“Rejoice always,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18, NIV).
Okay, Paul, time to put your money where your mouth is. Being a pastor and spiritual guide to all those churches is hard, isn’t it? And admit it: some of them drive you crazy. Are you really thankful for all of that?
In an earlier post, we noted how Paul’s relationship to the church in Corinth was a little strained; his letter to them sounds a little testy at points. And yet, he can still write this:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1:4-9, NIV)
To be sure, Paul is not thankful for the divisions in the church, particularly when it makes a mockery of the Lord’s Supper. He’s not thankful for their moral mistakes, or their questioning of the resurrection. And he’s not thankful for the way some of them are undermining his apostleship.
But he will not deny that they have received the grace (Greek, charis) of God, and with it, legitimate spiritual gifts (charismata): “all kinds of speech” (logos) and “all knowledge” (gnosis) seem to be the ones the Corinthians value most. These gifts have unfortunately been corrupted into sources of spiritual pride, because the Corinthians have in effect separated the charismata from the charis, the gifts from the grace of the Giver. Paul doesn’t thank God for the problems in the church–but for the evidence that God’s Spirit is still at work among them.
Paul can be thankful because he has what theologians would call an “eschatological” (from the Greek for “last”) perspective: he sees the past and present in terms of God’s future. “You do not lack any spiritual gift,” Paul says, and we might imagine the Corinthians saying a hearty amen. But he goes on, with language that suggests that if they’re not already looking consistently toward the day of Jesus’ return, they should be.
He’s called you into relationship, Paul wants to tell them, into fellowship with Jesus. This is the Jesus we proclaimed; the Jesus through whom you received grace and in whom you have spiritual gifts; the Jesus who called me to be an apostle and has called you too; the Jesus who will surely come again, because God is faithful.
So yes–Paul is quite capable of getting frustrated with those under his spiritual care. And yes, he is also capable of giving sincere thanks, because he sees evidence of God’s presence even in those circumstances, reminding him of a glorious future promised by a faithful God.
What about us?