Giving Thanks for Everything
"Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5: 20)
One of the first life skills I learnt from my parents was to say thank you. I'm sure this was the case for most us.
It is an important life skill that no parent can resist reinforcing with their kids. We start practicing it early and saying it for them every time we hand them something, because we discover in our kids that thankfulness is not something innate. As parents we're highly embarrassed when our kids fail us by not using it outside the home. Imogen is a great one for responding with "Yuck I don't eat that" at someone else's house immediately after she has been lovingly served a plate of something she doesn't like.
We reinforce thankfulness until the child mimics it, or at least says the word 'thank you' at the right time. Eventually, the child picks up that the only way to get that thing you are holding in front of them is to say that word you keep repeating - 'thank you'. The child hasn't a clue why, but repeats it anyway.
Francous de La Rochefoucould, a 17th century classical author, puts it this way: "Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favours." It's a little pessimistic, but let's face it, that's where we start.
I received a book from my mother when I turned one, entitled "A pocketful of Proverbs" - a useful little book full of helpful sayings that help a child get along in life, like "a stitch in time, saves nine" and this one on thankfulness;
"Hearts, like doors, will open with ease
To very, very little keys.
And don't forget that two of these
Are "I thank you" and "if you please"
It's an important word 'Thank You'. It's a skill that helps us get along better in life. Everybody loves a grateful person, everybody loves being thanked.
"Nothing is more honourable than a thankful heart", said Seneca (Roman Philosopher - mid 1st century AD).
As adults we take on a deeper understanding of thankfulness. It moves from a way to get somewhere to a way of thinking. It's the "attitude of gratitude" if you like, that we need to adopt to develop a positive mindset to help you through life.
We have become aware in the last decade of the positive physiological benefits of a positive mind. It leads to reduced stress, improved health and brings us closer to that ultimate goal of achieving inner peace and happiness.
The adoption of thankfulness by pop psychology is evident in the countless websites dedicated to 'thankfulness'. One of these sites is called "Ladybug's Thursday Thankfullness" where someone lists 10 things she is thankfull for. Other people can add their thankful thoughts to a forum for all other like minded people to read and be thankful for. Eg. That I can see, that I have a lovely home, that I drink clean water, that I have two legs and arms.
It's all about how you look at things, counting your blessings and altering your attitudes from the positive to the negative, seeing the glass half full. This is something I'm constantly trying to achieve with Imogen. The other week after I picked her up from school, she burst out with "Why don't I get to go to aftercare" We spent the next 15min discussing how it was a good thing that I was at home for her after school. Needless to say, aftercare still looked better and she is booked in. But this changes our outlook and better equips us to deal with life.
"He enjoys much, who is thankful for little, a grateful mind is both a great and happy mind" (Anon)
Thank you is an important word, thankfulness an important concept. We learn that and accept that.
Thankfullness is important in the Bible too. In fact it is the conclusion of the reading today from St Paul to the Ephesians.
"Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ"
Elsewhere in the bible we are encouraged and instructed as Christians to be thankful to God.
1 Thessalonians "...give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus". This is what God wants of us.
We instructed to live with grateful hearts: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17). We are encouraged to count our blessings, as the old hymn told us to. We are to give thanks to God, the giver of all blessings.
This of course is very easy to do when the blessings are recognizably good. Yesterday I had a great day sailing on Sydney Harbour with eleven others from this church. I had a lot to be thankful for, David had the kids, I was with friends, we were out on the harbour on a glorious day. I'm sure I was not the only one on that boat who sat back at some time during the day and breathed a sigh of "God is good" and had a quiet thank you to God as we enjoyed the view. The majority of people on that boat had major life struggles that they were dealing with, but yesterday we felt blessed. At that time, forgetting all else, it was easy to give thanks to God.
But Paul stretches us on this in our reading today. Paul instructs that we are to "always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus" And Paul adds more to that. He says we are to do it with song and making music in our hearts.
I like doing that when I feel good about what is happening. I like doing that when I can say, 'God you did that for me and I know it'. But what about the tough stuff. What about the times when prayers seem to go unanswered. Paul says we are to give thanks here too. What about the times when it's too hard to muster up that old "attitude of gratitude".
This was the issue Satan had with God about Job wasn't it? It's easy to be righteous and to acknowledge God when he was so well blessed, Satan challenged. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has, but take away everything he has and he will surely curse your name". How are we to respond when we can no longer see the blessings, when we are no longer in a position to give thanks for all that is good.
"Sing and make music in your hearts... give thanks in everything". How do we do this in the face of complete devastation, tragedy, repulsive waste and loss, desolate isolation and pain. How are we to give thanks and sing in our hearts when our life feels all but over, when all is lost in this world and cannot be recovered, when we have experienced the type of pain, from which one does not ever get over? When we are in a position where we can no longer see how our current situation could possibly be viewed as a blessing in disguise, when the glass is unquestionably half empty it doesn't matter how you look at it.
