Thanksgiving is just a few days away and yet for many among us today “giving thanks” seems like a distant prospect. There are so many folks among us who are in the midst of trials and heartache. Some of you have lost loved ones during the past year, others have lost marriages during the past year, and many of you have lost hope for anything better than you are presently experiencing. You’re aware that Thanksgiving is upon us and you’ve been asking yourself, “How can I give thanks when my heart has been broken and my hopes have been shattered? That’s a great question and I want us to spend some time this morning trying to understand how we can give thanks this Thanksgiving “in all circumstances.” Before we do that I want to give you a little background on the day that has been set aside as a “day of thanks” in our nation. I want to take the time to do this because many in our society today view Thanksgiving as purely a secular holiday, a day set aside strictly for getting together with friends and family, watching football, and eating some great food.
Back in 1621 the Pilgrims, after a hard first year in which many of their group died, experienced a great harvest. They had enough food to put some back for the winter. Their Governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that was to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native American Indians who had helped them.
The custom of an annually celebrated Thanksgiving, held after the harvest, continued through the years. During the American Revolution a day of national Thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress.
In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national “Day of Thanksgiving.” Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the day of commemoration.
President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a very painful and perplexing time in his life. During the first week of July of 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg occurred, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. Four months later in November of 1863, Lincoln delivered his famous “Gettysburg Address.” It was while he was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he committed his life to Christ. As he explained to a friend:
When I left Springfield [to assume the Presidency] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.
President Lincoln was a broken man. He had suffered many setbacks and hardships throughout his life, but in November of 1863 he came to know his dire need for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of his life. Following President Lincoln’s conversion he wrote his Thanksgiving Proclamation. Let me read it to you.
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Things didn’t get better in Abraham Lincoln’s life following his Thanksgiving Proclamation. The Civil War continued until General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865. Just five days after Lee’s surrender President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865. Yet, in the midst of troubles and trials like few of us have ever experienced, Abraham Lincoln was able to give thanks. How do you give thanks when anxiety gnaws at your gut, when fear is paralyzing you, and when you wonder if things will ever get any better? That’s the topic of our study for today. If you will turn with me to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and let’s begin.
16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV)
This is a powerful little trilogy of commands for you and me. We are to be joyful “always.” We are to pray “continually.” We are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” That’s a tall order to fill isn’t it? I have to be honest with you. I can’t do it. I’ve tried, but when the tidal wave of trials engulfs me I fail. In my own strength I consistently fail. We need to take a closer look because Paul is not encouraging us to do these things of our own strength. Let’s take a look at some key words.
First of all, we are to “be joyful always.” The word for “Joyful” is the Greek word, “cai,rete” (chairete) and it means, “to rejoice or be glad.” Let me show you a couple of places where the word appears. Turn with me to Philippians 3 and let’s visit the Apostle Paul while he is sitting in a prison cell writing to the people of Philippi. Paul says,
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. (Philippians 3:1 NIV)
The second instance of the word I want to show you is found in 1 Peter 4:12-14. Many people believe that Peter was in Rome when he wrote the letter. He says that he was in “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13, but Babylon was a code word for many early Christians because they didn’t want to say anything negative about the ruling Romans. If Peter was in Rome then he was in the city where he would be crucified upside down about 68 A.D. Peter writes,
12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14 NIV)
For both Paul and Peter suffering was part of life. Their rejoicing didn’t stem from the possibility of relief from their struggles nearly as much as it did from the fact that they were “in Christ.” The last verse I want to show you this morning where Paul speaks of “rejoicing” is found in Philippians 4:10-13.
10I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13 NIV)
Paul is rejoicing “in the Lord.” He has found the secret of being at peace and content in all circumstances. What is the secret? It is found “in Christ” and “through” the One who gives him strength.
What is the key to rejoicing in the midst of our trials and troubles? It is the same key that was so important to Paul and Simon Peter—we must rejoice in the Lord. In our trials we must cling to the Lord. In our troubles we must seek the Lord. In the heartbreaking times of life we must carry our burdens to the Lord.
Now let’s take a look at verse 17 where Paul says, 17 “pray continually;” Is Paul suggesting that we quit our jobs and move into a monastery where we can devote our every waking hour to prayer? If that is the case then Paul failed because he was a missionary, a tent-maker, and a man with many responsibilities. I don’t think Paul is encouraging us to check out of society and spend the remainder of our days on our knees in prayer. Yet, we can’t simply overlook or bypass this command of Scripture. How do we pray continually? John MacArthur writes,
Joyful believers will also be prayerful believers. Those who live their Christian lives in joyful dependency on God will continually recognize their own insufficiency and therefore constantly be in an attitude of prayer. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing is thus a divine mandate to all believers. (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians.)
