It’s the religious way of saying, “Quit whining and get a better attitude.” If you grew up in a Christian community, you’ll remember memorizing 1 Thessalonians 5:18. If you are uninitiated, don’t rush it; someone will quote it at you eventually.
My memorable experience with this quote was as a broke 25-year-old in Boston. One of those ubiquitous, red, amphibious, tourist monstrosities called “duck boats” had just bashed in my rusty, little Civic’s headlight. I came out of a church committee meeting to find $500 worth of damage and my fellow committee-member said, “Well. Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This is not exactly what a person wants to hear during the onset of a financial hardship. Frankly, it’s pretty hard to swallow on payday. St_ff happens, but to attribute this to God and to expect gratitude as my consequent attitude seems preposterous. I was at church, in a committee meeting for crying out loud. Will “thanks” pay the bill?
There are two theological conundrums in this verse:
Are “all circumstances” the will of God or is it just “giving thanks” that he wants?
Does “in” mean “give thanks in the midst of ” or “give thanks for all circumstances”?
Consider the context. Verses 12–22 contain Paul’s final thoughts before his “sincerely” and signature. It’s as though the annual postman is at the door and Paul’s dashing off one last to-do list before sealing the envelope: respect church workers, act peacefully, discipline lazy members, encourage the discouraged, help people who need help, be patient, don’t take revenge, do good, always rejoice, pray constantly, give thanks, don’t ignore the Holy Spirit, don’t look down on prophets, test everything, keep what seems good, and avoid evil.
Everything up through “give thanks” falls into the “will of God” category. God wants thankfulness. He does not will car-bashing (see car-parking for further discussion).
Question #2 is the theological basher that well-meaning church ladies employ. The Greek (en panti; “in all”) suggests that I express appreciation, not because of circumstances, but in spite of them. But how does that help?
Act of Will
Gratitude is an act of will. One might expect some circumstances to produce spontaneous gratitude, but even in those we need to be taught (or self-taught) to give thanks. I just handed my daughter a warm chocolate-chip cookie and she yelled, “Yaaaaay!” but her exuberance lacks direction, so I ask (again), “What do you say?”
During hardships, many other types of prayer will be offered—petition, meditation, and action being chief among them. For worry about hardship, gratitude is the antidote.
Worry is a mind game. It’s that brain cycle, which rehearses details ad nauseam without achieving a solution. It fixates on information that cannot be changed by the gamer: Will he do what he said? What will happen now that I’ve opened my big mouth? How will I pay for the car-repairs? The cycle is easy to feed and hard to shut down.
How Gratitude Works
Gratitude works, however, because gratitude is also an act of the mind, rather than a simple feeling. When I catch my mind cycling through a list of grievances, then I must not only stop the rotation, but replace it. Since my mind has engaged bitter and resentful emotions, pushing the off button is only momentarily successful. Emotion, which involves hormones and heart rhythms, automatically restarts the spin.
If, however, I willingly stop the minor-key music and immediately insert a song of gratitude, then I have a greater chance for change.
Mind you, this discipline of gratitude rarely reflects on the situation that gave rise to my resentment. It doesn’t have to relate, however, for it to work. It doesn’t even have to be particularly strong: “Thank you, God, for the color of the bathroom tile. Thank you that my towels match the tile. Thank you that the towels are clean.” You get the drift.
Even these sorriest prayers of thanksgiving work to discipline my mind to quit whining and get a better attitude.