Thanksgiving is not a natural virtue; it is a fruit of the Spirit, given by Him. The unbeliever is not inclined to give thanks. He may welcome circumstances that are in accord with his wishes and complain about those that are not, but it never occurs to him in either case to give thanks.
One of the most indicting statements in the Bible about natural man is Paul’s charge that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:21).
Thanksgiving is an admission of dependence. Through it we recognize that in the physical realm God “gives [us] life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25), and that in the spiritual realm, it is God who made us alive in Christ Jesus when we were dead in our transgressions and sins.
Everything we are and have we owe to His bountiful grace. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
As God’s children we are to give Him thanks in all circumstances, both the good and the bad. In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of 10 lepers who were healed by Christ (Luke 17:11-19). All 10 cried out to be healed, all 10 actually experienced Christ’s healing power, but only one came back to Jesus to thank Him.
We all can see the logic in the story: they all should have returned to give Jesus thanks. We may even acknowledge that many times we have been like the nine forgetful men, when we should have been like the one. We have no trouble with the theology of the story, even if we often fail in the application.
In this sense, we have no problem accepting Paul’s directive to give thanks in all circumstances.
The time when we have difficulty accepting Paul’s instruction to give thanks in all circumstances is when those circumstances are bad. Suppose one person is healed from a dreadful disease while another contracts one. Paul’s theology is that both, as believers, should give thanks to God.
The basis for giving thanks in the difficult circumstances is His sovereignty, wisdom and love, as they are brought to bear upon all the shifts and turns in our lives. It is the firm belief that God is at work in all things–all our circumstances–for our good. It is the willingness to accept this truth from God’s Word and rely upon it without having to know just how He is working for our good.
God does not just respond to an adversity in our lives to make the best of a bad situation. He knows before He initiates or permits the adversity exactly how He will use it for our good. God knew exactly what He was doing before He allowed Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Joseph recognized this when he said to his brothers, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. … you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 45:8, 50:20).
Therefore, Paul commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).
If we trust Him to work in all our circumstances for our good, then we should give Him thanks in all those circumstances–not thanksgiving for the evil itself, but for the good that He will bring out of that evil through His sovereign wisdom and love.
Another response to the trustworthiness of God is to worship Him in times of adversity. When the initial disaster struck Job, the Scripture says, “He fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised’” (Job 1:20-21).
Instead of reacting against God in the time of his calamity, Job worshiped Him. Instead of raising his fist in the face of God, he fell down before Him. Instead of defiance, there was a humble recognition of God’s sovereignty–God in His sovereignty had given and God in His sovereignty had a right to take away.
We deserve nothing from God but eternal judgment. We are continuous debtors, not only for His sovereign mercy in saving us, but for every breath we draw, every bite of food we eat. We have no rights before God. Everything is of His grace. Everything in Heaven and earth belongs to Him, and He says to us in the words of the landowner to the workers in his vineyard, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:15).
This is another dimension of God’s sovereignty. We saw earlier that God’s sovereignty involves His absolute power to do whatever pleases Him and His absolute control over the actions of all His creatures. But God’s sovereignty also includes His absolute right to do as He pleases with us. That He has chosen to redeem us and to send His Son to die for us, instead of sending us to hell, is not due to any obligation He has toward us.
It is solely due to His sovereign mercy and grace. As He said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). By that statement God was saying, “I am under obligation to no one.”
Worship from the heart in times of adversity implies an attitude of humble acceptance of God’s right to do as He pleases in our lives. It is a frank acknowledgment that whatever we have at any given moment–health, position, wealth or anything else we may cherish–is a gift from God’s sovereign grace, and it may be taken away at His pleasure.
But God does not act toward us in bare sovereignty, wielding His power oppressively or tyrannically. God has already acted toward us in love, mercy and grace, and He continues to act that way toward us as He works to conform us to the likeness of Christ.
As we bow in worship before His almighty power, we can also bow in confidence that He exercises that power for us, not against us. So we should bow in an attitude of humility, accepting His dealings in our lives, but we can also bow in love, knowing that those dealings, however severe and painful they may be, come from a wise and loving heavenly Father.