One of the long legacies we’ve carried on from our parents is to instill thankfulness with this prompt: “And? What do you say?” Repetition makes a difference. Although I can’t prove it scientifically, I’m convinced that gratitude is a relatively simple virtue that everyone possess—if not in practice, at least in concept. We might not always have the words, we generally have the attitude even if it is momentary.
Athletes are often thankful to “the big guy upstairs” when they score the winning shot or kick the field goal that turns the tide. A small child who is gifted with an ice cream scoop on a hot summer day easily wells up with appreciation to the generous donor. A loving husband whose wife was saved in the hospital emergency room is grateful for the doctor who turn in late hours. There is an inner prompt in each of us that appreciates the benefits we are given.
Scripture has a lot to say about thanksgiving—the lowercase version, not the holiday we celebrate in America. In his brief epistle to the church in Thessalonica, Paul fires of a series of concise instructions as closing remarks. One of those instructions relates to gratitude.
“Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18)
The church in Thessalonica was relatively new to the faith. Most commentators believe that this letter was one of Paul’s first, probably written less than 20 years after the Lord’s ascension. The church was enduring a violent gang of Jewish leaders. Acts 17 tells the story.
It was Paul’s custom to proclaim the gospel in city synagogues during his missionary journeys (Acts 17:2). This is where the story begins. “On three Sabbath days, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3). Thessalonica was largely Greek. So, a “great many of the devout Greeks” believed as we as some Jewish attenders (Acts 17:4).
The Jewish leaders, however, rejected it. They “were jealous” and conspired with a group of “wicked men of the rabble” and “formed a mob” which “set the city in an uproar” in order to attack the house of Jason where Paul was guest (Acts 17:5). Unable to find Paul, they dragged Jason out and robbed him with the assistance of the local Greek authorities.
Where was Paul? He was secretly sent to Berea, roughly 45 miles west. There, he repeated his customary visits to the synagogue to proclaim the gospel. The Jewish leaders who heard him, unlike their Thessalonian counterparts, were more receptive. “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scripture daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). “Many of them believed,” it says, as did the local Greeks (Acts 17:12).
Things seemed to be going well until the mob from Thessalonica caught wind of it. They hotfooted to Berea and came “agitating and stirring up the crowds” again (Acts 17:13). Paul was rushed off to Athens, twice the distance as Berea, to assure his safety (Acts 17:14-15). In Athens, he continued his missionary work in the synagogue as well as the markets. He had finally rid himself of the Jewish mob in Thessalonica. After Athens, Paul went to Corinth where he was updated the Thessalonian Christians and he penned this epistle.
The believers in Thessalonica were not as fortunate as Paul. They remained in the city and suffered for their faith (1 Thess. 2:14). When speaking about his departure from them, he attributed the conflict to Satan (1 Thess. 2:18). His letter was full of gentle encouragement. He loved them. His heart broke for them, and he longed to see them again (1 Thess. 2:17).
Paul urged them to not be moved by their affliction, “for you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thess. 3:3). God was using their suffering for their good. It was evident by their increasing maturity in faith as Timothy reported (1 Thess. 3:6-13). Paul was thankful to God for working in their hearts (1 Thess. 3:9).
In his closing remarks, Paul exhorts them with rapid fire. “Respect those who labor among you” (1 Thess. 5:12). “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:13). “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). Assure no one “repays anyone evil for evil” (1 Thess. 5:16). “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). “Do not despise prophecies” (1 Thess 5:20). “Test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And, “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). He crammed more than 15 instructions in only 10 verses—rapid fire exhortation.
Tucked away in this barrage of commands is our anchor text on gratitude. It is linked together with two other complete clauses forming one sentence. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). This triplet of commands is modified by a single theological point—and it is worth underlining and circling in your Bible. “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). In other words, God’s will is that Christians always rejoice, always pray, and always give thanks. If you have a problem with any of these three, you will have a problem with God’s will.
Gratitude is Commanded by God
“Give thanks” is a single word in the Greek language. It is eucharist. If it sounds familiar to you, it might be that you heard it used to describe what we Baptists call “The Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:23-25). Eucharist means “giving of thanks.” And, since it is in the present-active-imperative tense, it acts as a command to “be giving thanks.” This doesn’t necessarily read well, but it gets the point across. We are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances.
Paul, speaking the words of Christ, regularly commands us to be thankful. For instance, when instructing the Colossian believers to live in the newness of Christ, Paul says, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7). Like a glass overflowing with water, we are to overflow with gratitude as people indwelled by the Spirit of God.
Later in the same book, Paul tells them to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” and “be thankful” (Col. 3:15). This command begins back in verse 12, “put on then, as God’s chosen ones,” various Christian virtues like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and peace. Thankfulness is one of those virtues we are obligated as Christ followers to “put on” (Col. 3:12-14).
To another church, Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Praying and supplicating our needs to God ought to be accompanied by thanksgiving for what He has done, is doing, and will do. Scripture often relates God’s promises to us in the past tense, even those that are yet to take place, because they are as good as done. God never fails. We can be thankful while we ask.
To the Ephesians, Paul instructed them to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:17-20). By emploring the authority of God, Paul leaves no room for objection. God commands us to give thanks always as a spirit-filled walk (Eph. 5:15).
Joni Eareckson Tada wrote, “Giving thanks is not a matter of feeling thankful, it’s a matter of obedience.” We are to be overflowing with gratitude, putting on gratitude, praying with gratitude, and walking in gratitude. The Old Testament writers agree. Many of the psalms speak of thanksgiving and being thankful. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High” (Ps. 50:14). Gratitude is our duty. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!” (Ps. 105:1). In other words, thank the Lord publicly so all can hear of His goodness.
What is interesting about the Psalms is that they connect our thanksgiving to God’s character making the duty of giving thanks an ongoing and eternal responsibility. “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Ps. 107:8). As long as God is loving, He is worthy of thanksgiving.
Ingratitude is Judged by God
William Shakespeare had a strong opinion about little ones who were not thankful. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. Ingratitude thou marble hearted fiend.” Now, imagine how a holy and benevolent God feels about ingratitude. If it is commanded, then disobedience is condemned.
Scripture reminds us that God gives good gifts to both the righteous and the unrighteous. We sometimes call this “common grace,” God’s gifts to all mankind in general. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Among the many blessings God gives to all people, the sun and the rain are the most noticeable. To an agricultural world, the sun and rain were tremendous blessings. Therefore, everyone is obligated to give thanks to God.
Sadly, not everyone give thanks to God. In the first chapter of Romans, we read about the devastating anger of the Lord against those who refuse to give Him thanks. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). “For although they knew God,” by recognizing His hand in creation and their inner cry for His presence, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). In other words, they suppressed the truth that naturally points to Him. And with God out of the picture, thanksgiving is unnecessary and righteous gratitude is withheld.
Luke records lesson Jesus gave that illustrates this point rather vividly. While traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus stops to heal ten lepers, but only one expresses gratitude:
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”Luke 17:11–19
You can’t miss this. Ten lepers recognized their need for God. Ten lepers received their blessing from God. But, only one leper returned to say thank you. Here’s the punch line: “your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17:19). The lost may see their guilt and receive God’s grace, but they fail to give God gratitude. Only those who have faith can say thanks.
Gratitude is commanded by God. It is meant to be faithfully obeyed, but only those with faith can obey Him. All others will be judged. How is your faith? Does your life abound with thanksgiving? Maybe you need a little help. Think about the many benefits you have because of God’s goodness in your life. Now, hear my mother say as she did to me, “And … what do you say?”