I love Thanksgiving and everything about it: the food, the atmosphere, the start of the Christmas season, and most of all, its message of giving thanks. It’s easy to be grateful when life is going well. But what if you are in the middle of a challenging year full of death and suffering? What if there are no apparent reasons for being thankful? Should we give thanks for the bad things that happen in our lives?
The Bible is full of encouragement to give thanks. Countless verses tell us to express gratitude to God. If we look at them more closely, we can notice that the reasons for thanksgiving are always good ones. An example is Psalm 107:8: Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. Even in James 1:2-3, where the author encourages us to rejoice at our trials, the motivation behind such joy is not the problem itself, but its beneficial result in the form of perseverance.
Does God expect us to thank Him for such tragedies as a loved-one dying or being the victim of a crime? I’ve often heard Ephesians 5:20 quoted to support such a view: Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. But is this verse truly saying that? I don’t think so for two reasons.
- Some commentators believe that Paul, by using the word “everything,” really meant “everything that God has done,” especially all expressions of God’s grace, mercy, and love spelled out in the letter to the Ephesians.
- One of the basic rules of Biblical interpretation tells us never to base an opinion on one unclear verse that appears to conflict with the rest of Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible say we should give thanks for bad things, nor are there examples of anyone doing so.
On the other hand, God wants us to always find reasons to be grateful, even when going through hard times. Paul wrote in 1 Thes 5:18: give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. These weren’t empty words either. Paul lived what he preached. Despite spending most of his later life in prison, he continually expressed joy and thanksgiving in his letters. He never let prison stop him from finding reasons to rejoice and be grateful, and he focused on the good that resulted from his imprisonment.
Why is giving thanks so important? It is vital for our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
- It strengthens our relationship with God. Psalm 100 tells us to “enter his gates with thanksgiving.” This verse paints the picture of a pilgrim going into the temple in Jerusalem, which was God’s dwelling place on earth. In other words, thanksgiving ushers us into God’s presence. The more grateful we are, the closer to our Creator we become.
- It strengthens our relationship with others. Research shows a correlation between gratitude and generosity. Thankful people tend to be more generous. They are also more positive and more well-liked by others.1
- It improves our physical and emotional health. Studies have found that grateful people are more energetic, enthusiastic, have fewer aches and pains, sleep better, and have lower blood pressure. In general, they are happier. 1
An Amish proverb says, “Peace is seeing a sunset and knowing whom to thank.” When the day comes to an end, regardless of whether it’s been a good or bad one, we will only benefit if we can focus on all the reasons to give thanks.
1 Robert A. Emmons, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.