It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well, like when we ace the exam, when we get the raise, when we’re healthy and our life is flourishing. It’s not so easy to give thanks when we fail the exam, when we get fired or when tragedy strikes. I have yet to see an athlete point their index fingers to the sky to give thanks after striking out or getting sacked, and I’m not holding my breath. If I saw an athlete do that, I would be really surprised. Talk about severe cognitive dissonance…

Paul spoke twice about thanksgiving in a way that surprises and amazes me. In Ephesians, as he describes life full of the Spirit, he says we should always give thanks for all things (Ephesians 5:20). He was in jail when he said that, apparently after narrowly escaping a murder plot, corrupt governors, and near-death in a shipwreck. Paul also told the Thessalonians that they should give thanks in every circumstance (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and he wrote that after reminding them of the suffering they experienced with him when he first told them about Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; 3:4; Acts 17:1-9). And Paul didn’t just tell others to give thanks during trying times—he actually did it himself, like when he and Barnabas prayed and sang praises to God at midnight after they had been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:25).

Paul isn’t alone either in this surprising approach to suffering and thanksgiving. It turns out that other people in the Bible shared Paul’s counterintuitive conviction that we should thank God all the time, even during the worst of times.

  • Joseph saw the hand of God behind his betrayal by his brothers (Genesis 45:5, 7-8; 50:20).
  • Job praised God after losing everything (Job 1:21).
  • Daniel thanked God, as was his custom, even when he knew it would get him thrown into the lions’ den (Daniel 6:10).
  • Once Habakkuk came to realize that it was God’s prerogative to use the Babylonians to judge Israel, he promised to rejoice in God’s strength and deliverance during the coming days of hunger and misery (Habakkuk 3:16-19)
  • Jesus taught his disciples to rejoice because their names were written in heaven, not because their ministry was successful (Luke 10:20). He thanked God for the bread and the cup knowing full well that the crucifixion loomed and that it was his last meal on this earth (Matthew 26:26-29).

These biblical texts teach and model a lifestyle of thanksgiving in every conceivable circumstance, but they do not directly tell us why we should always be thankful. The closest thing I can find to an explanation for the outrageously counterintuitive notion of constant thanksgiving is this: God is good, and he is faithful to his people. Psalm 136 alone reminds us of this 26 times.[1]

As you experience the Thanksgiving holiday and transition toward Advent, set aside a few minutes to soak in the scriptures above. Read and reflect on how Paul and others embraced thanksgiving in the midst of pain. Why did they do that? How could they do that? What choices did they make, and what reassured them?

My takeaway is that if we really grasp thanksgiving, we won’t give thanks to God just because we like what recently happened to us but because whatever happens God is good and faithful forever. Our attitude of gratitude won’t depend as much on how we value the goods and services we receive from God as much as on how we value God himself, his goodness, and his loyalty to us in Christ. We won’t thank God because he has given us stuff but because he has given us himself. Then we’ll be able to thank God when it’s hard.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.

Indeed, His faithful love endures forever.

[1] For an interesting Bible study, take a look at how this idea unfolds in Israel’s worship from the days of David and Solomon to the days of Jeremiah’s vision of a restored Israel. The expression “he is good, and his faithful love endures forever” is found in 1 Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1; Jeremiah 33:11. The shorter “his faithful love endures forever” occurs in 1 Chronicles 16:41; 2 Chronicles 7:6; 20:21; Psalm 118:2-4; 136:2-26.