I know this is going to make me one of “them,” but it has to be said: the holidays are coming. As I write this, there are about five weeks until Thanksgiving and about nine until Christmas. (My mother would be appalled that I have called attention to it; please forgive me.)
This is the time of year when church newsletters and Sunday sermons remind us to be thankful because, you know, it’s that time of year. Shouldn’t we be concerned that we have to be reminded to be thankful and at a certain time of year?
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul was writing to a church that was facing persecution, and so Paul tried to encourage them to be faithful despite the persecution. While I’m sure the early Christians needed encouragement throughout their persecution, the fact that Paul uses the words always, continually, and all tells me that his hope, if not expectation, was for them to have an on-going positive attitude with on-going positive action. Paul didn’t tell them, “Be joyful when you feel like it; pray when you need to; be thankful when it’s appropriate”; he expects a constant, consistent attitude of joy and gratitude and dependence on God.
What that tells me is that, instead of focusing on an annual celebration of thanksgiving, we ought to be in a daily mode of thanksgiving. Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Even though we might not be in a time of outright persecution because we’re Christians, life itself doesn’t always lead us to be thankful, does it? However, don’t we typically put aside many of our difficulties, even tragedies, as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday? Don’t the negative experiences and feelings tend to amplify what we have to be thankful for, at least on that one day? And yet we anticipate the celebration and prepare for it. Perhaps we ought to extend that preparation throughout the year.
Just as we find ourselves preparing to celebrate the holidays weeks in advance, perhaps we ought to develop the habit of preparing to be thankful every day. Maybe the everyday difficulties, maybe the sudden tragedies, maybe even the more frequent persecution of Christians ought to lead us to be thankful every day for what we have and for what God has done. With every tough day on the job, with every painful step of an aching body, with every moment of absence from our loved ones, perhaps we ought to prepare to be thankful.
How might we do that? Paul says, “Be joyful always.” Paul doesn’t tell us to be happy all the time; he tells us to be joyful. Happiness is a response to what happens in our lives; when things don’t go well, when people are unkind, we’re not happy. Joy is a matter of contentment despite what happens; it’s not a matter of ignoring the bad things that happen as much as it’s a matter of remembering the things that don’t change: God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus; the bond we have with others through our mutual faith in Jesus; the hope we share with other Christians for eternal life. These things are constant, despite the continual changes of life around us; so we can be joyful always.
Paul says, “Pray continually.” Because God doesn’t change from day to day, we can build our joy on him and his faithfulness to hear our prayers and to answer them. So even when circumstances don’t go the way we want them to, we can pray, and knowing that God is faithful, we can give thanks in all circumstances.
So, while we’re buying up the cans of pumpkin and the pecans and all the other supplies for our celebrations, let’s also prepare to be thankful. When the lines at the grocery store tries our patience, be joyful in God’s provision for our needs. When the sadness of separation comes with the thought of an empty place at the table, pray for God’s comfort. When the headlines tell of another tragedy, thank God for the hope of heaven. Prepare now to be thankful always.