“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Thus brother Paul advises us in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:16-18). Give thanks in all circumstances — this is not an easy task. Sometimes our situation gives us little for which to give thanks.

One finds oneself in a painful situation, perhaps physical pain from disease or mental anguish or emotional suffering due to being wronged by another. How does one genuinely give thanks?

Sometimes one is advised to look for the silver lining, or one is reminded that God can bring good out of any circumstance. There is a danger here, for looking for the silver lining and being thankful for that can cause us to ignore the pain. This causes one to deny the reality of a bad situation and that is neither healthy nor honest. Neither Paul nor God is calling us toward unhealthiness or dishonesty.

Focusing on the good which God may bring from a bad situation poses another risk. If I only thank God for what He will do, then I am thanking Him for a future situation, not for my current circumstances. Again I have missed the mark of giving thanks in all circumstances.

How, then, shall I follow brother Paul’s directive? How can I truly, honestly give thanks in all circumstances?

Paul does not direct us to give thanks for all circumstances, but rather in all circumstances — this is a very important distinction. Paul is directing us toward an attitude of thankfulness. Another word for this is gratitude.

Gratitude toward God is important — Paul says that this is the will of God. More than important, it is essential in the spiritual life. In Thoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton says “we do not know [God] unless we are grateful” and that “our knowledge of God is perfected by gratitude.” Gratitude also produces love, for knowledge of God is love. But what produces gratitude? How does one become grateful?

One doesn’t become grateful simply by giving thanks for circumstances or gifts. As Merton advises (again in Thoughts in Solitude), we can not simply make a list of gifts received, thank God for them and expect that we have gratitude.

If I offer thanks for a gift, then I am focusing on the gift; I say, “Thank you, Lord, for this food,” or something similar. I am thankful for something. This is not a bad thing, actually it is a good thing, but it is not enough for it is not gratitude.

Having gratitude, or being grateful, is moving beyond being thankful for gifts. An enlightening definition of grateful is “recognizing the importance of a source of pleasure” (Wiktionary.org). When we offer thanks, our focus is upon the gift. In being grateful, our focus moves from the gift to the giver. Gratitude focuses on the giver and recognizes the goodness of the giver rather than the goodness of the gift. This is why Merton states that gratitude is brought about by recognizing the love of God in everything He has given us (Thoughts in Solitude). We see goodness as the nature of God rather than looking at the goodness of particular gifts.

Gratitude comes from the same root as grace. Grace we receive and gratitude we give: gratitude is our response to God’s grace in toto rather than a response to specific gifts. Grace is God’s unmerited favor toward us. Gratitude acknowledges grace and recognizes God’s nature of goodness and of love.

We can be grateful in any situation; through gratitude we can “give thanks in all circumstances”. As we develop gratitude, i.e. as our knowledge of God is perfected by gratitude, we will sometimes find ourselves thanking God in horrible circumstances. We honestly thank Him, not because of what our circumstances are, but because of what He is. We are grateful because of the knowledge that God’s nature is love and goodness, regardless of what hardships currently face us.

copyright 2011 by the author