I’ve noticed something about Christians and their approach to Thanksgiving. They embrace this very biblical practice in a very pragmatic way. They seek to count their many blessings, naming them one by one, to create a mound of thanks that outweighs the mound of disappointment and regret that every one of us faces every day. It goes something like this, “I’m depressed and struggling with finances but really grateful that I have my physical health!”
I imagine myself finding someone who is sick and asking them what they are thankful for. The sick person says, “I’m sick, but at least I don’t have cancer.” Then I find someone who has cancer, and they say, “I have cancer, but at least it’s not pancreatic or at least I have health care,” or, or, or. This bizarre game of comparison could go on forever. I’ve even heard some Christians use this to counsel those who are hurting. Saying things like, “I’m sorry you lost your close friend, but at least they died peacefully,” or something to that effect.
Something tells me that this is NOT what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote things like, “giving thanks always and for everything…” (Ephesians 5:20). Can you imagine Paul saying that he was thankful for the maggots in his prison rations because at least he wasn’t like other prisoners who were being starved? If it’s not this game of comparison, then what is it?
Paul’s exhortations to give thanks have a common thread in them that I think you will quickly notice. Ephesians 5:20 that I quoted earlier has this very thread. Here is the full verse:
“giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”
Notice that his giving of thanks is given for “everything” (that means everything) “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is no contrasting with starving children in Africa who have less than me. The thanks is given by looking at every situation through the lens of the cross (a.k.a “The Lord Jesus Christ”). Because of the cross, every good thing is considered a gift of grace and every bad thing is considered something to be endured for the glory of God and my good. If we have the cross, we can be honest about the hurt that suffering causes. We can sincerely grieve that suffering without trying to wish it away through comparisons. Instead, we can look to the cross as the means by which everything is redeemed either in this life or the life to come.
This means that every suffering person, which is every human, can consider their situation as something that God is working faithfully in through the grace of the cross. They can lift their eyes to the heavens in whatever distress they find themselves in and say “Thank You!” Not because their lot in life is better than someone else’s, but because the gospel of God is that good. This also means that there is no situation so dire that the believing Christian should ever cease to overflow with thanksgiving.
This is never more exemplified than on the night before Jesus’ death. I recite these words weekly at our church as the words of institution before communion. They come from 1 Corinthians 11:23-24:
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
Jesus is acting out what’s going to happen the very next day. As he rips the bread with his soon to be punctured hands, he is creating a vivid display of the ripping and the tearing of his flesh that will be instigated by the Jews and carried out by the Romans in less than 24 hours. The first words out of his mouth as he enacts this horrific event—“Thank You.” I’m fairly certain he wasn’t comparing his predicament to some other poor soul who had it worse in 1st century AD. His predicament was the worst of all who had walked the earth. Rejection by friends, agonizing pain, a slow brutal death. Worse than this, a separation from his Father because of the sin of others being transferred to his account.
Why would he say “Thank You?” Because he knew that his death would bring hope to every suffering sinner and much glory to God. He knew that no matter the depths of humanity’s fall, the human death of the divine Son would create a solid rock upon which all by grace through faith could stand. Christians throughout the ages knew this well. Many were persecuted even to the point of martyrdom including the Apostle Paul who wrote this command to be thankful always.
Know today that whatever your circumstance, because of the cross, this week and every week is a cause for thanksgiving. Not because you have a cushy life in America or because your suffering doesn’t matter. Instead, because of the cross. So, to all those who are in Christ today I say, “Have a cross-centered thanksgiving!”
Robert Krumrey is founding pastor of MERCYhouse in Amherst, MA that serves the community as well as students from five area colleges including the flagship campus of The University of Massachusetts.