Somehow this sermon got missed in the shuffle, so it’s a little our of order and the illustrations are a little dated. Sorry!
Every year I watch the SuperBowl. It’s the only football game I watch all year long. I don’t watch the CFL or the NFL at all. I don’t keep track of teams, scores, standings, or the players. And yet, every year for the past decade or so, I’ve sat down to watch the SuperBowl. I don’t care who wins, so I arbitrarily choose a team, grab some snacks, and watch the spectacle. I actually enjoy it a lot, but I know that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on.
One problem is that I don’t even really know the rules that well. While I’m starting to get a hang of it, I know I’m missing a lot. The ref blows the whistle, flags fly, the people I’m sitting with throw their hands in the air, and I just sit there waiting for someone to explain what’s going on – which doesn’t really help anyway because I have no idea what “an incomplete handoff by the backfield in the red zone after a false start which instigated a pass interference” even means. I usually just say, “Oh!” and eat another Taquito.
I feel the same way when try to follow politics. I know that I don’t understand enough to know what’s going on, but I find that more and more these days, perhaps because of my age or the moral insanity our nation is experiencing, I feel the need to at least pay more attention. And a recent event was an interesting one to watch. Did you see what happened? It was all my Facebook Feed was talking about.
During an important vote a while back, Prime Minister Trudeau felt things were taking too long, crossed the floor, grabbed the Conservative Opposition Whip Gord Brown and cussed and pushed him through a group of NDPers that were blocking his way. In his anger he elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest, hurting and shocking her enough that she ended up leaving the House of Commons and missing the vote. It got very dramatic as people left their chairs to shout foul language and point fingers at each other. But again, just like with football, there’s so much jargon, politics, media spin and parliamentary procedure, I barely know what happened and I’m sure what’s supposed to happen now.
All I know is that after watching the video a few times, I found myself disappointed with everyone involved. It was frustrating to watch the drama unfold and sin rule the moment. I was grieved by all the parties and angered by the wholesale immaturity I witnessed from people who are supposed to be discussing the incredibly serious matter ophysician-assisted suicide! Instead of giving it the gravity it deserved, as the lives of so many vulnerable Canadians hang in the balance, they turned the floor into a gong show of pride and political maneuvering.
Thankfulness in Tough Times
So, how am I to react to things like this? Should I leap into action, and send letters to the heads of all the parties? Maybe. Should I turn to social media and complain about it to everyone? Maybe – and in fact, I did. What should I do though? Or more importantly, what should I do first?
As a Christian, my first response should be to pray. I’ll admit I didn’t do very good on that. I hopped on the internet and wrote a Facebook post, and then I visited my MP’s office and talked to whoever was there about it a bit, but my first reaction wasn’t to pray. I’ve done it since, but it wasn’t my first instinct.
But what’s even more personally condemning is that when I did pray, I didn’t start in the right place. I jumped straight into asking God to fix the hearts of the MP’s, bring order to the nation, and put Christians in influential positions. I asked for forgiveness for the times that I’ve been impatient, immature, and hot-headed too – but after some reflection and study, I realized that I missed a crucial part of my prayer. I missed what was supposed to be the starting point. I didn’t thank God for what happened.
That’s a confusing statement to a lot of people. What is there to thank God for in a group of adults acting like kindergarteners when they were supposed to be talking about suicide? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? But the Bible says we are supposed to be thankful.
I think this is something that I forget too often, and I’m fairly certain that a lot of other Christians do too. Most praying people are pretty good at confessing their sins, asking for forgiveness, and then asking God for what they need – but a lot of Christians fast forward past the thanksgiving part of prayer so they can get on to the part where they ask God for things.
Sure, we say grace at meals (which I think is hugely important, by the way) or start out with a “Dear God, thanks for this day.”, but really the meat of our prayer life are often requests. Even unbelievers often find the words, “Thank God.” spilling out of them when something good happens, but how much of us really dwell on the thanksgiving portion of our prayers. Not that there’s anything wrong with asking God for things. He tells us to do that. But, I hope what we are going to learn today is that when we pause and get very specific about giving God thanks that we can allow the Holy Spirit to change our perspective on a lot of our deepest hurts and confusions.
