“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5: 16-19, OSB)
Life as a Christian offers us the challenge of trying to follow God and fulfill His will for our life as best we can. Throughout our life, we wonder, “What is God’s will for my life? What should I do? What choice(s) should I make that will align with His will?”
When we read the scriptures, we find the answer to those questions in one of St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5: 16-19, Orthodox Study Bible) God in His mercy has offered us these three doable tasks which accomplish His will for us. His will is that we do everything with rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving.
These actions of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks are not big projects, jobs, or major decisions, are they? But neither are they simple: they require effort! They demand that we make a conscious (and constant!) endeavor to act in ways that may not come easily to us. Each requires us to have a certain attitude (of joy, prayerfulness, and thanksgiving) and then to act on that attitude (by rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks).
We have written before about the “pray without ceasing” portion of God’s will for us (see https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/on-practical-reminders-to-pray/). At this time of year, those of us who are Americans are thinking about being thankful as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, so it seems a natural time to ponder the next part of God’s will for us: giving thanks in everything.
St. Paul writes, “in everything give thanks.” At Thanksgiving, it’s fun to think about what we’re thankful for – our Lord’s great mercy towards us, our home, our family, our Church, our food, etc. We should be thinking of those things, and it is right for us to give thanks for them. But St. Paul does not write, “in the good things in your life” or “in the things that you like about your life give thanks.” Nope. He writes “in EVERYTHING give thanks.”
Wait, so if we are to give thanks in everything, that means that in our illness, in our loneliness, in our depression, in our anxiety, in our loss, in our struggle, we give thanks?!? How do we really do that? And why?
The how is perhaps the most difficult part. When we are experiencing struggle, it is so hard to reach outside of that struggle; or to even think beyond it. Our struggle is a black cloud, suffocating (sometimes literally) even our ability to breathe. How can we give thanks in that?!? Fr. Stephen Freedman’s blog post “Giving Thanks for all Things” (see link below) states that genuine thanksgiving is centered in accepting God’s will. “The acceptance of God’s will is the very heart of giving thanks. To give thanks is to recognize first that what has come your way is a gift, and second, that the giver of every gift is the good God. Many become troubled at the thought of giving thanks for something terrible (a disease or accident). This giving of thanks is not a declaration that the thing itself is good, but that God Himself is good and that He works in and through all things for our salvation.” He shares the struggles of Elder Thaddeus of Vatovnica, who experienced anxiety and depression for years before coming to understand the importance of accepting God’s will and truly trusting His control of our circumstances (as well as His promise to carry us through our trials). He said, “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Fr. Stephen’s article goes on to offer a prayer that he prays when he finds himself in such circumstances. This prayer may be helpful to us, as well: “For myself, I pray, ‘Give me grace, O Lord, to accept all that you give, for you are good and Your will for me in all things is good.’” Then he continues, “I often add words such as, ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord.’” Abba Macarius offered a similar – though more brief – prayer. He said, “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hand and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord help!’ God knows very well what we need and He shows us His mercy.”
Besides the how of giving thanks in all things, the why is also a challenge. Why should we give thanks in painful experiences? St. John Chrysostom said, “The mark of a soul that loves wisdom always gives thanks to God. If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good… Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations.” (Note: St. John didn’t just say this—he lived it. He was old when he was exiled because of an empress who didn’t like that his teachings did not support her vain and selfish lifestyle. While still traveling to his place of exile, he became sick and departed this life. His final words? “Glory to God in all things.” Even old, ill, unjustly exiled, and in pain, St. John gives thanks to God.) So, according to St. John Chrysostom, giving thanks to God in all things can help to change evil to good in our life. As Elder Thaddeus mentioned above, giving thanks in all things demonstrates that we truly trust God, that He is truly in control of our life, and that He will indeed not give us more than we can handle. 1 Corinthians 10:13 offers us hope in this regard: “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (NKJV) In the Philokalia, St. Antony the Great offers this reason to give thanks in all things: “The truly intelligent man pursues one sole objective: to obey and conform to the God of all. With this single aim in view, he disciplines his soul, and whatever he may encounter in the course of his life, he gives thanks to God for the compass and depth of His providential ordering of all things. For it is absurd to be grateful to doctors who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet to be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh, not grasping that all we encounter is for our benefit and in accordance with His providence. For knowledge of God and faith in Him is the salvation and perfection of the soul.”
Perhaps, (especially if we are celebrating Thanksgiving) in addition to noticing all the good things in our life and taking time to thank God for them, we can also select one of the difficult things in our life to think—and thank—about. Just one, for now: everything might overwhelm us! Let’s take a moment to look objectively at our life and compare ourselves now to how we were before this difficult thing happened or began to happen in our life. Have we grown at all? Thanks be to God! Do we see Him rooting out some sin in our life or beginning to bringing healing to us through this thing? Thanks be to God! Is this thing helping us to reach out to others because we need their help in this thing, or because it helps us to better understand some similar thing that they have experienced? Thanks be to God! Can we see no growth in us except a deeper trust in God’s goodness and love? Thanks be to God! As we learn to give thanks for this one thing, we can begin to give thanks for a second, third, and so on. One day, God willing (and by His grace), we will truly give thanks in everything. That is, after all, the will of God in Christ Jesus for us!
Find Fr. Stephen Freedman’s article mentioned above, here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/06/21/cross-gods-glory-things/
Here are some links related to giving thanks that may help us in this effort:
The Akathist of Thanksgiving is a favorite akathist to pray, especially at this time of year. Here’s a blog post that introduces the akathist, in case you are not familiar with this beautiful way to give thanks: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/giving-thanks/
This Akathist is a beautiful one to share with your students, either in class, or to send home with them that they can pray with their family at home.
If you are celebrating Thanksgiving at this time of year, you may want to encourage your students to incorporate the Akathist of Thanksgiving into their celebration. Here are a few suggestions of ways to do that: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/incorporating-the-akathist-of-thanksgiving-into-a-thanksgiving-celebration/
Want to help your students think about thanksgiving and/or being thankful? Here are a few books that could help. What others do you recommend? https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/to-celebrate-picture-book-month-with-books-about-thankfulness/
Perhaps these practical suggestions will help you to build gratitude in your students’ life: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/on-living-a-life-of-gratitude/
Gratitude is one of the virtues. This blog will help you teach your students about this virtue (in case you missed it): https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/on-pursuing-virtue-gratitude/
“The life that we are called to live as Christians is the ‘eucharistic’ life [eucharistein = to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity… That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ… The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.” ~ from “The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks” by Fr. Stephen Freeman https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2011/02/09/the-difficult-path-of-giving-thanks/
This blog post offers insights into the importance of living thankfully, and will challenge (and encourage!) its readers. Older students could read this blog post and discuss it in class!