This is an important question, because it affects how we help one another through these difficult times. What do we say to someone whose child has just died from SIDS, or who is dying from cancer or whose family has fallen apart, leaving them alone. What do we say to the parishioner who we've been praying for, when she continues to suffer the same grief? What do we say to the world when terrorists mass murder the innocent? What do we say about the starving millions in other countries?
What is Paul saying - "for everything"? We know that he was not na´ve about suffering. He himself was greatly persecuted, and encouraged his own suffering church to endure and perservere in the face of hardship and persecution.
In Romans 5 Paul says "because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope". It will make us stronger, build character. Sinead O'Conner similarly has a song called "Thank you" - "Now I've a strong, strong heart, thank you for breaking my heart".
Is that what Paul's on about here? It makes us better people, better Christians. Endure the glass half full and you'll be able to whistle a happy tune, you'll get that music in your heart again and give thanks?
Is this how we are to approach someone whose child has just died from SIDS or whose child is slowly dying from cancer? Is this how we encourage someone who has been severely abused for many years and is now severely emotionally damaged? It'll make you a stronger person. Don't worry, it's not all that bad, all things work for good. This is what the bible says "all things work for good for those that love God" (Rom 8:28). This is true. Is this the context in which we interpret Paul here today?
Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" has a great final scene that does this. When Brian is hanging on the cross, the guy on the cross next to him, who has been positive about everything leading up to his execution (treats it all like a bit of good fun), encourages Brian who has just given up all hope of ever being rescued by his friends and accepted his fate, to whistle a little tune entitled "Always look on the bright side of life". "If life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten, and that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing". It's all how you look at it. But some things are devastating now matter how you look at it. So how are we to sing and give thanks?
We must be careful as Christians to still acknowledge one anothers suffering by not simplifying God's word and carelessly quoting simplified segments of the bible out of context. This was a real issue for Job. "Why is this happening to me, how can I give thanks, where is God that I might challenge him?" His friends, who came to comfort him, started to get sick of his lament and responded by explaining his suffering away with a simplified theology - that one's afflictions are a sign that he is not righteous, that he needs to recognize his own guilt and what happens - They thought they were doing the right thing. Hey, they were quoting bits from the bible, it was all true, but Job became isolated in his suffering and he continued to agonise with God over it.
This passage in Ephesians takes us further than Job's friends here. There is a way to handle suffering and ultimately give thanks to God for everything. So where's Paul coming from?
Well firstly, it's noticeable that this letter to the Ephesians is unlike Paul's other letters to various churches. His other letters seemed to be in response to a particular crisis in the church at the time which he deliberately addresses. In Ephesians Paul doesn't seem to be addressing any of issue for a particular church but seems more to be speaking of the church as a whole. In this letter, Paul begins with all the big picture stuff and ends with the practical implications of that for living as Christians with this knowledge. This is a letter in which you get a real sense of Paul's excitement about what he is declaring.
If we look at Paul's starting point in Ephesians 1 for a moment we get a better picture of the context of today's passage.
He begins with "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who blesses us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing". His emphasis is immediately on the recognition of God the Father and Jesus Christ as the source of all that there is to be thankful for. It is centred on them.
He then continues with a great doxology that firstly recounts the great purposes of God in "the fulfillment of all things." He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure which he purposed in Christ to be put into effect when all things have reached their fulfillment. What's that?
In Ephesians Chapter 1 Paul says the "to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ". David talked on this a few weeks ago. The great mystery "Jews and Gentiles" as "members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ." From eternity to eternity God works all things out according to his perfect plan.
Secondly, Paul emphasizes our involvement in that plan, that all history, all men all races, in heaven and on earth are included in that plan. Chapter 1, verse 11 "In him we were chosen, having been predestined according to that plan" Our involvement has been made known to us. This coming together of all things includes us!
Thirdly, our inheritance and the fulfillment of God's plan are centred on Christ's gracious gift to us. His will has been "purposed in Christ", we have been adopted as heirs and have been justified by faith through Christ and "all things in heaven and on earth, will be brought together under one head" - Christ.
God's sovereignty and purpose is declared, our involvement in that plan is emphasized and Christs centrality emphasized all that we might recognize this and ultimately bring glory to God in doing so.
Looking back at the passage today, where is the emphasis in Paul's request to give thanks today. By chapter 5 Paul is up to the implications of the knowledge we know have which has been the focus of the earlier part of his letter. Give thanks to the Lord, for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul's focus on the who we give thanks to for what we know. The emphasis is on the who and for what rather than the how. We give thanks to God, in the name of Christ for everything, because we know what is to come.
You see, we know how the story ends, and better still we know that we feature in that story along with him and with Christ Jesus. That makes all the difference!
