A Sunday morning sermon message immediately caught my attention when I read the title, “Being thankful at all times and for all things.” I immediately circled the word “for” and knew I was going to get a little worked up. The key verse that was used was Ephesians 5:20, “Giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There it is again, that pesky little word “for.” That’s in the HCSB version but, don’t worry, it’s in every version I looked it up in. The Message paraphrase changes it up a little by saying, “Sing praises over everything.”

While the preaching continued, I flipped to another popular verse on giving thanks, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch the change in word choice there? It says to be thankful IN everything, not FOR everything, and yes it uses the same word “in” in pretty much every translation I looked up. I think there’s a significant distinction between these two words.

The preacher said it would be a hard message for some people to accept. I’m one of those who simply cannot accept being thankful FOR all things. The afternoon of that message, I attended the funeral for one of my brother’s best friends who took his own life in the driveway of the mother of his infant daughter. I will NOT be thankful FOR that. The previous year my brother-in-law died because of alcoholism. I will NOT be thankful FOR that. One of my sons will live out his days in a facility due to his behaviors that stem from atrocious sexual abuse and neglect. I will NEVER be thankful he was abused in that manner and will NOT be thankful he can’t be safe to live within the community. I have a son who is suffers from mental and emotional health issues and FOR that, I am NOT thankful. I have another son who went through unspeakable trauma in foster care, and he blames those experiences on his inability to trust God loves him. I’m NOT thankful FOR that.

It was preached that we are to be thankful FOR all things as this makes us more like Christ. Is Christ REALLY thankful FOR all things? Is He thankful for sin, and evil, and natural disasters, the death of children…. I could go on, right? I don’t think I want to be more like a God if He is thankful FOR those things. Here’s the thing though, I think as Christians we are required to be thankful because Christ himself was thankful. Jesus was ridiculed, despised, scorned, rejected, spat upon, blasphemed, beaten, and finally crucified. Yet because of His great humility, He always gave thanks IN all things.

When Daniel heard that King Darius had signed the decree forbidding the worship of any god or man but the king himself, he immediately “went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” I don’t think Daniel was thanking God FOR this new decree. I think he was thanking God for who He is, that He is sovereign, and still in control.

In his prison cell, probably in Rome, Paul awaited trial and possible execution. While there he wrote his letter to the Philippian church, in which he gave thanks for their faithfulness and for the work God was continuing to do in them. I don’t think he was thankful FOR prison and his possible execution. He was thankful that he was still able to see God’s hand at work IN the midst of trials.

This spirit of thankfulness is necessary for the life of a believer. When God brings trials and difficulties into our lives and we complain and grumble, we question His love for us and that He truly is in control. We can have a spirit of gratitude without being thankful FOR some things though. Another passage that was discussed was the one where Paul talks about having a “thorn in his flesh” that he continually asked for the Lord to remove, and He wouldn’t. He is then able to recognize that it is this “thorn” that is causing him to depend on the Lord and the Lord be glorified through “his weaknesses”. He finishes the story with, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” You catch that? He’s delighting IN those things, not FOR those things.

This level of thankfulness is only possible for a mature believer. Being able to see God’s gracious hand in every circumstance and hold to the promise, “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” When someone who is not mature in the faith goes through hardships, trials, evil, death, destruction, etc, and those very things they choose to use as reasons to run further from God, there is no reason to be thankful FOR those things. But, in the believer’s life, when they choose to continue to trust in God, find peace, choose joy, hope in the unseen, and be thankful towards God IN the midst of great trials, for that, I can be thankful. Were it not for Christ, it would be foolish to be thankful for everything because apart from Him all things do NOT turn out for good.