Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, / It is well, it is well with my soul.
—Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul” (1873)
This is God’s universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment in God and less satisfaction in self and the world.
—John Piper, Desiring God (1996)
So Much Stuff
A family of four looks at a messy and cluttered room and they say together out loud, “What are we going to do with all this stuff?” So, they head off to the big box store and buy all sorts of plastic tubs, dividers, and organizers. Once they’ve packed everything neatly away and out of sight, they look at the now empty room and say, “Hey, this room sure seems empty!” And off they go to the store again to get more stuff.
This was the gist of an old (1991) Rubbermaid commercial. That Rubbermaid ran an ad with a theme like this is interesting. The fact that it was successful suggests we don’t know when to stop accumulating “stuff”. The commercial, I suppose, tells the story of American consumerism quite nicely.
But here’s another thought: Let’s remember that our culture ultimately ends up reflecting what we collectively hold highest and “worship most”. This, for good or bad, leads us back to the Church. And since most readers are in America, let’s talk about the American church as a whole. My premise… the Church and its liturgy… in a very real sense… has historically set the tone for the rest of culture.
I’m reflecting Henry Van Til’s concept that culture is simply religion externalized.
Further, our prayers even reflect the same kind of consumerism that prevails in the broader culture. We come to God in prayer. Then, we ask. After this, we hope to receive. Sometimes we say thank you. Yet, sometimes we don’t. We then hurry to fill our “Rubbermaid tubs” and then we ask again for more stuff. And in many cases, God continues to give.
We then say that He’s good for this. He’s in-exhaustively good it seems at times. But the same goodness also moves God to teach us… sometimes gently, sometimes harshly… important things about asking and receiving. He also teaches us important things about the process of actually giving thanks.
Ask And You Shall Receive
God has commanded us to pray for all things necessary for body and soul (Matt. 6:8-13). For the most part too, He doesn’t reprimand us when we ask for things that are a little less than necessary. But sternly He does warn us to seek His kingdom first and His will rather than our own lusts and desires (1 John 5:4 and James 4:3 both speak to this).
So, even though our Lord says, “Ask and you shall receive” (Matt. 7:7) we need to understand the broader theological context of those words. We need to understand that God isn’t a cosmic vending machine who dispenses good things every time we insert a prayer and pull a lever. God has higher goals than our immediate comfort or happiness.
God’s highest good is His own glory. He rejoices in this as it represents His ultimate perfection. My guess is, He can’t do otherwise. That’s because He is the source and ground of all truth, beauty, and glory. God is Truth. He is also Love and Glory and Joy. God is this in Himself and He is this for us. I hope that makes sense. He is reality’s highest good.
In calling us to trust Him, love Him and find our sufficiency in Him, God is also inviting us to share in His own highest end. He is calling us to embrace His reality and then to find it sweetly, gloriously and wonderfully good. This is the overflowing goodness and joy of the Triune God. Nevertheless, there’s a problem…
We can’t take His goodness and turn it on its head. When God tells us to pray that His name be hallowed and that His kingdom come and will be done… He is, again, inviting us to share in His eternal joy. But this doesn’t at all mean that God promises to give us everything we think we need in our own private and existential moment. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we need everything we think we need or say we want at any given time. Again, God is after bigger things than our immediate gratification. That’s pretty important I think. It’s something I miss a lot but am trying to learn.
So, here’s the thing: The fact that God shares His eternal glory with us is a remarkable fact and blessing. But often there’s some darkness that goes along with it. Sometimes what we need isn’t a full stomach, a reduction in pain or even a full nights sleep. Sometimes we need to be hungry, in some pain or troubled by a lack of sleep. And yes, sometimes we need trials and persecutions (James 1:2ff). At times we need to be broken and bruised and crushed. (That’s even hard to write, let alone live and embrace.)
Sometimes we need to pass through the fires or come close to drowning in some deep waters (Isa. 43:2). When we pray “Thy kingdom come” or “Thy will be done” we should understand that God may answer our requests in very hard and painful ways. This is not because He is cruel, but because that’s what our real good and the good of all His saints actually requires. We see through a glass darkly and often can’t see what He’s doing.
Give Thanks Unto The Lord
As we look at Scripture then, we find that God’s command to “be thankful” involves enduring some hard and very hurtful things. (My friends David, Bob, and Perry have helped me focus my thoughts on this rather intensely) Let’s look at God’s Word for more answers…
First, God does command us to be thankful. He does so many times. For example, Paul tells us that we ought to give “thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). The Psalms are also full of commands to be thankful. Here are just a few:
- “. . . give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (30:4; 97:12).
- “O give thanks unto the LORD; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people” (105:1).
- “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever” (106:1; 107:1; 118:1; 118:29; 136:1).
Clearly, God doesn’t leave thankfulness to us as a matter of own subjective desires, impulses or private initiatives. He never says, “Hey, don’t mention it, Bill. No thanks, necessary buddy.” Obviously, it is right that we thank God. All things come from Him. He gives to all “life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). We deserve nothing from Him, we can add nothing to Him and yet He delights to give good gifts… both to His children and even to His enemies (Ps. 50:12; Matt. 5:45; James. 1:17).
Second, God commands us to be thankful for who He is, not just for what He can do for us. As we’ve seen above, He commands all of us to rejoice in His holiness, goodness, and mercy. He commands us to thank and praise Him for His great works in creation and redemption. This means we are to be thankful for His infinite wisdom and sovereign power. Yep, we are to be thankful that God is God, and that He is who He says He is.
As Paul describes mankind’s decline into moral and cultural depravity, this is what he says about apostate humanity:
. . .when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Rom. 1:21-23).
Historically, there were a couple times when humans knew God in a telling and interesting way. Once when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, and another when Noah and his family disembarked from the Ark. In each case, it took only a few generations for humanity to turn aside after idols. The reason, Paul says, is that the apostates he mentions were not thankful. They weren’t thankful for God’s great works and they weren’t thankful for His Word. Ultimately, they weren’t thankful for who He was. For this reason, they reinvented Him after their own imaginations. They made their own gods that seemed more realistic and, I guess, more comfortable for them.
The great irony here lies in the weakness and absurdity of all pagan gods. To read the Iliad or the Aeneid, for instance, is to discover a gaggle of “little godlings” who are no better than petty tyrants, gang bosses or playground bullies. A pagan might thank a particular god for this or that gift, but no one in the ancient world could seriously be thankful to the gods for who and what they were.
Third, God commands us not only to be thankful in all things but for all things (1 Thes. 5:18; Eph. 5:20). Because God causes all things to work together for His glory and our good (Rom. 8:28), everything He brings to us is chock-full of blessing. Every tear, every pain, every cross is a stepping stone upwards to glory. Tribulations try and perfect our faith (James 1:3). They move us closer to God. They teach us to reorient our values, to pursue holiness over pleasure and to delight in God more than in pleasant circumstances. In the process, we find deeper and surer joy.
This kind of thanksgiving seems to defy all human logic. It runs contrary to the world. It may even sound masochistic to some. The fact is, true thanksgiving doesn’t glory in tribulations in and of themselves. Biblical thanksgiving glories only in God’s purposes and only through them, knowing that tribulation is part of a bigger package.
Such thanksgiving springs only from true faith, a faith rooted in God’s promises. Only as we set our hearts on who God really is, on His great goodness to us in the past, and on His remarkably glorious intentions for us can we learn to say thank you for the hard and dark things we experience in the shadow of His providence. Only then can we count the hard things of life as “light afflictions” which work for us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).