Rev. Miersma is pastor of the Loveland Protestant Reformed Chruch in Loveland, Colorado.
“Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ephesians 5:20As can be seen from the Heidelberg Catechism, the giving of thanks is a way of life for the child of God. However, that does not make it a mere formality in our lives. Many people go through the motions of thanksgiving, but do not know what it really is. Many simply do not have the right to do so. This may seem a bit strong, but this is a scriptural truth.
Thanksgiving is a spiritual exercise that only the believer in Christ can perform. The Scriptures reveal this in several passages. In II Corinthians 4:15 we read, “For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.” Then two passages in the letter to the Philippians. In chapter 4:4 we read, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” And two verses later, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Then also in I Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
From these passages three ideas stand out very clearly: first, that thanksgiving is not a matter of particular occasions; secondly, that it is not concerned with some things while others are excluded from the giving of thanks; and thirdly, that it is the fruit of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord.
From the above texts it is clear that the giving of thanks is not limited to Thanksgiving Day, whether celebrated in October (Canada) or in November (USA). When we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we are reminded of the three great truths just mentioned. But because Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday, we are in danger of imagining that on that day, at least, to give thanks is a national affair, that is, something in which all the citizens can participate. But this is not true on Thanksgiving Day any more than on any other day.
There was a time when a nation was also the church of God. That is no longer true, for the church is among all nations. No nation is the church. Even on Thanksgiving Day it is only those within the nation that are in Christ Jesus that are able to give thanks. Instituted as a harvest feast Thanksgiving Day comes only once a year, leading many people to regard thanksgiving as a matter only for special occasions. We celebrate, they say, with a view to harvest, so we concentrate on material things, setting aside things that we consider evil in order to give thanks for the good.
Our text, however, instructs us to give thanks always. Giving thanks must be characteristic of our entire life and walk—every day of our life and every moment of our existence. It must not be centered in things, for thanksgiving is joy in the Lord—and not only for some things, but for all of God’s dealings with us in Christ Jesus. There is nothing excluded. For all of our experiences in life, no matter what they may be, regardless of whether they be pleasant or unpleasant to the flesh, we must give thanks.
Looking at the good side, we include our earthly life and all its gifts, powers, and talents. In addition, there is our health and strength to labor, our daily bread, clothing, shelter, and abundance. We can add still more, the rain and sunshine, the fertility of the soil, growth of the seed, the grain of the field, and the fruit of the trees.
On the other side there are those things that we consider bad or evil. As our Baptism Form has it, “this life is nothing but a continual death.” Death surrounds us on all sides. Alongside of joy there is also sorrow, health but also sickness, pain, suffering, and agony. There is abundance, but also scarcity and want. We experience peace, but also wars and rumors of wars. There are fruitful and barren years, rain and sunshine but also scorching heat, hail, and fire. All these are included in the exhortation to give thanks.
This seems strange and paradoxical. How absurd it would seem if our President or Prime Minister would enumerate all these things as ground for thanksgiving. Instead, we more than likely will hear how “kind providence has supplied us with an abundance of good things.” Or maybe we would hear that “the Almighty has filled our barns with plenty, the wheels of industry are spinning.” And from many we hear that “in spite of sorrows and sufferings, troubles and anxieties, there are many things to be thankful for.”
Thinking about that, we perhaps are inclined to agree. Who would give thanks for wars, for the Iraqs and Afghanistans? Who that has been sick for weeks gives thanks to God for the very bed of languishing? What farmer praises the Lord for the hailstorm that destroyed his crops in a matter of minutes?
It seems also a paradox when we look at the meaning of giving thanks. To give thanks presupposes that we have received good things, that we are conscious of them, and that we count and name them one by one. It implies that we rejoice because of the good we have received and do receive, and also that these things are all good gifts, gifts of God, not one of which we have merited, for we are unworthy of the very least of them. It presupposes that we point to the Giver of all these things and praise His holy name for all the goodness, grace, mercy, and lovingkindness to usward, as they become manifest in all His benefits.
To give thanks “in everything” implies that we give thanks on the ground of everything, because of everything, that we rejoice because of everything that we receive, including that which we consider bad. And finally, we acknowledge that our God is the giver of it all.
We ask, How can that be possible? It is, of course, not possible for natural man. By nature men are rich in things, but not in God. We are reminded of the rich fool and the warning of Christ, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). It is foolish “to men of this world, which have their portion in this life” (Ps. 17:14). They think that their houses shall continue forever. To all these it is foolish and impossible; they do not give thanks at all. They rejoice in things, but never in the Lord. A joy for the measure of the abundance of our thanksgiving dinner is quite different from the joy of thanksgiving. A cruel thanksgiving it is if measured by the abundance of things, because then it would be only for the rich, with nothing to say for the poor. The rich eat, drink, and are merry, for tomorrow they die. They glorify God not as God, neither are they thankful.
True thanksgiving is possible only for the believer. Does the believer rejoice in evil, in pain and suffering, sorrow and grief, war and depression? Or does he by sheer will power set his face like a flint and show himself victorious over the sufferings of this present time as did the Stoic of old? We answer with a resounding, “Of course not.”
How then is it possible to give thanks in everything? Because he belongs to Christ. Christ is Lord of all. He was anointed before the foundations of the world to be heir and Lord of all things. He is the firstborn of every creature and of the dead. Unto Him and by Him were all things created. He is the head of His body, the church. In the fullness of time He came to redeem His people by taking upon Himself their sins on the accursed tree, carrying them away forever. Being laid to rest in the grave He was raised from the dead on the third day as proof of our justification. Finally, He shall take us to the heavenly tabernacle where we shall see Him face to face. To belong to Him means that He is our Lord in everlasting love. We were in Christ when He died and was raised. And now we who are in Him by faith look for His return.
This is why it is possible for us to give thanks in everything. To belong to Christ does not only mean redemption and comfort during this life concerning my sins, but also that what is evil in this present time is in reality good. “Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (I Cor. 3:21-23). Then there are the familiar words of Paul in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” That is why we give thanks in everything, always. Our joy is in the Lord. And with the prophet of old we confess, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17, 18).