I have little patience for debates over inconsequential matters. Too many debates on the Internet come down to questions with all the relevance of, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
At first blush, the question of whether we need to thank God for everything or in everything seems to be nitpicking about a single word. As I wrote in the previous article, we are called to thank God in every circumstance but not necessarily to thank him for literally everything that happens to us. The difference between the two is far from trivial. There are four pastoral and/or theological consequences to be considered.
1) It May Cause Believers to Stumble
Hurting people come to church in need of comfort and healing. They need to bring their hurts, their pain, and sorrow and to be met with compassion and grace.
Yet, many in the Church who share the hurts of their heart find not love but judgment. I know hurting Christians who fellow believers have corrected for not rejoicing in and being thankful for what was causing them pain.
There are a number of possible negative outcomes from this. First, the person can conclude sharing their heart’s pain was a mistake and stop doing so. This closes them off from the body of Christ and leaves them suffering in silence. This leads to a hardening of spiritual arteries, a plastic Christianity that is “smiling on the outside, dying on the inside.” Everything is fine with them, as far as you can tell. They smile at church and may go through the motions of saying what they’ve been taught to say. But inside they feel like a filthy sinner because they’re not sincerely grateful they’ve lost a loved one or a business. Then, suddenly, they’ll be gone. Maybe you’ll hear later about their divorce and wonder what happened. They always seemed fine.
It can lead to people leaving the church or walking away from the faith. For example, when the Church has taught a young woman that Christ commands her to thank God FOR a husband who beats her. Or when the Church has taught a young man that he must thank God for killing his mother with cancer. To hurting souls who accept it, this teaching renders our God an abusive monstrosity insensitive to our hurts. Fortunately, some hurting souls taught this know the Bible well enough to realize an interpretation of scripture that renders God an abusive monster is incongruous with a Christ who was a “man of sorrows acquainted with grief.”
As I said in part one, no one in the pages of scriptures was ever shown to praise God for literally everything rather than in everything. But perhaps there are people today that God gives the grace to respond in that way in the midst of the pain. That would be quite extraordinary, the way it is when a person gives a reverse tithe (90% of their income.) It is unwise to hold either practice up as the standard that everyone should follow. That imposes an extra-biblical burden on God’s people that most can’t achieve. Christ said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30). This teaching is a yoke that is neither easy nor light.
The Holy Spirit gently guides us through our lives so we become more holy, more kind, more gracious, and more thankful. Commanding people struggling through a cloud of despair to give thanks for their suffering only brings them condemnation and discouragement.
2) It Ignores Scriptural Commands Precedents for Lament
You will never find in scripture, “Tell those who mourn to thank God for their loss and rejoice in it.” You will find scripture that says:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.-Romans 12:15,16
To tell a hurting person to thank God or otherwise rejoice violates these commands. You’re not walking in harmony with the grieving soul. You may also be haughty and wise in your own sight as you rebuke a person’s need for comfort. In fact, let’s return to the Jesus Calling devotional book in which Sarah Young writes for Jesus. She says for “Jesus” that those who don’t know Christ intimately don’t thank him for their hardships. That is a false accusation against lamenting Christians that preys upon the Church’s widespread ignorance of lament.
The Bible is full of lament. Biblical heroes from both testaments, including Christ, take their sorrows, their anger, and their frustrations to God. The psalter is packed full of lament as is the book of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Job. These people of God came to Him with their sorrows, hurts, and pains in a real raw way that makes most Christians uncomfortable.
Mind you, lament is never an end in itself. Lament is a journey of faith. It begins with us pouring out all of our pain and leaving it in God’s hands. It ends with us praising God as God turns our mourning into dancing. Some of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of praise come at the close of laments. Take this verse from Lamentations:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.-Lamentations 3:22 and 23
The passage is the basis of that great hymn of the Church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Jeremiah only reached that point through a dark and desolate place of mourning. Just a few verses before, he wrote of God:
He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.”
