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Impossibly Thankful


The Pauline Epistles have an existential problem of interpretation. Each of his letters is an answer in a conversation for which we have little to no idea of the context, or what the questions were that led Paul to say what he did. Unfortunately, this leads some of us to presume that the letters’ presence in the biblical record means that Paul’s answers are to be lifted out of their context and applied as hard and fast rules of behavior. Some people actually believe that women should always be silent in church–an example of this principle gone awry. I admit that I struggle with trying to figure out what was going at that particular church, which led Paul to say that.

In thinking about the Thanksgiving season, I was reminded of Paul’s exhortations at the end of what we now call 1 Thessalonians. In verse 18 of chapter 5 he says, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Just a one-off line thrown in between “Pray without ceasing,” and “Quench not the Spirit.” But Paul can’t mean what this statement implies, can he? I am again stymied by the question of context. Paul certainly asked the church in Thessalonica to do this, but is he asking it of me? Of us? And what was happening in Thessalonica that led Paul to give them this particular piece of advice? I’m sure we will never know, yet we’re now left to try and wrestle with what seems to be an impossible level of thankfulness.

The first thought I have in considering Paul’s counsel and the world around us, is that he could not have been asking us to live to this impossible standard. For example, would Paul say this to any Israeli whose family member was taken on October 7th? Or would he say it to any of the Palestinian families in the weeks after, who pulled their dead child from the rubble? How can there be thanks in any of that?[1] I admit there is a certain privilege and avoidance in the preceding. First, it’s cute of me to make this argument, sitting in my home halfway around the world from the examples I just gave. Second, one of the things I can be sure of is that Paul’s counsel is at best individual, and maybe communal. But it doesn’t require me to attempt an answer for anyone else. It is a call for each of us to examine our own lives and be thankful in “everything.”

But that doesn’t really address the criticism, does it? Each of us could look at our own lives and find things we would struggle to be “thankful” for. It reminds me of something else Paul said in another letter–“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”[2] When I was younger I used to argue that, based on this verse, one could conclude that nothing “bad” ever happens. Of course, that’s not true. What is true is that, as we look at the tapestry of our lives, we can see how even some bad things we experienced worked together for a positive end.

Maybe a similar thing should be happening here. I’m sure we all come into this holiday with things we wish were better. Decisions we wish we could take back. Events we wish hadn’t happened. There are certainly things we would not necessarily be thankful for. Maybe it isn’t so much that we should be thankful for every particular thing. Instead, what we can do is see how God is moving in our lives, and how even the things we aren’t thankful for are part of a bigger picture for which we can give thanks.


Notes and References:

[1] To be fair, I hope not. This would just be insensitive. But the point still stands that, if we are to give thanks in everything, it would include these tragedies.

[2] Rom. 8:28 KJV.


Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.

Title image: by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

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