There’s something odd about thankfulness. It seldom seems to fit the situation.
In a society of high expectations and instant gratification, people who are thankful for the good things in life seem rather quaint—naïve, sweet, and sentimental. Thankfulness seems like a mindset for people whose lives revolve around politeness and thank you notes.
It’s an even tougher sell when we think about being thankful in the midst of painful circumstances. Then, the encouragement to be thankful seems insensitive, even cruel.
That’s what happens when we take a biblical idea and recast it in terms of our own experiences.
But God doesn’t seem to see thankfulness in either of these ways.
Thankfulness Is God’s Idea
The Bible is packed with commands, encouragements, and invitations to give thanks to the Lord, and with examples of people who do.
The book of Psalms overflows with expressions and encouragements to praise God.
You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. (118:28, 29)
You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. (30:11,12)
Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. (106:47)
The New Testament follows the same pattern.
Most of Paul’s letters begin with thanks to God for his work in the people to whom Paul is writing. He models thankfulness and encourages his readers to do the same with verses like these:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Col. 2:6, 7)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil. 4:6)
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:15)
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
The list goes on and on, especially when you realize that, in the original Greek and Hebrew, the words that our Bible translates as thankful are related to words translated as bless, praise, to declare blessed, to give glory to. All the words of praise, blessing, glorifying, rejoicing, and exalting the Lord overlap with thankfulness.
It is a huge part of the Bible’s message to us.
Why Give Thanks?
Why is all this so important? Is God insecure and dependent on us to boost his self-esteem? No.
Is God vain and egotistical? Will he only respond to those who flatter him? No.
Is it because he is temperamental and unstable, and he could fly off the handle and do serious damage if we don’t keep him happy? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The Bible is full of commands to give thanks to God because it is not our human instinct, and in that way, we are out of sync with the rest of the universe.
Jesus once said that if human beings didn’t praise and thank God, the stones of the earth would cry out in our place (Luke 19:40). That’s how motivated the rest of the created world is to give thanks.
But the created world knows something that human beings do not.
It is much more in tune with heaven, where spiritual truth and reality are experienced without distortion. Every picture that the Bible gives of heaven includes scenes in which a variety of creatures stand before God and erupt in praise, thanks, and worship.
In Revelation 5, we read about “the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.” They encircled God’s throne and…
…in a loud voice, they sang, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11-13).
Praise and thanks to God seem to be the natural, authentic, and spontaneous response of the rest of the created world. Human beings are the notable exception. Basically, we’re not normal!
If we saw things as they truly are, praise and thanks are apparently what we would do all the time.
Why Is Thankfulness So Unnatural to Us?
Most of us can come up with at least part of the answer. We would say that we live in a world where there is too much suffering and evil to be thankful all the time. And the Bible would agree that we live on a planet that has been corrupted by sin, and where things are not as they should be.
But the Bible would go deeper than that.
The Bible teaches that sin not only spoils our environment and the external order of our world, but it has also affected each of us internally, spiritually.
Every one of us begins life separated from God. We don’t know him, we don’t have a relationship with him, and we don’t trust him—we don’t even like him. This to us feels normal, but to the rest of the universe, it’s the most unnatural and tragic state imaginable.
It leaves us blind to a lot of spiritual reality, even when we are searching for it.
Not surprisingly, this has had a direct effect on our ability and inclination to be thankful.
Romans 1 describes the human condition this way:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. (Romans 1:21, 22).
This is a dark picture and a desperate situation. But this is the problem that Jesus came to earth to solve.
He removed the barrier of sin with his death on our behalf, and he brings anyone who trusts him into a relationship with God as our heavenly Father. When this happens, we start living a whole new reality—the one the rest of the universe has known all along.
That ultimately is the reason why the Bible tells us we can give thanks even when we’re here on earth. We have a reason for that that we didn’t have before. And being thankful allows us to be a part of what’s going on in heaven even before we get there.
Giving thanks gives us a taste of our future inheritance as God’s children.
That in itself would be enough, but I also think God calls us to be thankful because he knows we’re not in heaven yet.
He understands the world we live in. I believe that he calls us to be thankful as a concrete and practical protection against the spiritual hazards of life here on earth. What do I mean by that?
In every circumstance and relationship of life, we are faced with a choice. How are we going to respond to it?
Are we going to move toward God or away from him? Satan wants every situation to be a temptation to doubt God and turn away from him. But God wants it to be something that refines our faith and causes us to move toward God and to trust him.
