s actually something we can learn, improve upon, and even excel at!
So how do we get better at being grateful and giving thanks? Well, let’s look at three things that pull us away from and rob us of a state of gratitude — and three things that will bring us back.
The first distraction is complaining. We all are guilty of complaining to various degrees when things we lack loom large in our lives. As the Israelites found a way to complain about their desert circumstances despite all the necessities God was giving to them every day, we also find a way to complain. But how do we get rid of complaining? The key, according to Deuteronomy 8, is to remember the Lord and all the good he’s done in our lives. We must make it a habit and a practice to remember God’s goodness. And when we’ve gotten the hang of such a heart focus it becomes our “gratitude therapy.”
The second distraction is anxiety. Now whether anxiety is the result of a chemical imbalance in our brains or simply circumstances that have become overwhelming and continually cycle over and over, becoming scarier with each turn, the Lord has an answer when anxiety is threatening to undo us. It’s found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses 6 through 9:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learnedand received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And do you know what’s interesting about the phrase “in everything” found in verse 6 of Philippians 4? It’s the same Greek phrase — “in all circumstances” — found in 1 Thessalonians 6:18! We’re looking at the same goals here
Now the key, according to Scripture, for moving from anxiety to gratitude is prayer. Because when we lift up our anxieties to the Lord, then the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And again, this is a spiritual practice that we can all improve upon and get better at in our own lives.
The third distraction is anger. When we allow anger to rule our hearts, we’re focusing on the bad and the pain in our lives. And like the other two distractions we’ve looked at, we’re all guilty of letting anger take hold of us to different degrees — but above all we can’t stay there. Otherwise we become people who don’t reflect God’s goodness at all.
So how do we move from anger to gratitude and giving thanks? The key, according to the Bible, is to become a giver! This is illustrated quite profoundly in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel when Mary, Martha, and Lazarus threw a dinner in Jesus’ honor — and each of them gave something to the Lord. Martha gave to Jesus through her service; Lazarus gave to Jesus through his presence and intimacy as they conversed; and Mary gave to Jesus through her incredible generosity — perfume worth an entire year’s wages! And we also see in that passage that Judas’ attitude was diametrically opposed to Mary’s, as Judas wasn’t happy about the gift of perfume, saying the money could have been used as alms for the poor. But as he so often does, Judas completely misses the point, and we’re told that Judas said what he did “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.’”
So, as you strive to live a Christian life that’s filled more and more with gratitude, don’t get discouraged when you fall short or if you have a bad day. Because it’s also true that even a little bit of gratefulness goes a long way. Therefore, put expressions of gratitude into practice — even if it’s only a little bit sometimes — and harness the truths of Scripture that will help you dispense with the distractions of complaining, anxiety, and anger and lead you to remember the Lord in all things, pray, and become a giver.