It’s easy to thank God for the beautiful sunshine, the rain that feeds the flowers, the joys of our life and all the other good things that come our way, but what about when bad things happen? Are we to thank God then? Isn’t that strange, or even a little masochistic, to thank God for the pain we feel? And yet, over and over in scripture, we read that we are supposed to give thanks to God “continually” and in “all things”.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
- Ephesians 5:20 says Christians are to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
- Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”.
- In Psalm 136, which tells the story of the plagues of Egypt, wandering for decades in the wilderness, international wars, and oppression by their enemies, begins, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”
- The author of Hebrews, writing to a group of people who were suffering so much because of their faith in Jesus that they were considering turning their backs on God says, “…let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Heb 13:15)
That doesn’t make sense, does it? It seems unreal, almost illogical, for the writers of scripture, who are giving us the very Words of God, to tell us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much we suffer, or are rejected, or are forgotten… no matter how much evil we see in the world… to be thankful. How is that even possible?
The Problem With “Count Your Blessings”
I know that there are some here that are going through some really difficult times and it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. For some, your loved ones are physically, emotionally and spiritually suffering; how are you to be thankful for that? Others are regularly witnessing evil acts all around you that make you feel powerless and like the world is out of control. Sure, the sun comes up every day, but that doesn’t make up for the stains of sin that permeate the lives around you. Some of you fight depression, anxiety, fear and worry every day. Your mind is against you, and no matter how much you argue with yourself, you can’t force yourself to be the faithful, joyful person you want to be – and think everyone else is. Some feel lonely and forgotten. Others feel like total failures and it colours every aspect of your life. No matter how good things seem on the outside, it gnaws at you that you have failed in your relationships, failed in your spiritual life, failed in your pursuit of purity, failed in your parenting, failed as a student, failed as a son, daughter, husband, wife, or friend.
And the idea of being thankful for that part of your life doesn’t make any sense. How? How can you be thankful for the pain you have caused yourself and others? How can you be thankful for an accident? How can you be thankful for someone purposefully hurting you?
These are complicated issues, and I don’t intend on giving you some kind of simple solution today. I’m not going to tell you to “count your blessings”, because inherent in that advice is almost a tacit denial of your pain. It’s almost as though the advice to “count your blessings” is saying, “Pretend that the bad things aren’t happening and only think about the god things.” That’s denial, and it’s unhealthy and unbiblical. I’m not going to do that.
What I want to do instead, for the rest of our time today, is examine what God has done in Paul’s life here and how he has learned to be thankful during difficult times. I want to draw a few things out from what he says he thanks God for, and perhaps give ourselves a couple of new thoughts about ways we can look at our own hurts and begin the process of healing our souls through thanksgiving.
Remember the Context
First, and as always, remember the context here. Paul is one of the most passionate followers of Jesus in history. He went from being a man who hated Jesus so much that he would track down Christ-followers to have them arrested and even killed to being Jesus’ most effective missionary and apologists. The moment when Jesus met Paul on the Road to Damascus altered his life forever because he had experienced the amazing and abundant grace of a loving Saviour. He knew he didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but Jesus saved him anyway.
He brought that story to Corinth, one of the most corrupt and spiritually messed up cities in the world. No one there was giving God a second thought, because they were too busy relishing in every form of darkness and deplorable sin imaginable. And yet, just like Paul, God worked a divine intervention, giving grace to those who didn’t deserve it or ask for it, birthing a Christian church in Corinth. Paul’s conversion, and the conversion of every member of that church – from the pagan Greek man who was addicted to all the forms of sexual perversion the city had to offer – to the Jewish men who rejected Paul’s message so violently that they had dragged him before the proconsul and beat their own leaders for failing to have Paul persecuted – were a miracle. No one wanted, had asked for, or deserved to be saved by Jesus – and yet, there they were.
This letter comes about because Paul had been receiving reports that this church full of saved people, that Paul had been pastoring for a year and half, who were supposed to be loving Jesus, loving each other, and following God’s Word weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they had forgotten Jesus, were fighting with each other, were being corrupted by their environment, and were on the verge of telling the Apostles and the Bible to get lost. Paul’s heart was certainly broken over and over as he heard more bad things coming from the church in Corinth, and we know that he had a lot to say to them.