Have you ever watched a movie with a child? When it gets to the scary bit, where the villain is introduced, they are very frightened because they don't know how it is going to end and they want you to stay with them. You can't tell them not to be scared, so you stay with them, you ride it out with them to the good bit, to the end where all the baddies are overcome and everything works out. After your child has seen it once with you and they know the end, they feel more confident to watch it again (and again and again) by themselves - they're still scared of the baddies at the time they see them, but they know how it ends and they watch it to the end by themselves. They know what will happen.
We know who the goodies are - We know that God is in control and will triumph. We know that everything will end happily ever after - we accept his promises for a better time - the bringing together of all things. We know that it is good!
"The wolf will live with the lamb,
The leopard will lie down with the goat, the infant will play near the hole of the cobra
They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" ( Isaiah 11:6)
It is with this knowledge that we can confidently say 'yes', ultimately God does work all things together for good to those that love him. This quote from Romans ends with "who have been called according to his purpose" - it is the context of our knowledge of God's purpose that we can say this gratefully in difficult circumstances.
We know how the story ends!
"Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things." (Phillipians 3:13 - 15)
So giving thanks in all things is really a great leap of faith. It means accepting God as sovereign and faithful. Trusting in his promises for us.
Stonewall Jackson was quoted as saying when his arm was shot off "If it were in my power to replace my arm, I would not dare do it, unless I could know it was the will of my heavenly Father"
Hannah Whiteall Smith was an American evangelist and reformer and major public speaker and writer in the Holiness movement the Mid 19th century. She grew up in a strict quaker home, and worked hard at being obedient and righteouss before God. Her husband was at the forefront of a great revival in America at the time. Yet she experienced great suffering. Her husband's ministry ended abruptly after rumours of an affair with a local young girl. The fire went out in him and he became lost and depressed. He continued having affairs throughout their married life, making no effort to hide them from Hannah. She would watch as he spruced himself up for yet another visit to his mistress. Her 5-year-old daughter died of childhood illnesses and she suffered greatly over their loss. And finally to cap it all off, one of her surviving children denounced all that she had been taught about God and married the well known atheist at the time Bertand Russell. Each time, Hannah faced another circumstance in which she could see no blessing, she fell back on her faith, on her trust in God quoting Job, "thou he slay me, yet will I trust in him". Despite what is happening to me, despite the fact that it is not good, I trust God's promise, I know how the story ends and it is God. It's powerful stuff.
Likewise for Job, he finally reached a point where the why is this happening to me was unanswered by God, became irrelevant. Job fell back on his knowledge of the Lord and accepting his sovereignty, just trusted in Him. God spoke to Job of his sovereignty, Job sees God and is vindicated, Job's faith in God's divine purpose and ultimate goodness helps him to reconcile his suffering and repent.
So how does suffering fit into giving thanks. Yes suffering makes us stronger as individuals and Christians, but it's the prize that lies ahead that keeps us going. "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe" (Hebrews 12:28 )
When we accept God's sovereignty and His love for us then we are brought to the point of finally trusting in Him in all things. This is why I love the hymn, "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand" We can stand on that rock knowing and accepting that all other ground is sinking sand because we know God and trust him. It is the finding Joy in God and his eternal purpose that allows us to give thanks with music in our hearts.
We started looking at this passage by trying to wrestle the question of How. How do we give thanks in all things particularly our sufferings. But when we look at Paul's focus in these words, we discover that it's not until we look at the who we are to thank and for what, that we can answer the how. Paul's emphasis - God the Father and Christ Jesus - for this is where the fulfillment of the promise made known to us lies. This is how we give thanks for everything with music in our hearts, "to God the Father" "in the name of Christ Jesus" All other ground is sinking sand.
Forget your pop psychology, looking on the bright side of life will only carry us so far. And if counting your blessings becomes a struggle, remember the prize that lies ahead, accept that all other ground is sinking sand and you'll be left not with the question of 'how can I sing?' in this circumstance but 'how can I keep from singing?'
I want to finish with a hymn by a quaker gentleman by the name of Robert Lowry written in 1860:
"My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentations
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul-
How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth
No storm can break my inmost calm
While to that Rock I'm clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth.
How can I keep from singing?
Once we accept that we are part of this bigger picture, that we have been included, that the great mysteries that have been revealed to us and proclaimed to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, the eternal purpose accomplished in Christ Jesus, then we are, as God's children compelled to acknowledge the giver of these blessings - yes even with music in our hearts, the giver of this promise and in so doing glorify Him. You see we know how the story ends is what Paul's saying. You see as Christians, we are not only obligated to give thanks, we are in a privileged position to give thanks. We know what lies ahead. We know that God is working all things according to his purpose. And that through Christ, we are included in that purpose.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 17th, 2003