Thanksgiving Day. For many who have the means, it’s become “Turkey Day,” a holiday that’s functionally all about the food. The bird isn’t the only thing that gets stuffed, and we may even plan in advance how we’re going to lose the weight we’re sure to gain. As long-eared Goofy once sang in a classic Disney cartoon: “I’m gonna eat and eat and eat and eat and eat until I die.”
But historically, of course, “thanksgiving” meant to humbly give thanks to God for his mercy, often against the background of suffering. The Pilgrims celebrated a plentiful harvest, but against the traumatic memory of a lethal winter; later, Abraham Lincoln would declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in the midst of civil war.
In the previous post, we considered Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, where the believers were suffering persecution from their neighbors. Paul himself was a man who endured much for the gospel; but in his habit of constant prayer, of referring everything to God, he found reasons for both joy and gratitude. He therefore counsels his friends to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” and to “give thanks in all circumstances” because “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18, NRSV).
Truthfully, there’s a part of me that reads Paul’s words as a daunting religious to-do list: You think you’re a Christian? Then you’d better rejoice, pray, and be thankful all the time–no whining, and no excuses! To say that this is God’s will merely adds to the intimidation factor.
But the other part of me knows Paul meant nothing of the kind. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Always, continually, in all circumstances. It’s not a three-item spiritual checklist, but three parallel ways to convey the same truth. “This is God’s will for you” is not simply about what God wants from us, but for us.
This isn’t Paul’s first mention of God’s will in the letter; earlier, he wrote that God’s will is our sanctification (4:3), the lifelong journey of being made holy. In Paul’s theology, we are already holy, consecrated to God, set apart for relationship and service–and yet we are also in process, growing, developing, becoming holy, becoming more of what we already are.
Rejoice; pray; give thanks–all the time. It’s God’s will for us. It’s one thing to think that God is demanding from us that we put a happy face on every situation, no matter how terrible. But it’s another to believe that what God really wants for us is to be people who can experience joy and gratitude even in the midst of suffering and hardship. And it comes through faithful prayer, the kind that is not just an occasional act of piety, but an orientation of life, a continual openness of the soul to God.
It’s not just about “counting your blessings,” but reaching out to the God who desires the best for us even when life gives us the worst. We may not go to God in joy and gratitude, not initially. But we must go nonetheless, for the Holy Spirit can work joy and gratitude in us when we pray with a surrendered soul. And as surrender becomes more and more the orientation of our lives, joy and gratitude become more constant companions.
Joy and gratitude: I’ll take those. Wouldn’t you? But surrender? Well, that’s another matter–the part of our sanctification that requires “a long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s description of discipleship.
So even if our trials make it hard to muster up heartfelt gratitude this Thanksgiving, perhaps we could start with this: Thank you, eternal God, for being endlessly patient with us.
May your Thanksgiving Day be blessed.