And yet, Paul doesn’t start his letter with a reprimand, does he? I probably would have. People in the church are fighting, calling Paul a fool, are up to their eye-balls in sexual perversion (one guy is even sleeping with his step-mom)… there were things that needed to be addressed. And yet, he doesn’t start there. Instead, he begins by reminding them of their special calling and sanctification through Jesus Christ. And then, instead of jumping straight into a lecture about all the messed up things they were doing, Paul tells them why He spends so much time giving thanks for them. Let’s read it together:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
1. Thank God for His Grace
Let’s see what he’s thanking God for her, and see if we can learn from it.
The first thing we see him giving thanks for is “the grace of God that was given [them] in Christ Jesus.” He starts with the most important thing. No matter how bad things get, this is where we should start: thanking God that He has given everyone in that situation grace, and continues to extend it despite all the pride and sin.
Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God isn’t up in heaven zapping people who do bad things, but instead is giving more and more grace.
2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
An old proverb says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” As long as we are on this side of the dirt, we are experiencing the grace of God. Every breath we take is overseen by our Divine Creator. He knows all of our thoughts, deeds and motives, and yet He loves us anyway.
That’s the first place we need to start, by thanking God for the grace that He has shown us, and for the grace He has shown to the person or group that has hurt us. Even if it’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, we can still know that we are experiencing the grace of God because His final judgement has not come.
I think this helps us because, no matter what happens, when we start with a realization that we are people who have received God’s undeserved grace, being bought by the shed blood of Jesus, it gives us a better perspective on our problems, and increases our ability to love, forgive, and offer grace to others. (Col 3:13; 4:32; 1 John 4:19)
For example, once we recognize God’s grace in our lives, we can begin to pray “God, thank you for saving me and forgiving me even though I didn’t deserve it. I’ve received your grace in innumerable ways, and I know that I’m continuing to receive your grace now. I could be in hell, but I’m not because you loved me. And that person, or group, or situation, which seems so hurtful, is also receiving your grace. It’s not out of control, because You are in control. I thank you for the relationship I have with that person, or group, or church… my wife, husband, father, mother, child, or friend… because them being in my life wasn’t my idea, it was yours. And even though I don’t feel it right now, I know you put them in my life as an act of grace. Thank you for giving me grace, help me give them grace too.”
2. Thank God for His Activity
The second thing we see Paul thanking God for are the gifts that God has given. The grace we receive from God isn’t just our salvation, but also daily gifts that show up every day. He says he gives thanks because, “…in every way [they] were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that [they were] not lacking in any gift.”
This forces us to take a moment to realize Who is in charge of this situation? Who is in charge of enriching this church? Paul or God? God. Who is in charge of fixing their speech? God. Who is in charge of changing their knowledge, or the way they think? God. Who is in charge of giving them what they need to repair whatever problems they have? God is. And further, who has been at work since the beginning of time, making sure everything works towards His end, His glory and has the best in mind for His people? God.
What about your problem? Who is in charge of it? You or God? God is.
But consider for a moment those four things Paul is thanking God for: their “speech”, their “knowledge”, “testimony” and “gifts.”
This is a bit ironic considering that one of the criticisms that Paul gives later is that they were putting far too much emphasis on having the gifts and not nearly enough on loving the One who gave them! They were treating the gifts God had given them like if at Christmas a family member gave you a new iPad and instead of saying “thank you” to them you completely ignore them and instead start showing off to everyone how cool you are now, and how many awesome things you can do with it. We know it’s wrong to forget the gift-giver in favour of the gift itself, right? That’s what the Corinthian church was doing. They were using and abusing God’s gifts, but forgetting the Gift-Giver.
And yet, Paul still thanks God that He gave them those gifts. Why? Because He knows that without God having changed their hearts, their “speech” and “knowledge” and “testimony” would be as corrupt as everyone else’s in Corinth. But now, because of the work of Jesus, they knew the One, True God. They now had greater knowledge and understanding of spiritual things than anyone else in Corinth. And even though they had gone wrong, that didn’t take away from the fact that God had given them this gift and He should be thanked.