As we become increasingly aware of our frailty and our absolute dependence on the Lord for every aspect of life we will see our prayer life improve. It is vitally important for us to remain in a constant attitude of prayer as we go throughout the day. We are to pray about all things. We find this approach to prayer throughout Scripture. Let me give you just a few examples of what we are to pray about.
In James we are told to ask God when we lack wisdom. When we lack wisdom about what? I’m so glad that James doesn’t specify because I lack wisdom about so many things that I am faced with each and every day. James says,
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:5-8 NIV)
When we ask God for wisdom we are to ask with the confidence that He alone has the wisdom we need for the decisions that we need to make. We are not to ask, or “believe” as James puts it, that we are going to get what we want, but we are to believe that God alone has the wisdom we need to make a godly decision.
What else are we to pray about? Paul says that we are to be in prayer about everything. In Philippians 4:6-8 he writes,
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)
We do not simply go to God with our troubles and the decisions that we have to make about life, but we are also called to go to God with our sin. I hope we would all be in agreement that much of our pain and the troubles that we experience in life are brought about by our actions—things we say, do, or fail to do in everyday life—these are our sins. I’m not suggesting that all of our pain and sorrow is brought about by our sin, but I’m confessing to you that much of what troubles me is the waywardness of my own heart. What are we to do with our sin? Dismiss it? Explain it away? These don’t solve anything. The Psalmist said,
3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Selah 5Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah (Psalm 32:3-5 NIV)
When David kept his sin to himself, he said, “my bones wasted away…” When he carried his sin to the Father and he agreed with God that what he had done was wrong, then he was forgiven. This reminds me of a verse in the New Testament that says,
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 NIV)
We could go on forever talking about what we are to pray about because we are to pray about all things. When you are down and discouraged…pray. When you are celebrating the birth of a baby, another birthday, a new assignment at work, another anniversary in your marriage, another day to see the sun rise…pray. When you are perplexed with problems on the job, in your home with your husband or wife or one of your children…pray. When you receive bad news from the doctor…pray. When you receive good news from your child’s teacher…pray. When you get an answer to prayer…pray. When God has you in a holding pattern about what you are praying about…pray! Pray continually. Pray throughout the day. Pray when He wakes you up at night. Pray.
Let’s take a look at our last verse for the morning found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 where Paul says,
18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NIV)
Now we find ourselves back where we began…give thanks. This verse troubles many people, but it’s not the “giving thanks” that troubles them. It is the next phrase in the verse that causes us problems isn’t it? How do you give thanks “in all circumstances?” In Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, Corrie tells a story about when she and her sister were transferred to one of the worst German prison camps of all, Ravensbruck. When they entered the barracks for the Jews they found them stuffed with people and flea-infested. Their Scripture reading that morning happened to be our Scripture for today from 1 Thessalonians 5. The Scripture reminded them to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. What a tough place to be reminded that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. Corrie’s sister, Betsy, told her to stop and thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters. At first Corrie refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted. Finally Corrie gave in. During the months spent at that camp, they were surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without guard interference in the barracks. It was several months later when they learned that the guards would not enter the barracks because of the fleas. It was the fleas who kept the German guards away from the barracks. (Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place.)
Corrie Ten Boom and many of you have learned that even in the most dire of circumstances we can still find many things for which we can give thanks. The Apostle Paul found himself in prison in Acts 16:25-34. Yet we read in Acts 16:25,
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25 NIV)
Paul and Silas were not praying and singing hymns because they “felt” like it. They were not rejoicing in the Lord because they “felt” like it. They were giving thanks and praising God because that is God’s will.
Stop and think with me for a moment. Is this the way the world deals with heartache and tough times? Do you see the people of the world giving thanks even when their lives have been shattered? Of course not. This is one of the things that sets us apart from the world. We don’t give thanks because we “feel” like it, but we give thanks because we serve a Sovereign King who can take something as horrific as a cross and turn into the greatest gift the world has ever received. We give thanks because we know that God is still in control. We give thanks because we know that God can take a mess and make a masterpiece. We give thanks because we know that not even our difficulties and trials can separate us from the Lord. Paul wrote,
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)
How can we not be thankful if God has graced you and me with His grace, mercy, peace, and salvation? We can be thankful, but to do so we must lift our eyes and fix them upon our glorious King! I want to make something very clear this morning: apart from Christ living in your heart and the Holy Spirit leading you away from despair you will never know the reality of the Scripture we’ve studied today. Remember, Paul and Silas, James and David, and all of the other saints that have gone before us rejoiced in the Lord, they gave thanks in the Lord, it was only in Him that they found their strength. So, if you are not in Christ this morning then you are in trouble. Won’t you cry out to Him and invite Him into your heart so that He might show you the myriad of things for which you have to give thanks this Thanksgiving?
Britton Christian Church