The apostle Paul exhorts, “In everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:18a). Paul lives and commands a life of thankfulness for all followers of Christ. Often, upon reading this verse, our minds immediately begin devising ways to dilute the command to give thanks “in everything.” Paul does not ask for gratitude that is in proportion to the pleasantness of one’s circumstances.
He follows the command by asserting without equivocation, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:18b). The “in Christ Jesus” part reminds us that we can only do this in the power of Christ. He does not mean that giving thanks is the whole of God’s will but that it is a vital aspect of it. Paul’s admonition is not to give thanks to God for everything that happens, but to give thanks in every circumstance.
We would sin to give thanks for what is evil but we can and must give thanks in the midst of evil. I have heard some people suggest that the believer should give thanks for everything because God can use any circumstance for good. Such counsel may be well-intentioned but it is emphatically wrong.
Notice Acts 2:23, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The men who crucified Jesus did so with “lawless” hands though it also happened according to the “definite plan” of God. Evil is always to be called evil even when we can see the good God brings from it. We can thank God in evil, but never for evil.
Above all, we know God is working in every situation to bring good to those who are His (Rom 8:28)—which does not mean that everything that happens to the believer is itself, “good.” Calvin helpfully comments on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “God has such a disposition towards us in Christ, that even in our afflictions we have large occasion of thanksgiving.” Like Romans 8:28, “In everything give thanks” reminds us of the providence of God in all aspects of our lives.
The Bible is not calling us to stoic indifference to all that comes our way. To the contrary, those who love as a reflection of Christ will love more deeply, not less. We will know and experience hurt, disappointment, confusion, and failure, but through it all, we can and must rightly give thanks in all of it.
Make no mistake, God has placed upon his people the duty to be thankful. It is a duty that is to become a habit. Only when thanksgiving is a habit will it hold the proper place in our lives as followers of Christ.