The challenge is to ask ourselves what God-given gifts we can see in the difficult situations. We can say things like, “God, even though that person or group or situation is driving me crazy, I can see that you’ve been at work. You’ve given us your Word, your Spirit and Your Truth. And yes, they’re not listening to it, but the truth is available to everyone. And, you’ve even given that person gifts. They are here for a reason. They are good at this, they can do this, they have done this in the past. They couldn’t have done that without you, which mean you are to be thanked for their existence. I can see you at work and I thank you for it.” Even in a disaster, like Fort McMurray, we can see God at work.
Mr. Rogers, who was a Christian pastor at one point, said that when he was young and there was bad news on the radio or in the newspaper, he would get scared and his mother’s advice was, “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” And this brought him hope.
The point is sound and I would expand it for our purposes today: When we are faced with difficult times, and we go to pray, we need to start with thanksgiving. How do we do that? We look for how God has already been at work in the situation, who God has already provided to help, and what good has already happened. The Corinthian church was pretty messed up, but Paul says, “I can see God has been at work in you, that He has changed you on a fundamental level. Yes, things are a mess right now, and darkness is casting a shadow, but God’s light is still present, just as it has always been.”
Thanking God for that changes our perspective and allows us to pray, “God I’m thankful you are in charge and at work. I’m not the one who can change their minds, only You can. I’m not the one who will change how they talk, how they think, how they conduct their lives. Only you can do that. You are good, your love endures, and I’ve already seen you do good things. For that I’m thankful. I look forward to seeing what you will continue to do. You are writing a story here and I’m only in the middle of it.”
As Philippians 1:6 says that God will finish what he started. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Who began the good work? God did. Who will bring it to completion? God will. For that we can be thankful.
3. Thank God for Sustenance
The third thing that Paul thanks God for is the sustaining power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
This is similar to the previous point, with an important difference. We are here reminded that in our thanksgiving prayer to God, the power to deal with the situation is not in our hands. We do not have the ability to save anyone – even ourselves.
We are reminded in Ephesians 6:12-13 that
“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Our salvation is not in our hands. Our guiltlessness before God is not of our making, but because Jesus’ blood has covered our sins. Similarly, the weapons we fight evil with are not of our own creation. Our sustaining power to face, combat and overcome the evil in our life and around us is not something we can generate within ourselves. Every self-help book that says you just need to “tap into your inner strength” is utter garbage because you do not have the equipment within yourself to combat the “cosmic powers over this present darkness.” There’s not enough willpower in the world to conquer our sinful nature. You need a Saviour who will dress you in His armour and give you the strength to “withstand in the evil day”.
And so, in our prayer of thanks, we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you that I am not the one who has to keep this person from the fires of Hell… but You can. I’m not the one who has to defend their mind and their hearts… but You can. I thank you that you have taught me that by myself I am utterly powerless and witless to withstand my real enemy… but You can. And you generously give me all I need to face this trial when I trust in Your strength. I know you’ll never quit on me, or quit on the person or situation I’m struggling with. All of humanity is one prayer away from accessing your power. You say that not even the gates of hell can prevail against Your people (Matt 16:18). You say that if You are for us, no one can be against us (Rom 8:31). This is your world and your work, God, not mine. For that I am thankful!”
So, my encouragement to you this week, as you face the difficulties of the world around you, the relationships you are in, or the ones inside your own heart, is to pray about it, of course – but to begin that prayer with thanksgiving. Before Paul started to address the many and varied problems he was facing, he got on his knees and got his heart in the right place by thanking God. It was the right thing to do, and we are commanded to do it too. Why? Because willing ourselves give thanks radically changes our own hearts in regards to whatever we are facing. It takes our eyes off of the problem and puts God back on the throne of our universe.
As you begin to pray about this trouble, ask yourself, or even ask God, these three questions:
First: What free grace (undeserved favour) have I, and everyone involved, already received?
Second: Where have I already seen God at work before and during this situation? God is consistent. He will send help, hope and healing. He will continue to complete the good work He began. Ask, where can you see Him at work?
Third: What resources has God given me to combat this evil? He offers wisdom beyond your ability, peace that passes understanding, spiritual protection, and the fruit of the spirit which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) They are offered to all who ask.