Before we explained to my littlest the practical guidelines of color theory, we taught her one of the most basic truths of coloring—how to stay within the lines. Now, she colors like a true artist. Her pieces bloom with visual brilliance. The lines, meant to bring definition to a shape, didn’t confine her creativity. They initiated it.
When it comes to gratitude, we will better flourish once we have some basic truths to get started. First, we learned that God commands all to be thankful. Second, God fuels our gratitude with divine grace, the means of thanksgiving. Now, as a third installment, we will look at the extent to which we are to express appreciation, and learn to be thankful within the lines. The scope of thanksgiving is found in the second half of our focus text:
“Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18)
Painting Gratitude on a Large Canvas
I’m told that I inherited my talent for art from my mother. As long as I’ve known her, she’s had a knack for creativity. She made things beautiful. One time, she was asked by a local church to paint a mural of the life of Christ—his birth, baptism, death, resurrection, and return. As you can imagine, it was a lot to display. She needed a large canvas.
When it comes to gratitude, we have a large canvas. It is infinite, to be exact. It spans infinitely left and right as well as up and down. “Give thanks,” says our Lord, “in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). The phrase “all circumstances” carries the idea of an infinite canvas in all directions. It is a single Greek referent that narrows down the context and scope. In this case, it opens it wide up.
Giving thanks is never out of season. It is ideal at all times no matter the situation. It doesn’t distinguish between circumstances. Good and bad, productive and idle, exciting and dull. Every moment is ripe for thanksgiving. The word itself lifts the admonition above the level of all natural possibilities. There are literally no circumstances in which gratitude is displaced.
Don’t miss this: we are never not in a circumstance. You are in one right now. You will be in one minutes and years from now. You just came out of one. Life is an unlimited strand of circumstances that overlap and intermingle. If you are living, you are always in the middle of a circumstance. Therefore, you are always positioned to give thanks to God.
To the Colossian believers, Paul said, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). The psalmist unequivocally declared he would always give thanks. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps. 34:1). Furthermore, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” (Ps. 9:1). Gratitude is fitting in all circumstances. The canvas is infinitely wide.
Painting Gratitude within the Proper Lines
I can never forget how my teachers would get so hung up over the mixing of two words: can and will. We confused the two all the time as students. Maybe it was a fad. Maybe it was sheer laziness. Either way, we used the terms incorrectly and thoughtlessly.
Some have done the same with 1 Thessonians 5:18 by misreading a small preposition. Don’t do it. Don’t mix the words. Paul didn’t write, “give thanks for all circumstances,” but “give thanks in all circumstances.” The difference can be devastating to your walk—and your sanity.
The word “for” would indicate the object of our thanksgiving thereby turning all circumstances in good circumstances. This is not just irresponsible and stupid, it is downright evil. Personal sin, natural calamity, news of terminal illness, layoff from work, child abuse, death in the family, rebellious children, terrorist attacks, and other evils are not circumstances for which to be thankful. Instead, they are circumstances that justify mourning.
For example, the night before Jesus suffered the pain of the cross, He withdrew and agonized before the Father (Lk. 22:39-44). Days before, He wept over the sin of Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41-44). When Lazarus died, He wept over the death of a dear friend (Jn. 11:35). Jesus didn’t give thanks for all circumstances. Some of them brought Him to tears and deep sadness.
The epistles contain instructions to Christians in this way. Maybe the most direct of them is found in James’ letter. He told his readers to “mourn and weep” for their “double-mindedness” and disloyalty to God (Ja. 4:4-10). A brief fall into temptation as well as a life of sin are reasons for lamenting. The psalmists affirm this. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” (Ps. 130:1). “Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love” (Ps. 6:4). Righteous mourning is a form of worship, not a spite for reluctant gratitude.
When it comes to gratitude, we need to stay within the lines. Here, a small word makes a big difference when it comes to the scope of our thanksgiving. We should give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. This means that even bad circumstances are times for gratitude.
Painting Gratitude from the Negative Space
Most Americans are familiar with the tradition of an Easter Egg hunt. When I was young, my grandfather would hide four plastic eggs in the backyard with wads of cash in each. It was for his daughters, my mother and aunts. He was retired and wanted to bless them with a little fun and games. It was a joyous moment for everyone, even the grandchildren. We didn’t know exactly how much money the eggs contained but, by the looks on their faces when they opened them, it must have been significant.
Gratitude often begins with a treasure hunt. Some circumstances are so full of turmoil and pain that we have a hard time finding the treasure. But, they are there. God put them there for us to find. They are sometimes hidden under the thorny bush or behind the concrete bird bath. You might even hurt yourself reaching for them. But they are ready for the taking. And, the joy we experience after opening them up will make all the difference.
Paul reminds us that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In His sovereignty, God mysteriously orchestrates all circumstances, good and bad, for our benefit. This is true of all our circumstances. So, the good from past circumstances is now deposited in the present. We only need to look for God’s treasures in the backyard of our life.
This easier said than done. Bad circumstances can effortlessly distract us from treasure hunting. This is one reason why Scripture exhorts us to “continue steadfastly in prayer” while “being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2). We need to stay alert to God’s blessings. I like to think that it is paying close attention to the negative space.
As an artist myself, I was trained to use the “negative space” to intensify or augment my artwork. Negative space is the space around and between the subject in an image which is usually ignored. However, a talented artist can use the negative space to form an even stronger effect with the image in a way that is more relevant than the subject itself.
God is a master artist. When we are in the middle of troubling circumstances, the negative space makes the subject of our pain less prominent. We only need to look for it and not at the subject itself. God’s blessings are all around us. Those with spiritual eyes will see them.
I think Paul had this in mind when writing the believers in Thessalonica. His letter was undoubtedly received with great joy during great pain. They were relatively new converts under constant attack from malicious Jewish leaders. A short time before writing the letter, Paul visited the city to see first-hand how bad “the Jews” were (Acts 17:5). Jealous of Paul’s ministry, they formed a mob (Acts 17:5), robbed Jason (Acts 17:9), and hunted Paul (Acts 17:13).
We have no reason to think these rowdy Jews disbanded. In fact, the letter from Paul seems to indicate that they remained in the city to continue their harassment of new Christians (1 Thess. 2:14). So, Paul was not telling them to give thanks in good circumstances only. Intead, he wanted them to look into the negative space and give thanks in all circumstances.
A faithful pastor of a small town church was known for his gratitudinal prayers before preaching. His congregation eagerly expected them each Sunday. However, a terrible storm ravaged the village days prior. Homes were flooded. Trees were down. Power was out. Food was scarce. Sickness was spreading. The church wondered if this Sunday morning the pastor would be at a loss for words. When the room silenced, the pastor began his prayer, “Lord, I thank you that it’s not always like this.” He looked into the negative space and discovered the treasures of God.
Matthew Henry, a pastor and theologian of the past, had a similar experience. After great misfortune fell upon him, he wrote in his diary these words:
“Let me be thankful, first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I was robbed, not I who robbed.”
Gratitude is expected of us in all circumstances. Sometimes, the circumstances themselves are worth giving thanks. In other times, they are meant for us to hunt for divine benefits elsewhere. May we learn to look for God’s blessings all the time in order that we may give thanks to God in all circumstances.