Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
One of the marks of a Christian is thankfulness. For example, the Psalmist writes from his understanding doctrinally of who God is and from his life experientially of how God has providentially provided: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 118:1). God is good and God does good (Ps 119:68). And for one other example, consider Paul, who writes “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thes 5:18). These examples could be multiplied.
In contrast, not being thankful or being ungrateful is a mark of those who are not Christian, those who do not believe in God. For example, Paul states that a mark of the wrath of God being revealed is not being thankful. Writing to the believers in Rome, he states, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). Paul also reminds believers that being ungrateful is a mark of the last days: “in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy . . .” (1 Tim 3:2). In fact, the Psalmist reminds us that when God’s works are pondered, there are two responses, which arise from different hearts, with distinctions as profound and stark as between light and darkness: “the upright see and rejoice, but all the wicked shut their mouths” (Ps 107:42; this is also noted by Paul in Ephesians 5:4-5, in which he contrasts those who give thanks from those who is an "idolater").
Christians, almost without exception, give thanks when things are going well (granted, there are those who live with expectations with little sense of gratitude, but I am not thinking of those here). But often those same Christians do not know how to respond or process the pain when things are not going well. Worse, they process issues no differently than a non-Christian.
The way in which we respond during these times speaks volumes about the gospel and our understanding and living of it. Paul reminds us, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies . . . so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our moral flesh” (2 Cor 4:7-12). The life we live in union with Christ displays the gospel in our lives which we also affirm with our lips.
This year and this Thanksgiving season is one none of us expected or for which we planned. Consider this. When we gathered and celebrated Thanksgiving 2019, how many of us would have even had a category to understand and discern the implications of a COVID-19 pandemic? And how many would have been able to plan ahead for the CDC’s November 10, 2020 guidelines laid out in celebrating Thanksgiving, which states, “The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household.” Due to the surging number of COVID-19 cases across the United States and across the world, these directives were then reiterated by many governors of states.
We, like most others, were also planning a family gathering. With these orders, we decided against it. Here is what I wrote to my family:
In light of these CDC guidelines and the MN order (we are four households), it pains me to say that it is wisest and safest to plan to forego one large family gathering this year. It grieves me in that humanly-speaking it feels like we lose a year. As Mom and I age (also thinking of our own mothers), and as our brood of grandchildren grow in age and number, something is certainly lost. But in the midst of that reality, we trust the Lord. He is good and He does good (Ps 119:68).
So we will “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thes 5:16-19). We will rejoice. We will pray. And we will give thanks. We will not grieve the Holy Spirit.
In the section of Scripture mentioned above, Paul exhorts, he commands in a way that indicates believers are persistently and ongoingly (present imperative) to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thes 5:16-18). We are commanded to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks in the present moment, and then in the next moment, and then in the next moment. In fact, all of this is to be reflective of our Christian lives.
And yet this is not a matter of conjuring these feelings, emotions and responses up on our own. These are not humanly contrived or produced responses. Rather, they are the result of the Holy Spirit applying the work of Christ in our lives (Tit 3:4-8) so that we have a new heart (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27; John 3:3, 5) that results in a new life (2 Cor 5:17) that bears fruit in this sort of a life. The old has been made new, and these are some of the marks of being made new (Rom 5-8).
To remind us of these truths, these three specific commands given by Paul are all linked to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Joy and rejoicing are a mark of the Christian, and the fruit of the Spirit (1 Thes 1:6; Rom 14:17; Gal 5:22). Prayer is the ongoing expression of our hearts through our lips, uttered by the enablement of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 8:26-27; 1 Cor 14:15; Eph 6:18; Phil 1:19). The giving of thanks, or thanksgiving, is also a mark of the Christian and an evidence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, regardless of circumstances or situations (Col. 1:11-12; 2:6-7; 3:15-17; Eph. 5:20; 1 Thes 5:18).
When we read this biblical text, we often stop there. And there is reason for it, since Paul shifts to the ministry of the Holy Spirit with a word not to despise the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes 5:19-22). But before moving too quickly to the next section in this letter, it is important to make the connection between the commands to the Christian in vv. 16-18 and the command not to quench or extinguish (present imperative) the Holy Spirit in v. 19. Even though Paul applies the quenching of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to that of prophecy, it is not a stretch to make the connection forward to the Holy Spirit and from the Holy Spirit back to the commands given to Christians.
In other words, we are commanded to rejoice, to pray, and to give thanks. And it is just as important to remember the adverbs accompanying the verbs, which means we are to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances. Not only is this God’s will for us in Christ Jesus, this is God’s enablement through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of His sons and daughters (Gal 5:16-25). And in addition to these positive graces/virtues, we are also commanded not to quench the Holy Spirit. This means if we do not rejoice, if we do not pray, if we do not give thanks, we quench the Holy Spirit.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as we celebrate Thanksgiving in the midst of COVID-19, with all that is unique, with all of the changes and challenges, with families alone in different locations, we will rejoice, we will pray, and we will give thanks. We will not grieve the Holy Spirit.
May you have a memorable and blessed Thanksgiving.