In the midst of much upheaval, many difficulties and temptations to discouragement is it realistic to expect us to give thanks? It’s easy to be worn down into a discouraged murmuring spirit. Yet, in spite of the difficulties we always have much to be grateful for to God. Thanksgiving can never be untimely because we are continually receiving good things from God, even if it is only life and breath. As we trust God’s wisdom in ordering all things for our good and His glory, we can give thanks (Romans 8:28). It is good to be able to thank God in adversity. As Thomas Watson put it: “Every bird can sing in spring — but few birds will sing in the dead of winter”. There are many mercies in the midst of all we experience. Everything good is from God’s goodness. Above all, there is the redemption of God in Christ that we must give thanks for. Offering thanks is different from casually thanking a person, it is adoration directed to God (Psalm 92:1). As one of the older writers put it, God not only loves a cheerful giver but also a cheerful thanksgiver. But what can help us give thanks in all circumstances?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we are urged to “give thanks” in “everything”. This “is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”. Two other requirements are urged on us in these verses: “rejoice evermore” and “pray without ceasing” (v16-17). They are part of the Christian’s growth in holiness. As James Fergusson points out, rejoicing is significant. It does not simply mean striving to keep our hearts free from anxiety and discouragement due to the many causes of sorrow and grief. As we consider the excellence of Christ and His benefits, we ought also to have spiritual delight to some degree. When we consider His care and providence we ought to rejoice. We are to do so always, in all circumstances and at all times. This does not mean believers should never mourn, they need to do that at times (Ecclesiastes 3:4). But even in their mourning and sorrow it is possible to know some true joy in God and His presence at such times (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Giving thanks and rejoicing are also closely connected with constant prayer. We are in continual need of God’s help for what we need or lack (Matthew 6:11; Philippians 3:13). We also need to pray for forgiveness and help continually (Job 14:1; 1 John 1:8, 10). Praying without ceasing does not mean we are to do nothing else (2 Thessalonians 3:10). We are not to give up praying but continue in it with perseverance (Luke 18:1). We are to pray frequently (Psalm 57:17) and always use any opportunity for spontaneous or more prolonged prayer (Nehemiah 2:4).
Giving thanks means consciously acknowledging the favours we receive from God (Ephesians 5:20; 2 Samuel 7:18-19). We express our thanks either by words (Psalm 104:1) or works (1 Corinthians 10:31) to His praise. We are to do this in all situations (James 1:9-10). The Lord overrules everything which happens to us with much mercy (Ezra 9:13) and for our good (Romans 8:28). Everyone should be thankful (Romans 1:21) but true believers ought to be even more thankful; this is God’s will for them. They are also supplied with constant resources in and by Jesus Christ for obeying His will (Philippians 4:13) no matter what happens to them (Acts 5:41). In this updated extract, James Fergusson draws further lessons for us from this part of Scripture.
1. There Are Always Reasons to Rejoice and Give Thanks
Rejoicing in the Lord is a complete antidote against all impatience and a spirit of revenge for any way we have been harmed. It sweetens everything we experience and elevates the heart above all earthly things. It prevents us from being too much taken up with them in prosperity or having bitter resentment about them in adversity (see verse 15). Believers may rejoice even when they are most dejected and discouraged (Psalm 42:11 and Psalm 43:4-5). Yet there are always grounds for rejoicing even though they do not feel it, yet faith can rejoice (Psalm 60:6). Even though they may not rejoice in themselves, yet they may rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4). They rejoice in what He has already done (Psalm 71:10-11) and has yet promised to do for them (Philippians 1:6). This command to “rejoice evermore”, implies that there will always be grounds for rejoicing.
2. Prayer Helps Us to Rejoice and Give Thanks
The joy of God’s people is not light and of the flesh. It does not make them sit loose to and be idle in relation to what God has commanded. Rather it makes them spiritual and solidly conscientious in being diligent and circumspect about their duty (Psalm 2:11). It makes them especially so in the duty of prayer, without this we can never maintain nor attain to a rejoicing attitude of heart (Job 27:10). The command to “rejoice evermore” is immediately connected with “pray without ceasing”.
Being frequent, serious and attentive in prayer brings excellent benefits (Matthew 7:7-8). It helps keep the heart always in a rejoicing condition. There is no better way to reduce the weight of our discouragements. These keep our spirits under so that they cannot mount up in this heavenly duty of rejoicing. We need to cast the weight and trouble of all that grieves us on God by prayer (Philippians 4:5). That is why he says “pray without ceasing”.
Christians should be wise in the way they order their time and focus so that being diligent and intent on one duty does not make them neglect or be careless about any other. The apostle wants them to so rejoice evermore that they also pray without ceasing, and so to pray as that in everything they give thanks.
3. Prayer Requires Us to Rejoice and Give Thanks
The duties of prayer and thanksgiving go well together. Each helps the other. Thanksgiving to God for what we have received tends to suppress an impatient and murmuring spirit against God. We are tempted to vent this spirit in our prayers (compare Psalm 77:7 with verses 10 and 11). But prayer elevates the heart towards God and warm the affections with love to God to some extent (Psalm 25:1). This makes us more disposed to engage in thanksgiving: “pray without ceasing…in everything give thanks”.
We cannot have cause for thanksgiving in this life without still having constant need and reason for prayer. There is always something lacking even when we are most in enjoyment (2 Corinthians 5:6). In the same way, there can be no urgent necessity prompting us to pray without some causes for thanksgiving if we search for them carefully. We can see that our situation is not so bad as we deserve (Ezra 9:13) and that we are kept from totally sinking under it (Lamentations 3:21). The connected commands to pray without ceasing and in every thing give thanks imply that there will always be reasons for both.
4. It is God’s Will for Us to Rejoice and Give Thanks
One excellent means to engage our hearts in being conscientious about constant rejoicing, persevering prayer, and continued thanksgiving, is to take serious note that this is not an indifferent matter. We are not free to do or not do them depending on the inclination of our hearts towards them. They are strictly required of us by the sovereign will of God the Law giver. If we neglect these things we are as guilty as if we break any other command e.g. taking His name in vain or not keeping the Lord’s Day holy. “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”.
5. We Have Christ’s Help to Rejoice and Give Thanks
We are to look on such commands as revealed to us and required of us by Christ. He has made the unbearable burden of commandments (Galatians 3:10) to be an easy yoke to His followers (Matthew 11:30). He pardons their failings (Micah 7:18). renews their strength, makes them mount up and not be weary, Isa. 40. 31. He strengthens them to do whatever He commands (Philippians 4:13) so that His commandments are not grievous and burdensome (1 John 5:3). We are to consider God’s will as revealed and commanded in Christ. “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
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