Our post today is by the Rev. Dr. Ligon Duncan and is a sermon he delivered at the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, in 2001. Dr. Duncan was at that time the senior pastor of that church, serving in that capacity from 1996 until 2013, when he accepted a post as Chancellor for the Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Duncan prepared for the ministry at Covenant Theological Seminary and earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of a long list of works, too numerous to mention here. We are pleased to have been granted permission to reproduce this sermon today for our readers.
In Everything Give Thanks :
A Thanksgiving Day Sermon (2001),
by the Rev. Dr. Ligon Duncan.
Text : 1 Thessalonians 5:18
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians 5. Since we’re worshiping together on Thanksgiving morning, it seems appropriate that we think for a few moments about the distinctive nature of Christian thanksgiving. We know friends who perhaps have no saving faith in Jesus Christ that we might characterize as thankful people. They are not people that are ungrateful in general about life, and they show an appreciation to us, perhaps in our friendship and for many blessings that they enjoy in this life we might even characterize them as cheerful people, even cheerful people in many different circumstances. But what is distinctive about Christian thanksgiving? What is distinctive about this joyful and thankful attitude of heart that the Scriptures exhort us to have and which the Scriptures explain how we are able to have and evidence? What is distinctive about it? That’s what I want us to think about with you for a few moments this morning.
Before we read our text, I want you to note that verse 18 is in a set of three directions that Paul is giving to the Thessalonian church, and indeed, to you and me. He has first said to “rejoice always,” and then he has said, “pray without ceasing,” and to it he adds, “in everything give thanks.” Clearly, in the context he’s thinking about prayer in general, but he’s also talking about prayer in general reflecting a general attitude toward life that the believer ought to have. He’s to be prayerful, but in his praying he’s to be joyful and rejoicing, he’s to be thankful and giving thanks. And so a general attitude of life, Paul says, is to reflect itself, Christian, in your prayers. Now, by focusing on only one of these specific directions, I do not mean to separate Paul’s direction about thanksgiving from this general exhortation about prayer or about life, but it is, after all, Thanksgiving Day, and we are focusing on what it means distinctively as Christians to give thanks. So, let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word in 1 Thessalonians 5:18:
In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Amen. This is God’s holy word, may He write it’s eternal truth upon our hearts. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we bow before You and we ask that by Your grace You would enable us to see and do Your will, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
When you hear those words of the Apostle Paul, they sound good, and they sound right, and they sound biblical, and they sound Christian, and they sound beautiful, and they are. But you may be tempted to tack a “but” onto the end of that sentence. It does sound beautiful, and it does sound good, and it does sound right, and it does sound Christian, and it does sound spiritual, but, it just isn’t practical! We tend to dismiss hard things that way, don’t we? The theory sounds good, but it just won’t work.
I remember Gordon Reed telling me a story of sitting in on one of Steve Brown’s Doctor of Ministry classes at the seminary in which Steve was expounding a particular theory about how congregational life ought to be conducted, and all of the students were rapidly writing down every word which fell from his lips, and learning this great wisdom; and at the end of this particular section Steve turned to Gordon, and said, “Well, Dr. Reed, what do you think?” And Gordon said, “Well, that’s real nice, Steve, but it won’t work north of Tampa.” And suddenly the bubble was burst in the minds of all the students who listened to this great theory, and we’re tempted to do that with this kind of a phrase. Well, that sounds nice, Ligon, to say that we ought to give thanks in everything, but it just won’t work.
But Paul is serious about this direction and I think by even raising that issue of the difficulty of obeying, and the seeming impracticality of obeying this direction, we see that this direction is far more than a sentimental expression of some sort of moralism that Paul wants us to inculcate in life. This is a profoundly difficult thing that Paul is asking us to do. Thanksgiving in a certain way is easy to do when the blessings are falling around your ears, but it can be very difficult to do when it seems that the trials are falling down around your ears, and still in those things, Paul wants us to give thanks. So I want you to see three things that Paul is particularly saying to us in this one little verse–this tiny, but difficult and beautiful directive that he’s giving.
The first thing I want you to see is that Paul is telling us what we need to do. “In everything give thanks.” Then he’s telling us why we need to do it. “For this is the will of God for you.” And then, having given us a direction that no one can keep in his own strength, he says how to do it–“In Christ Jesus.” Those three things I’d like to meditate with you about this morning.
I. In everything give thanks.
First of all, this direction, “In everything give thanks.” Paul is telling you there what you are to do. He’s telling you that in every circumstance of life we are to be thankful. He is saying globally our thanksgiving, though it may be prompted time to time, by the sheer goodness of our circumstances, is not to be circumscribed by the goodness of our circumstances. That thanksgiving is to be derived from some other source, and therefore, in every circumstance, be that circumstance good or bad, be that circumstance delightful or even positively evil, we are to give thanks.
Now, I want to pause right there and say, notice what Paul does not say here. He does not say, “for” everything give thanks. He says “in” everything give thanks. There are some circumstances in our lives, there are some circumstances in your lives this morning which it would be improper to give thanks for. You may have found yourself on the receiving end of some evil, some personal evil, some impersonal evil, for which God is not asking you to give thanks. Paul is not saying to the people who have lost loved ones, for instance, at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon, “Thank God that your loved one was murdered.” That’s not what Paul is asking you to think or to do or to pray.
