giving thanks in all circumstances.

1 Oct

Dear one,

My heart ached for you when you got the phone call telling you that your child had suddenly died. It is a tragedy to lose our children, no matter how old they might be. We always love them, they are always our children, and we are always their parent.

But even more than the news, what broke my heart was when I gave you a hug and you whispered, because words were too hard to speak out loud, “Give thanks to Him for everything, right?”

I heard this phrase a lot when I was a chaplain in the hospital. Patients would use it in an effort to avoid their grief, to invalidate the uncomfortable feelings they were feeling. It is a phrase I find repellent. And so, off the cuff, I answered you, “No, you don’t have to give thanks for this. This is terrible. You are allowed to grieve, to hurt, to be angry and sad.”

But I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, so I know my words may not have brought you comfort. My words may not have been what you needed to hear. So I want dive into your tradition to help explain this phrase that is so often taken out of context and used in such a damaging way.

There are two place in the Christian Scriptures where the idea of giving thanks in all things occurs:

Ephesians 5:19-20

“as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

First, let us take a look at the verse from Ephesians. These days, this book is accepted to not be an original Pauline letter but is generally understood to have been written in Paul’s “name by a later author strongly influenced by Paul’s thought.” Because of this, and because the author probably had the Thessalonian letter in front of him, let us focus instead on that scripture.

1 Thessalonians is understood to have been the first letter written by Paul to one of the new Christian communities, around the year 52. This makes it, chronologically speaking, the oldest book in the New Testament.

Paul was concerned about the young church. There were some errors that existed between what he had taught them and how they were practicing, so Paul was writing, in part, to clarify. And he wanted to encourage them in their faith. In the section in 5:12-25, in which the verse we are dealing with resides, Paul is writing about how Christians should behave.

Notice that the wording is “Give thanks in all circumstances” – This does not mean to give thanks for all circumstances.

Rather than deny our uncomfortable feelings or try to cover them up with gratitude, we can take comfort from and be inspired by the writers of the Psalms. The Psalms are full of laments, both communal and individual. Indeed, a lament is the most common type of Psalm. In these laments, the writer appeals to God in times of distress. “They typically open with an invocation of Yahweh, followed by the lament itself and pleas for help, and often ending with an expression of confidence.

tears_of_sadnessThe laments in Psalms show us that our feelings of sorrow, grief, anxiety, worry, anger, fear and so much more – these feelings are not foreign to God. In fact, we are encouraged to take them directly to God, and that God will be with us through them all.

This is what Paul is entreating the Thessalonians to give thanks for – not the trouble or struggling that is visited upon them, but that through it all, they are not alone. God is with them, and will be steadfast no matter how messy the emotions may seem.

And so I encourage you at this time of deep, deep sorrow, don’t try to pretend to be thankful. No one expects that from you. Instead, take your grief to God. Know that God is there with you in the pain. Lean on God and know that in this darkest hour, you are not alone.

With much love and sympathy,


PS: In writing this, I came across an incredible resource. Amy Roberts put together a 30-day devotional after the death of her daughter. It is called Psalms for the Grieving Heart and it can be printed out or accessed online.

One Response to “giving thanks in all circumstances.”

  1. irrevspeckay October 3, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    this is beautiful. thank you, Dawn

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