“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV)
A global pandemic, a bitterly contested election, separation from loved ones, economic uncertainty, a divided country, worship services at reduced capacity – maybe God will give us a pass on giving thanks this year!
But is it possible that Thanksgiving could be the missing ingredient that reminds us what we really need to be content? In early March, Rico Tice wrote about the incipient coronavirus pandemic,
“There are so many ways of interpreting what’s going on but surely one is that our idols have been taken from us, so that we have to focus on our souls.”
How little could we have predicted all that would be taken away from us this year! But maybe Thanksgiving is just what we need to confront our idolatry and our misplaced trust.
So what are these idols that we look to for contentment and happiness?
Perhaps it’s politics. I saw a tweet soon after our presidential election that said, “Remember, King Jesus was not on the ballot.” Maybe we trust too much in a particular political party or candidate.
Or maybe our idols are all those things that the pandemic took away, such as our health, well-being, and freedom from restrictions.
Maybe our idols are something buried deeper in our souls, like the search for wealth or happiness. Barry cites a poll in that Discipleship Explored episode that asked Americans how much money they believed it would take them to realize the American dream. Americans who earned $25,000 a year believed it would take $54,000 a year. Those who made $100,000 on average believed it would take $192,000.
Barry concludes, “Apparently our contentment requires about twice as much as we currently have – however much we currently have.”
All of these things (health, politics, money, or freedom) are not necessarily bad. But when the loss of one of these takes away our ability to be content and grateful, we can be sure they’ve become idols to us. The late Dr. John Stott, in comments on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, holds out the importance of giving thanks no matter our circumstances.
“We may not always feel like praising, praying or giving God thanks. Our circumstances may not be conducive to these things. Yet we are to do so all the same. Why? Because ‘this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ (18b)… It is God’s will, as expressed and seen in Jesus Christ, whenever his people meet together for worship, and whatever their feelings and circumstances may be, that there should be rejoicing in him, praying to him and giving him thanks for his mercies.” (https://us.langham.org/bible_studies/15-oct-2019/)
Stott had experience with difficult circumstances from the very beginning of his ministry. He even began his ministry at All Souls, Langham Place, London, while the church was still recovering from WWII damage. Yet, he was content in the circumstances where God had placed him. This would be the only church he would serve through his long ministry.
Where did Stott’s ability to be content and to give thanks come from? I think it came from what he tried to keep at the forefront of his vision, “Nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.” (John Stott, The Radical Disciple, chapter 3)
I’m not suggesting that Thanksgiving will suddenly erase the very real grief, loss and suffering that we have experienced this year. Yet Thanksgiving is a wonderful reminder that it’s possible to hold both grief and gratitude at the same time. As Christians, we do mourn, but not as those who have no hope. This Thanksgiving, I invite you to make space for the frustration, grief, and loss… and yet to practice gratitude nonetheless.
Alan Avera is the Executive Director of Christianity Explored North America. Since 2013, Alan’s primary task has been to support and equip North American churches for evangelism.