The Plumb Line
Straight Answers to Honest Questions
by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.
[Note that this repeats (with minor changes) a Plumb Line article I wrote in 2003.]
Question: Are we really supposed to give thanks "for everything" (Ephesians 5:20)? I don't see how I can be grateful for bad things that happen.
Answer: From the context of Paul's encouragement to be thankful "for everything," we see that we are not being told to regard everything that happens as good. Ephesians 5:16 says "the days are evil" (English Standard Version). We are exhorted to "understand what the will of the Lord is" (5:17). That means not everything is God's will. Things which are not God's will are evil; we are not told to be thankful for those things as such. There is a way, however, to think with gratitude even about things we have to call evil.
The words "giving thanks always and for everything" (vs. 20) come toward the end of a string of exhortations to be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and making melody in our hearts. Paul is talking about how to encourage and build up one another in the Spirit-filled life. Essentially we have to choose to direct our own hearts and minds toward God's will, and we need to help one another do the same. We do this through our words to one another and through sharing songs of worship.
If we focus our attention on the "evil days," we become discouraged, disheartened, and fearful. In contrast, by keeping our hearts and minds turned toward God we receive strength and courage because we are focused on his will and his faithfulness to his promises. That comes with "giving thanks always," recognizing and celebrating the fact that God's good will is going to win, in the end if not immediately. We can even give thanks "for everything," because of our confidence that, for those who love God, "all things work together for good" (Rom. 8:28). That does not mean that the bad things are not bad, but it does mean that God's goodness will overcome all the bad and make good out of it. In that light (and that light alone) we can give thanks "for everything." We thank God not for the bad thing itself but for what he promises to do with it.
Giving thanks for everything is not a way of pretending that bad doesn't exist. Rather it is a way of proclaiming that God's good is greater, so much greater that all evil will be defeated and ultimately serve God's good purposes. Perhaps 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says the same thing with even more clarity: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (KJV). Giving thanks "in all circumstances" (ESV) means thanking God that he is bigger than the circumstances. The circumstances may be evil, but circumstances change. In contrast, God is good--"all the time."