But Paul is saying that in every circumstance, no matter how catastrophic, you are to give thanks. Many of you know the story of Helen Keller. She was born in 1882. I didn’t know until this morning that she didn’t die until 1968. Helen Keller was born in 1882, and when she was 19 months old, a beautiful, precocious little girl, she caught a fever that so ravaged her and that left her without sight and without the ability to hear. She was locked into a world of darkness and silence; but she was determined and she was extremely smart. Now, I want to pause right now. Fathers of daughters, can you feel the intensity of what is going on here? Can you imagine that precious little girl that you hold in your arms and you delight in, and suddenly, she is locked away from you in darkness and silence. And she was determined to be able to communicate with the outside world, and she began to be able to imitate to her family things that she wanted. When she wanted a piece of bread she would make a hand motion as if she were cutting a piece of bread to let her family know. When she wanted ice cream, she would wrap her arms around herself and she would shiver. And she developed about sixty different motions that she could do in order to communicate with her family, but it frustrated her as she understood that people communicated with their lips and she couldn’t communicate with her lips to her family. And as she grew, she became more and more frustrated and more and more violent because of her frustration. She would smash things; she would throw objects. She was out of control. At age seven, her parents got her a tutor to help her learn to communicate. And very instrumental in Helen Keller’s ability to cope with this was her trust in the living God.
Now, my friends, a person in Helen Keller’s situation would be very tempted to become bitter and angry, and the last thing that would be on the agenda for a person like that might well be gratefulness and thankfulness. But I want you to listen to what Helen Keller once said. She said, “For three things I thank God every day of my life. Thanks that He has vouchsafed me knowledge of His works; deep thanks that He has set in my darkness the light of faith; deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to—a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song. Helen Keller may not have been thankful for the circumstance that God had dealt to her, but she was thankful in that circumstance. And that is precisely what Paul is saying to us. In every circumstance, we are to give thanks.
II. Why we should give thanks.
Now, why in every circumstance are we to give thanks? Well, Paul tells us here in verse 18. “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you.” You know, the Bible piles up reasons that we’re to be thankful to God. In the Psalms, we learn that we give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. We thank God because the sovereign God of the heaven and earth is not some sort of a tyrant with a bad sense of humor. He’s a loving God that is good and cares for us. The Psalms thank the Lord because He watches over us; He protects us; He spares us. The Psalms thank God because He redeems us, and because He loves us. The Psalms thank God because He gives us good gifts, and He establishes justice, and He shows mercy. The Bible has a whole catalog of things for which we ought to give thanks, and Paul doesn’t mean to exclude that from this direction. But here he says, “Give thanks because it is God’s will for you.” You hear that, friends? That’s a gospel command. Give thanks because it’s God’s will for you. And I think, my friends, that that means at least two things.
I think it means, first of all, that God wants you to give thanks in everything, and therefore, you ought to do it. It’s just like when your mother said, “Eat your broccoli, son.” And you said, “Why?” And she answered with that incredible metaphysical phrase, “Because I said so.” And Paul is saying, “God wants you to give thanks because it’s His will for you.”
But there’s something bigger and greater behind that, I suspect that Paul is saying. Paul is saying, “It is the will of God for you that you give thanks in everything,” because Paul is indicating to us that it is God’ grand design to create a joyful, rejoicing people. His purpose is not to create shriveled up, shrill, ungrateful, grudging, miserly people. His grand conspiracy, in the work of redemption, is to enlarge our hearts, and to show the world what humanity was intended to be in the first place. And the very first thing humanity ought to have been in the view of the greatness of the Creator’s gift to us, was thankful. And Paul is now saying that, even though you live in a fallen world in which there are many things not to be thankful for, that should not overshadow in your experience the things for which we ought to be profoundly thankful. And therefore, it is God’s will in His plan to create in you a heart large with thankfulness, and therefore, you ought to give thanks.
You know, it was said that the joy in the midst of pain and persecution that was displayed by the early Christians often caused heathens to say, “I don’t know what they have, but I want it.” Billy Joel said, about twenty years ago, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” And God is saying, “I am desirous of creating believers who portray in their thankfulness a joyfulness of a heart, in spite of circumstances, that causes unbelievers to say, ‘You know, I think I’d rather cry with those saints than laugh with my friends who are sinners, because they are joyful, thankful people.’” And the Apostle Paul says, “Give thanks in everything because it’s the will of God for you.”
III. How to give thanks.
But you’re saying, “How in the world can I do that? You don’t understand my circumstances.” You’re right, my friends, I don’t understand your circumstances. I don’t have the slightest clue of the circumstances in which God has called you to give thanks. In some of your lives, I have a little tiny sliver of an inkling, but I have no idea how great a challenge it is to you to give thanks. You don’t have any idea how great a challenge it is to me to give thanks sometimes. But the apostle tells us how, and it’s here in just three words, “In Christ Jesus.” It is only possible to express thanks to God in everything if you have a faith relationship with Jesus Christ–if you are in Christ. It is only in and through Jesus Christ that we are able to give thanks in every circumstance.
I’ve had a friend look me in the eye when her 15 year-old granddaughter was killed in an automobile accident and say, “Ligon, the Lord is good in all He does.” And I’ve had a mother holding a two-year-old infant in her arms as he took his last breath look up at me and say, “Ligon, would you sing the doxology with me?” And I want to tell you that I’ve wondered how in the world can these people do this? And Paul is telling you the answer here. Because they have seen the face of God in Christ; they know the Lord. They’ve tasted and seen that He is good. They’ve rested in His grace, are able to give thanks in anything.
It’s just like what Augustine said many years ago. He said, “Lord, command what You will, but give what You command.” He’s saying, “Lord, I can’t do the things that you tell me to do, but You can command them and then You can give me the ability to do what You command.” And the Apostle Paul is saying, “You want to give thanks in everything? You want to foil your foes with joy?” Then you trust in Jesus Christ; you rest in Him. And when you find that when you are connected to the One who is the spiritual source of the capacity to be thankful in every circumstance, then you’ll be able to give thanks in everything. May God grant that we would be a thankful people this year. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and our God, we praise You for the Lord Jesus Christ in whom we are able to give thanks in everything. Amen.