by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 30-Aug. 6, 1997, p.689, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Our very struggle with Paul’s injunction to give thanks for everything has its redemptive benefits.
“Always and for everything giving thanks in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father”
How is it humanly possible to give thanks for “everything”? Can anyone express gratitude for a disastrous accident? Is it even ethical to give thanks for the death of a neighbor we despise? Are we to thank God when we hear of the death of strangers?
Perhaps Paul meant to say we should give thanks not for everything but for everything good. The addition of just that one word would banish some of our perplexity. And such an addition would not render the text innocuous. There would still be an implicit judgment at work, for certainly we often fail to give thanks for the manifest blessings of God’s bounty, and we need to be called up short by the reminder that we ought to give thanks for every blessing we receive.
Moreover, we are often discontent with what we have been given. We grouse about our jobs in an era of downsizing which leaves our neighbors unemployed or humiliatingly kicked downstairs after years of loyal service. We gossip about our friends while many people are desperately lonely. We bicker with family members because they will not or cannot fulfill our every whim or need. No matter how prosperous we have been (and, compared to billions of the world’s wretched, which of us has not prospered?), our “needs” and our sense of deprivation seem to escalate with our incomes.
Our thankfulness for the good things we have received is always a bit soured by the sins and violence and horrors of existence. Gratitude to God requires that we live not by evading the real nature of existence, not by denying the violent character of nature and history, but by facing reality as best we can, finally affirming the whole of life in all its sorrow and pain as a great gift.
But Paul does not use the word “good.” His injunction to give thanks “always and for everything” confronts us with a dizzying either/or. Either the God of the Lord Jesus Christ truly is the creator of heaven and earth, in which case finally everything from the providential hand of “I am the Lord, and there is no form light and create darkness, weal and woe, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isa. 45:6b-7) — or there is no God and thus there was no “creation,” and all is a meaningless accident. If there is no God unto whom to give thanks, there is also no one to blame. If God exists, the downside is the problem of evil. If there is no God, the downside is nihilism.
Most of us Christians, in the gloriously revelatory moments of our lives, have experienced such powerful personal evidences of the hand of God that we can almost feel God’s touching us. God is love and we know it! We are certain of it. But then, in the face of the world’s manifest evils we cannot help crying out, or moaning silently, in the spirit of Job: just what is the God of love doing?
There are many specific things in life for which we simply cannot give thanks, concrete events before which all the humanity within us recoils and for which we could never forgive ourselves if we did give thanks. Nonetheless, it is within the providential scope of the God we name as love that these things, indeed all things, take place. As we teeter between denying God and praising God, between the horrors and delights of life, Paul’s words “always and for everything give thanks” might seem to mock our utter sense of being caught in a dilemma.
Yet what if the ultimate goal of all things is redemption and eternal life? What if this finite world is and always was intended to be but the time-bound down-payment on God’s eternal commitment to all that God has done and all that God permits? If this is true, then to be “always and for everything giving thanks in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” should be no more controversial than the good manners we were taught in kindergarten.
Of course, we cannot view things with the large, serene perspective and the redemptive assurances of God. We know what it is to be shattered by personal loss. We can barely stand to contemplate the genocidal fury that has been unleashed in our century. We understand fully the rage of those who, far from giving thanks, feel compelled to shake their fists at God.
Yet our very struggle with Paul’s injunction has its redemptive benefits. For example, it humbles us before the unbeliever, it teaches us empathy for the unbeliever for we know the unbeliever’s dismay, since it is our dismay as well. Our struggle to be grateful to God “always and for everything” should inspire us in our prayers to be the advocates of the unbeliever before God, for before God we are all unbelievers. In this way our very doubt can be reconciling, for it leads us into gestures of sympathetic human solidarity, gestures which express the very thankfulness that, our doubt notwithstanding, stirs within us.
In any case, when Paul said that we should give thanks “always and for everything. . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father,” he was not lapsing into pollyannaisms. He was touching the most sensitive nerve of our Christian existence.