Give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
-1st Thessalonians 5:18
In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline, the eponymous character loses almost everything. Evangeline is deported from her home by a conquering army. In the process, her beloved father dies and she is separated from her fiancé, Gabriel. Having no one else, Evangeline chases the rumor of Gabriel across the American countryside. She never finds Gabriel, but she retains her faith that God is in control. 1st Thessalonians 5:18 is a call to live like Longfellow’s Evangeline. We are to give thanks even when we are tempted in our current situation to question God instead.
Evangeline is a character study of faithfulness and proper perspective. I love how she responds to a thunderstorm on the horizon early in the poem. Her life is falling apart and many would interpret the gathering clouds as a sign of destruction. Evangeline has a different perspective. Here are the words of Longfellow:
Keenly the lightening flashed, and the voice of the echoing thunder
Told her that God was in heaven, and governed the world he created!
Then she remembered the tale that she had heard of the justice of heaven;
Soothed was her troubled soul, and she peacefully slumbered till morning.1
I long for that kind of contentment. I realize that Evangeline is a fictional character, but she presents an ideal that we can aspire to. Eventually, she ends up as a nurse in a sick ward during a pandemic. In her own pain, she never loses compassion for those around her. Then, finally, she is reunited with her long-lost love Gabriel. He has come as a patient to the sick ward and is dying. The two lovers are reunited for Gabriel’s dying breaths. They are able to be with each other for only seconds before he dies. There are a number of ways that Evangeline could react to the situation. The first response that comes to my mind is the loss of all faith and hope. It would be easy for her to renounce her faith in God and curse him for the horrible circumstances of her adult life. Evangeline takes a different route. Her words as Gabriel’s lifeless head lies on her chest: “Father, I thank thee.”2
That response floors me. Is it even possible for us? Longfellow’s fictional character may have a resolve that most of us in the real world cannot replicate. However, it is the attitude called for in 1st Thessalonians 5:18. Give thanks to God in all things! That is easy to do when everything is going well. What about when they are not? What about the times when you feel like your life is a failure? What about when your loved ones die? What about when you and/or the ones you love are hurt by others and circumstances outside of your control? Do you really have to thank God in these circumstances? I do not want to dig a hole in this article talking about the sovereignty and providence of God.3 If God is sovereign, then God is in some way responsible for your circumstances. God wants you to feel like a failure or lose loved ones? We are supposed to thank him for that? It seems so counter-intuitive.
This is hard, but it is not impossible to be thankful in all situations with the help of perspective. Look at the example of Evangeline again. She had given up all hope of being reunited with Gabriel. However, against all hope and expectation, she is granted a few fleeting moments with him. For that she gives thanks. Think about her response to the thunderstorm; it reminded her that God governed the world that he created. Exodus 34:6-7 tells us that God is a god of love and justice. Those are his aims. Unfortunately, his arc of love and justice is long. I cannot explain why that is reality. I do not understand God’s purposes. However, deep in my soul, I know that all of this will end in love and justice. It is from that place that I can give thanks in all things. You are not really thanking God for the bad things that happen to you. You are thanking God for the the love that has already been shown to you and for your certain future with him. However, it takes great resolve to summon up that thanks in the face of our cruel reality. It is not easy.
It is not easy, and I think that it is a spiritual discipline to develop the kind of long view that takes into account your past with God and God’s future aims. I look back on my recent thought and writings and see the prevalence that “developing perspective” has taken (see previous posts Salvation Begun, Salvation Completed, Every Knee Will Bow: The Political Implications of Paul’s Eschatology, Freedom in Chains: The Perspective of the Apostle Paul in Prison). I am not there yet, and I imagine that I am not alone. However, developing a wider and deeper perspective is the only way I can fathom for truly living out the text of 1st Thessalonians 5:18. If we can only see our current darkness, it is difficult, if not impossible, to give thanks. We have to summon up the strength to remind ourself of the sunrise on the horizon. In that place, giving thanks is possible. Unfortunately, it may take a little time walking through the night to get there.
1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline (New York: John B. Alden, 1892), 46. I downloaded this version of the poem from www.archive.org. The bookplate indicates that it is from the Library of the University of Michigan.↩
2. Their reunion is on pages 95-97 in the edition linked to in footnote 1. ↩
3. It is a tricky subject, but I think it boils down to two options. Is God sovereign because he causes all things to happen? Or is God sovereign because he has the ability to control all things (in other words, he allows things to happen without directly causing them)? ↩