by Dr. John Byron
2 Thessalonians 1:3-4
“We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”
One of my favorite Jimmy Stewart movies is the 1965 film Shenandoah. Stewart plays a hardworking Virginia farmer trying to take care of his family in the midst of the American civil war. At one point Stewart’s character offers a prayer of thanks at the dinner table. He is not sure why he should be thankful to God since it is not clear to him how God was involved.
“Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it and harvested it. We cooked the harvest, it wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel. But we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”
While the scene portrays the prayer as coming from a man who grudgingly gives thanks to God, it does reveal a common attitude when it comes to giving thanks. People often think they should be grateful only when they get something they didn’t have to earn or work for. Our concept of thankfulness is often predicated on what we have or what we get. This perception of thankfulness is embedded within our culture. We teach children to say “please” to get something and “thank you” once they have got what they wanted. “What do you say?” the parent asks when a child fails to respond with the expected words. Adults do the same thing. We say “thanks for calling” or “thank you” when a server in the restaurant puts a coffee on our table. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this piece of etiquette. It’s just not a biblical model for what it means to be thankful.
In 1:3-4 we see that Paul’s thankfulness is not offered up because of something that he received or something that someone did for him. Paul offers thanks to God because of what God has done in the life of the Thessalonians and the way they responded to God. But Paul doesn’t give thanks just for past actions of God. He expresses thanks for what God has done in the lives of the believers and what God will do when Jesus returns. Thanksgiving for Paul is not about a gift received; it is about what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do.
As followers of Jesus in the modern age our perspective on thanksgiving needs to shift from being grateful for what we are getting to what God is doing. This means that we are thankful, even in difficult circumstances. One person in history who models this is Saint John Chrysostom who was twice exiled from his home in Constantinople for speaking out against empress Eudoxia. As he died, away from his home and under persecution his last words are said to have been “Thank God for Everything!” It’s not always easy to be thankful. At times the situations of life and the cares we carry make it easier for us to forget that we should be thankful. And as we look around at the world we live in we observe a lot for which we are not thankful. But if the example of Israel and the apostle Paul means anything to us we soon realize that giving thanks to God is not based on how good we feel or how well things are going for us. Like Chrysostom, it is an attitude of quiet confidence in God that recognizes we should be thankful for what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do.
John Byron, PhD is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary.
Thanks for sharing Dr. Byron! It is a great reminder that we need to be thankful regardless of the circumstances.
Thank you, Dr. Byron. Through more than five years of pain, I have become closer to God and have learned some major life lessons. I thank God for this experience, though unpleasant at times, for now I look back and see that God was indeed there with me all the time, loving me through difficult circumstances. I am truly grateful for what God has done.
Ellen, thank you so much for your edifying and encouraging comment! God bless you.