How we respond to different circumstances shows what we really think of God. A friend recently found out that, contrary to previous reports, she does not have cancer. Our response was Praise the Lord! But other friends just lost their son to cancer. He had a wife and three young children. Was our response Praise the Lord? We typically acknowledge God’s providence when things go well. At other times, not so much.
Is God good all the time?
Fact: it’s easy to be thankful when things are going well, like when we aced the exam, when the annual physical turned out well, when we got the raise, when the church is growing, when our family is flourishing. It’s not so easy to give thanks when we failed the exam, when the prognosis is ominous, when we got fired, when the church has split, when tragedy has struck. Sports pop-culture mirrors this—I have yet to see a slugger point her index finger to the sky after striking out or a quarterback do so after getting sacked. And I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. So, is God faithful and loving to us us only when favorable circumstances come our way? Do we think God has forgotten about us when bad things happen, or even worse, that God is impotent to protect us from the bad stuff? Is God our God only when things are going well?
Philosophers and theologians have tried to solve the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” problem. They tell us that we would not appreciate the goodness of life if we did not experience its dark side. Some discuss how a sovereign God permits evil to occur. Others ponder how humans cause those evils. This is all well and good, but candid scholars admit that there is no theory that fully satisfies us intellectually, let alone quiets the deep anxieties of our souls.
What does the Bible say?
Philosophical theories aside, biblical characters affirm and model thankfulness in every circumstance. Paul spoke about thanksgiving in an amazing way. In Ephesians 5, he said that one of the characteristics of people who are full of the Spirit is continual thanksgiving (Eph 5:20). Apparently, Paul was imprisoned in Rome when he said this (Eph 6:20; Acts 28:16). His imprisonment came after after he had narrowly escaped death by a poisonous snakebite (Acts 28:1-6). His snakebite came after he almost died in a shipwreck (Acts 27). His shipwreck came after after a wrongful imprisonment at Caesarea by a corrupt Roman governor (Acts 24:24-27). His imprisonment came after he had narrowly escaped a murder plot in Jerusalem (Acts 23:12-22; 25:3). And we think we have it rough!
Paul had previously written to the Thessalonians about thanksgiving along the same lines, encouraging them to pray continually and give thanks in every circumstance (1 Thess 5:21). Paul taught this after reminding the church of the suffering he and they had experienced when he first told them about Jesus (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; 3:4; Acts 17:1-9). And he didn’t just tell them to give thanks during trying times—he actually did so himself. Just before he arrived in Thessalonica, he and Silas prayed and sang praises to God in Philippi at midnight after they had been beaten and imprisoned with their feet in stocks (Acts 16:25).
Other people in the Bible shared Paul’s counter-intuitive, cognitively-dissonant conviction that we should thankfully acknowledge God’s faithful hand in our lives all the time, even during the worst of times. Here are some of them:
Joseph saw the hand of God even in his betrayal by his brothers (Gen 45:5, 7-8; 50:20). This kept him from holding a grudge and taking revenge.
Job praised God after losing everything (Job 1:21). In the middle of his dispute with his “friends” and his anguished argument with God, Job went so far as to say that he would hope in God even if God killed him (Job 13:15).
Habakkuk began his prophecy with complaints that God was disciplining Israel by nations even more sinful than Israel (Hab 2:13), but concluded with an amazing prayer that expressed hope and joy in God’s eventual salvation even though Israel was about to be totally devastated. (Hab 3:17-19).
Daniel thanked God, as was his custom, even when he knew it would get him thrown into the lions’ den (Dan 6:10). God’s deliverance of Daniel led King Darius to publicly acknowledge God’s power (Dan 6:25-27).
Jesus, our ultimate example, thanked God for the bread and the cup, knowing full well that the crucifixion loomed and that it was his last meal on earth (Matt 26:26-29).
These biblical texts teach and model a lifestyle of thanksgiving in every conceivable circumstance, but they do not directly tell us why we should always be thankful. The closest thing I can find to an explanation for this outrageous notion of constant thanksgiving is that God is good, and he is faithful to his people in every circumstance. God’s goodness means he would never do us wrong. God’s faithfulness means that he is always by our side. Psalm 136 alone reminds us of this no less that 26 times. Although we may want an airtight explanation for our troubles, what we need is a relationship with God. We need to know God much more than we need to know why. God’s character and covenant are our ultimate solace. As my old friend George told me when he was dying of cancer, “the sovereignty of God is the softest pillow.”
Faith seeks understanding in worship
If we get how thanksgiving works in the Bible, we won’t give thanks to God just because we like what recently happened to us, but because, whatever happens, God is good and faithful forever. We will not fully understand his providence, but we will rest in his character and his intentions for us. He’s a good, good Father, and he’s perfect in all of his ways. Our attitude of gratitude won’t depend on how we value the goods and services (we piously call these “blessings”) we have received from God but on how we value God himself, his goodness, and his loyalty to us in Christ.
As we approach the Advent season this year, let’s remember that the God who has come to us in Christ is unspeakably good even when times are bad, and that thanksgiving isn’t because God has given us stuff but because he has given us himself. With this mindset, we’ll be able to give thanks even when it’s hard.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
Indeed, His faithful love endures forever.
 Exploring how this idea unfolds in Israel’s worship from the days of David and Solomon to the days of Jeremiah’s vision of a restored Israel is an interesting Bible study. The expression “he is good, and his faithful love endures forever” is found in 1 Chron 16:34; 2 Chron 5:13; 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Ps 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1; Jer 33:11. The shorter expression “his faithful love endures forever” occurs in 1 Chron 16:41; 2 Chron 7:6; 20:21; Ps 118:2-4; 136:2-26.
An earlier version of this post appeared on the Talking Points Blog at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.