How would you react if Jeremiah lived today and gave you that answer to how his life was going? Would you respect him as the highly spiritual man of God that he is? Would you honor him as a prophet on the verge of a mind-blowing insight into the goodness of God? Or would you quench the Spirit’s work in Jeremiah’s life by telling him to shut up and be thankful?
We all want to hear the praise that pours from Jeremiah. But too few of us patiently mourn with the weeping prophet as he works through his pain to get there.
Normally, “thanks for everything” means “thanks for all the good you do.” Why take the Bible’s use of it to mean to thank God literally for all things, even bad things? Perhaps it protects us from having to deal with hurting people. Perhaps it gives us an excuse to dismiss them.
3) Attributing to God what God Didn’t Send
God is sovereign, but not everything that happens in your life is God’s work. Yes, God does have a plan. Yes, God works all things together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. (Roman 8:28) No, that doesn’t mean all things that happen to us are good and thus a gift of God. Some things happen to us as the result of living in a fallen world, our sin, or the sins of others, and are thus works of the Devil who comes to “kill, steal, and destroy,” (John 10:10.)
The Devil is not all powerful and God can check the devil’s plans. Consider in the book of Job, where the Devil attacked Job. God allowed Satan to do it but limited the scope of his attack. It wouldn’t have been proper for Job to thank God for killing his children or destroying his herds, because it wasn’t God who did it, but it was the destroyer.
Sometimes our lives are messed up due to our owns sins. James is clear we should never blame God for temptation or for us falling into sin. (James 1:13-15). If overdosing on illegal drugs leaves us disabled or we end up in jail for armed robbery, we can’t thank God for the disability or for our imprisonment. They are not the result of God’s will. We can be thankful for how God will work through this, but we shouldn’t blame God in the backwards way of thanking him for it.
There are many views on this whole issue of free will and predestination within the body of Christ. You have to be a Calvinist with extreme views on predestination to conclude God is the literal ultimate cause of everything. And you need to support that conclusion before you can get to the idea that everyone needs to be thankful for everything that happens.
4) Trying to be thankful for your problems can keep you focused on your problems.
A sure way to remain focused on your problems is trying to be thankful FOR everything that happens to you. It requires you to actively work to focus on being thankful for it.
When you read Paul’s thanksgivings in his letters while he’s in prison, he’s not thanking God for imprisonment. He’s thanking God for those who are standing with them while he was there, and then he’s looking beyond his circumstances. He’s looking at how God is working through his Church and through the lives of faithful people.
However good our intentions are, forcing ourselves to thank God for our circumstances risks our becoming trapped in lies. Lament is the road that leads to sincerely casting our eyes above our troubles to see the glory of God at work in the world and praising the Lord.
We need to deal with the difficult parts of our lives, not to fixate on it all the time. Fixating can result from trying to force ourselves to be thankful for something that we need to lament.
Those who advocate giving thanks to God for all things have sincere, good intentions, but they are sincerely wrong. The overall effect of this false teaching is for us to stray into a shallow, inauthentic walk with Christ.
In “The Three Tools of Death,” G.K. Chesterton wrote a mystery about the death of a man who preached the need for constant happiness, a teaching that contributed to his death. Chesterton declared, “The Religion of Cheerfulness is a cruel religion. Why couldn’t they let him weep a little, like his fathers before him?”
Christianity is not meant to be a cruel religion that demands a plastic grin frozen on every face all the time.
The book of Ecclesiastes recognizes that there is time for mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:3) and that sorrow can make our heart better (Ecclesiastes 7:3) Our Lord declared that those who mourn are blessed and will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4) God knows our frame and that we are dust (Psalm 103). We have a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15.) God has shown in both Old and New Testament that he is big enough to handle our sorrows and laments.
At the same time, we do owe God our praise and thanksgiving even when we’re in pain. We can thank the Lord for the good things in our lives. We can thank God for salvation and for God’s unconditional love. We can thank him that he can handle our sorrow even when his people can’t. As we grieve honestly, in time, God will give us the grace to look beyond our sorrows and see the glorious picture of God at work in our lives, and others’ lives, and find a deeper gratitude.