When It’s Hard to Give Thanks

By Sam E. Stone

Two men were walking through a field when they spotted an enraged bull. Instantly they started running for the nearest fence. The bull was in hot pursuit. Terrified, one shouted to the other, “Pray, John. We’re in for it!”

“I can’t,” his friend yelled back. “I’ve never prayed in public in all my life!”

“You’ve got to!” his friend implored. “The bull’s gaining on us!”

“OK,” panted John. “I’ll pray the only prayer I know—the one my mom taught me at the table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’”

Sometimes it is hard to give thanks.

20_pw_JNSeveral of our close friends have lost a child in recent years. We cannot begin to understand their grief, but we do grieve with them. My wife and I planned to visit one such couple on the weekend after the funeral some years back. He preached in another state. I asked him if there was anything we could do to help. “Would you preach for me that Sunday morning?” he asked.

Too quickly I agreed. It was only as I began to try to prepare a message that I realized my difficulty. What should I speak about? I wanted to try to help our friends, but I also wanted to bring a message relevant to the whole church.

Finally I phoned him. “Do you have a suggestion on what would be an appropriate topic?”

He replied, “Well, next week is Thanksgiving.”

The text I selected was 1 Thessalonians 5:18. Paul wrote what may seem to be a strange command: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I’ll be honest with you. I would have a little trouble hearing these words from some people. I would think, Here I am in the middle of all my problems and pressures, and some guy sitting up there in his ivory tower says, “Give thanks!” What does he know about suffering?

But look who said this—Paul. And look where he was—in prison. And look what he had gone through—arrest, beating, false accusation, mistreatment, and so much more. When he talks, I listen. Paul practiced what he preached and he preached what he practiced.

How can a person give thanks in all circumstances—even times of trial and tragedy?

Understanding How the World Operates
Never forget that God does not cause what is bad, but he does give all that is good. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). It’s just the opposite. James adds, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17).

The psalmist declared, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men” (Psalm 107:8). Again he wrote, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:2-5).

Insurance policies speak of a tornado or a hailstorm as “an act of God.” Actually that expression should make us think of a healthy baby, a good harvest, or a medical break-through. It is wrong to blame God for all the bad that happens. Much suffering comes simply because we live in a fallen world. Some suffering results from one’s own personal sin as well, but some does not.

Take Job, for example. He was “blameless” (Job 1:1), yet he suffered the loss of his children, his possessions, and his health. He never was told why all of this happened to him, but he learned how the world operates (Job 19:25; 42:1-3). Like him, when we don’t have all the answers, we simply must keep trusting the Lord.

Maintain an Eternal Perspective
Keeping the right perspective is not easy. For example, how can a prisoner captured by the enemy manage to live and maintain faith under such difficult circumstances? In the 1950s J. Russell Morse, a veteran missionary of the Christian churches, was imprisoned by the Chinese Communists for 18 months, 15 of them in solitary confinement.

Later he described the anxiety he felt when the military guards came to arrest him with machine guns, bayonets, and revolvers. He had seen others led away like this, never to return.

Brother Morse said, “As I was taken away to prison with the armed guards in the car with me, I realized that there was nothing I could do. It must be God who provides guidance and deliverance. I prayed. Out of the many hundreds of Scriptures that I had memorized when I was in high school and college, a verse from Philippians 4 came to me.”

In telling about that day, he quoted the text (4:4-7) as he went on:

“Paul himself had been a prisoner and he said, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. . . . In nothing be anxious, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.’” Then he added, “I took that as my Golden Text for my imprisonment.”

He kept an eternal perspective. Even as we ask God for help facing difficult trials, like brother Morse we can still offer those requests “with thanksgiving.” As bad as things get, we can still thank God for the good we receive from his hand. God has done so much for us—and he continues to do so.

No, we do not have to thank him that our loved one dies, our house burns down, or we lose our job. We are not to thank him that such events occur, but we thank him even when they occur.

Clearly, God is still in charge of the final outcome. One of the most precious promises in Scripture is found in Romans 8:28—“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

This is why we can still give thanks, whatever may come. Earlier in this article, I told of a weekend trip to visit a friend whose married daughter had just died. After the funeral, he wrote in the church newsletter, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

In Lynn Gardner’s recent book, Where Is God When We Suffer?, he noted that psalms of thanksgiving can be especially helpful in difficult times.* He observed, “Thanklessness is a terrible disregard of God’s goodness. Shakespeare said, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ (Lear, I, iv, 312). Ingratitude is a mark of unbelief that leads to a sinful lifestyle (Romans 1:20-21). Falling into the habit of grumbling jeopardizes one’s relationship with God (Numbers 14:26-29; 1 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:14; James 5:9).”

He concludes, “Even in the direst of circumstances, we can find things for which to give thanks. The psalms of thanksgiving can help us in expressing thanksgiving even in the midst of suffering” (p. 83).

Though it may be hard at first, we can truly “give thanks in all circumstances.”


*Psalms 18, 30, 31, 32, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 120, and 138 are all individual psalms of thanksgiving.



Sam E. Stone retired in 2003 after serving 25 years as editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and writes the weekly Sunday school lesson that appears on this website.

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