'In Everything Give Thanks'

This week we celebrate our national Thanksgiving holiday. The holiday got its “official” start in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation inviting Americans to set aside the last Thursday in November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Thanksgiving’s traditional origin dates much earlier, to a harvest feast celebrated in 1621 by the recently-arrived Plymouth colonists and local natives. Some date it even earlier, to a service of praise and thanksgiving held in 1579 during English captain Martin Frobisher’s expedition to the New World in search of the Northwest Passage.

None of those occasions was exactly a time of ease and prosperity. Lincoln made his proclamation when the Civil War was raging and much about the nation’s future was in doubt. The Plymouth pilgrims had endured a harsh winter and difficulties in building their settlement; nearly half had died in that first year. And Frobisher’s voyage? He was blown off course by a storm, failed to find the Northwest Passage, and lost one of his ships to an iceberg.

Who decides, in the midst of such troubles, to declare an occasion of thanksgiving?

The book of Colossians abounds with exhortations to be thankful:

  • “…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:12). 
  • “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude” (2:6-7).
  • “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (3:17). 
  • “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (4:2).

In fact, Paul opens the letter by expressing his own thanks to God (1:3). We find similar statements in Philippians (1:3; 4:6) and Ephesians (5:4, 20). Yet all three of these letters were written while Paul was imprisoned for preaching the gospel!

Who extols thanksgiving in the midst of troubles? Someone who knows that, whatever his problems, he has much to be thankful for, and who knows that God is the source of every blessing (James 1:17).

Bible people praised God even when they were hurting. The patriarch Job, after the loss of so much that was dear to him, “fell to the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20). David, after days of anguished prayer and fasting and the death of his newborn child, “arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes, and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped” (2 Samuel 12:20). Paul and Silas, unjustly chained in a prison cell, sang hymns and prayed (Acts 16:25). Praising God is what His people do, in good times and bad. As one church’s sign put it, “Thanksgiving is not a day, it’s a lifestyle.”

The past several years have been difficult for many of us in many ways. Yet we can still find much for which to give God praise and thanksgiving — not least that His gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ still stands and is ours. No matter what day it is, and no matter what the day brings, “give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).