Being thankful is one of the responses that strengthen our relationship with God.
Being thankful also serves as a preventative against many problems and sins. If you make the choice to be thankful, there are a lot of battles you probably won’t have to fight.
That’s why God not only encourages us to be thankful for the good things he gives us, he also calls us to be thankful for who he is as our starting point— as something we do first as a way of life.
For lack of a better term, we should “frontload” thankfulness because of what we know about him. This helps prevent all kinds of other problems.
For example, if you are thankful, it’s much harder to be fearful of circumstances or people. You know God is in control. It’s less likely that you will be devastated by criticism because you know God has loved and accepted you.
If you are thankful, it’s much harder to be cynical and sarcastic about life. You know God has a good purpose.
It’s much harder to be proud. It’s much harder to be self-righteously angry. It’s much harder to be bitter and unforgiving. You just don’t feel the need.
If you are thankful, it’s just about impossible to be hopeless. It’s much harder to be demanding and fixated on your problems. It’s much harder to be greedy or envious.
If you are thankful, you’re much less likely to be overwhelmed when you are wronged.
All the way through, thankfulness promotes God’s loving purpose to draw us close to him, to make us more like him, and to help us live out the life he has planned for us.
Thankfulness Amid Evil
Yet we all know how easy it is to struggle with thankfulness because of the evil we see and experience in this world and because of all the things we do not understand.
Christianity’s response to this is unique among world religions.
The God we serve does not stand at a distance, detached from human suffering. Instead, he sent his own Son to experience that suffering—and the agonies of hell itself—to secure our salvation.
God permits evil, but he also committed himself to endure it with us so that we might be delivered from it. As the Gospels and the book of Hebrews makes clear, this was no mere formality. The perfect and holy Son of God spent his time on earth surrounded by sin and temptation.
He faced rejection by his Father and complete separation from him at a time when his sinless nature bore all the ugliness and pain of sin. In ways that human beings cannot imagine, his sufferings from sin greatly exceed our own.
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb. 5:7-9).
In his book, Step by Step, James C. Petty offers insights on why God does not reveal to us everything we would want to know.
Often, as human beings, we are not willing to be thankful unless we can evaluate God’s reason for doing a particular thing. God does not put himself under our judgment but calls on us to trust in who he is instead.
Petty says that the kind of knowledge we often seek is not given to us “for our own good. There are a number of reasons why we would have trouble with such knowledge. First, God’s knowledge is exhaustive. It…is way out of our league, both in sophistication and quantity of information.”
Second, “the information would damage us. It is too toxic for us to handle….The knowledge of good and evil is restricted to us by God’s own love for us. The good is too good and the evil is too evil.”
Humanity wanted to know and understand the basis for everything God commanded, but since we are not God, this knowledge created life-threatening problems for us.
There seems to be an experiential component to knowing the evil that is lethal. Even what God does reveal seems to be described in metaphorical language and leaves us with questions perhaps God consciously meant, for our own benefit, not to answer.”
In contrast to knowledge that would promise man independence from God, Jesus revealed God in a non-toxic, non-lethal, and life-giving form. He told us what we needed to know to be reconciled with God and have a new life in him. His death on the cross changed our fearful and arrogant hearts so that we are able to be joyful creatures and not frustrated gods.
We can now trust the God who controls our future and concentrate on living for him in the present.
Being thankful is God’s way of giving us a direct line to him, an instant and intimate connection to a powerful and loving Heavenly Father despite all the evil that surrounds us.
It is a way for us to leapfrog over all the things we do not understand and cannot fix, to put ourselves into God’s loving, powerful arms.
Being thankful does not mean living in denial, suppressing our feelings, or ignoring reality. It means being honest, but bringing all those things to a God who has promised to love us and demonstrated it by sending his Son to be our Savior.
It brings us nearer to heaven and helps us to overcome the world.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
Where are you? Maybe you are realizing that you need to begin at the beginning, and ask the Lord to bring you into this kind of relationship with him. I encourage you to take that step.
Maybe you are already a Christian, but you’ve allowed other voices to control the way you’ve lived your life. God has been crowded out, and too often you’ve been left in bondage to your own sins and failings, and to difficult people and circumstances.
Listen to the Lord again:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.”
Listen to the Lord, and respond with faith —and thankfulness.
This post is an excerpt from Thankfulness: Even When It Hurts by Susan Lutz. Sue worked as a counselor and served in ministry with Jack and Rose Marie Miller when Serge (then World Harvest Mission) was founded.