Before we attempt to answer the primary question of whether or not we should give thanks to God for all things, it may be worthwhile to address the question of whether or not God is responsible for everything that happens, both good and bad. This leads to a related question: Does God predestine, or predetermine, all that will happen? In other words, does God actually cause, not just know in advance, everything that occurs?
We believe that God generally gives each person free will to decide for themselves what they will – or will not – do. Consider an example found in the very first book of the Bible, which indicates that because of the wickedness of most of the people living at that time, God was sorry that He had created humans (see Genesis 6:5-6). Because God is omniscient, He certainly knew in advance that these people would become wicked, but there is no valid reason to believe that He caused them to become wicked. [For a discussion of God’s omniscience, click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?”].
Furthermore, if God had caused the people to be wicked, their wickedness would not have been a logical reason for God to be sorry that He had created them, since He – not they – would have been responsible for their wickedness. However, this does not mean that God never causes people to do what He wants them to do. [Click on “Does God Cause People to Do What Is Wrong?” for a discussion of this matter.]
In any case, the Bible is sufficiently clear that God is not a cosmic puppeteer who generally causes people to do what He wants them to do, rather than let them decide for themselves.
In addition, we know of no valid reason to believe that God causes every circumstance that results from a force of nature. Although God allows earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme forces of nature to occur, there is no evidence that He usually causes them. Assuredly, because God is omnipotent, He can control the forces of nature, and various biblical accounts tell about times when He has done so. Examples include the great flood during the time of Noah, the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah during the time of Abraham, the parting of the Red Sea as the Hebrews were fleeing from captivity in Egypt, and the calming of a storm on the Sea of Galilee by Jesus Christ when He and His inner circle of 12 disciples were in a boat caught in the storm.
Nevertheless, many people believe that everything that happens, the bad as well as the good, does so in accordance with God’s will. However, in their book entitled Don’t Blame God! A Biblical Answer to the Problem of Evil, Sin, and Suffering, Mark Graeser, John Schoenheit, and John Lynn state,
The New Testament makes it crystal clear that not everything that happens is God’s will. For example, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done on earth (Matt. 6:10). If everything that happens is God’s will, such prayer is superfluous. In Romans 1:10, Paul said he prayed for “a prosperous journey in the will of God” to see the believers there. Another meaningless prayer? No. The will of God for an individual, whether revealed in the written Word of God or by direct revelation, generally comes to pass only when that person understands it and, by his own, acts accordingly.
Rather than sit passively by waiting for God’s will to happen, we must make a diligent effort to learn God’s Word and then aggressively obey it. God’s will, for example, is that people do not steal, but rather that they work to earn what they need (Eph. 4:28). Very simple. We just do what He says. But are some people stealing? Yes. If everything that happens were God’s will, then nothing would be sin or disobedience.
Now, we will address the primary question of whether or not we should give thanks to God for all things, even the bad things that happen.
One result of having received the gift of eternal salvation from God is that every person who has been given that gift should have a strong desire to express thankfulness to Him. However, it is difficult for many Christians to accept that the Bible may teach that we should thank God for all circumstances, including situations that involve suffering and/or death.
Ephesians 5:20 states, “[Give] thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
With regard to Ephesians 5:20, John R. W. Stott, in his book entitled The Message of Ephesians, states,
Although the text reads that we are to give thanks always and for everything, we must not press these words literally. For we cannot thank God for absolutely “everything,” including blatant evil. The strange notion is gaining popularity in some Christian circles that the major secret of Christian freedom and victory is unconditional praise; that a husband should praise God for his wife’s adultery and a wife for her husband’s drunkenness; and that even the most appalling calamities of life should become subjects for thanksgiving and praise. Such a suggestion is at best a dangerous half-truth, and at worst ludicrous, even blasphemous. Of course God’s children learn not to argue with him in their suffering, but to trust him, and indeed to thank him for his loving providence by which he can turn even evil to good purposes. . . . But that is praising God for being God; it is not praising him for evil.
Another reason to question the admonition in Ephesians 5:20 to “give thanks for all things” is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which states, “[I]n everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Ephesians 5:20 implies that Christians should be thankful for even the most horrendous things that happen, whereas 1 Thessalonians 5:18 indicatesthat Christians should always be thankful, even when dreadful things occur. In other words, despite the occurrence of circumstances that are generally considered to be bad, Christians should continue to be thankful for their blessings.
It is also worth considering what types of “things” Paul may have had in mind when he wrote Ephesians 5:20. John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible expresses the belief that Paul was referring to the following:
For things temporal, for our beings, and the preservation of them, and for all the mercies of life; for things spiritual, for Christ, and for all spiritual blessings in him; for electing, redeeming, sanctifying, adopting, pardoning, and justifying grace; for a meetness [sic] for heaven, and for eternal life itself; for the Gospel, promises, truths, ordinances, and ministry; and this is to be done always, at all times, in times of adversity, desertion, temptation, affliction, and persecution, as well as in prosperity.
Therefore, Ephesians 5:20 is not inconsistent with 1 Thessalonians 5:18, if the former scripture pertains to the types of things previously mentioned by Gill, rather than to all types of circumstances, unfavorable as well as favorable.
Another scripture to consider with regard to this matter is Romans 8:28. Philip Yancey asserts on page 59 of his book entitled Reaching for the Invisible God,
Many Christians quote the verse Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” with the implication that somehow everything will turn out for the best. The original text is more properly translated, “In everything that happens, God works for good with those who love him.” That promise, I have found to hold true in all the disasters and hardships I have known personally. Things happen, some of them good, some of them bad, many of them beyond our control. In all these things, I have felt the reliable constant of a God willing to work with me and through me to produce something good. Faith in such a process will, I’m convinced, always be rewarded, even though the “Why?” questions go unanswered.
Yancey goes on to say on pages 65 and 66,
I am learning that mature faith, which encompasses both simple faith and fidelity, works the opposite of paranoia. It reassembles all the events of life around trust in a loving God. When good things happen, I accept them as gifts from God, worthy of thanksgiving. When bad things happen, I do not take them as necessarily sent by God – I see evidence in the Bible to the contrary – and I find in them no reason to divorce God. Rather, I trust that God can use even those bad things for my benefit. That, at least, is the goal toward which I strive.
How can I praise God for the good things in life without censuring him for the bad? I can do so only by establishing an attitude of trust . . . based on what I have learned in relationship with God.
Then, on page 69, Yancey states,
I take “everything without exception” as God’s action in the sense of asking what I can learn from it and praying for God to redeem it by improving me. I take nothing as God’s action in the sense of judging God’s character, for I have learned to accept my puny status as a creature – which includes a limited point of view that obscures unseen forces in the present as well as a future known only to God. The skeptic may insist this unfairly lets God off the hook, but perhaps that’s what faith is: trusting God’s goodness despite any apparent evidence against it.
Subsequently, Yancey declares on page 71 of the same book, “The crucial issue, the one that faces every person who endures a great trial, is that same question of response: Will I trust God with my pain, my weakness, even my fear? Or will I turn away from him in bitterness and anger?”
Billy Graham goes further than Yancey by advocating rejoicing and thankfulness, even when we are experiencing difficulties. However, he does not state that we should give thanks for the difficulties. On page 107 of his book entitled Hope for the Troubled Heart, Graham asserts, “The ability to rejoice in any situation is a sign of spiritual maturity.” And, on page 335 of his book entitled Wisdom for Each Day, he says, “A spirit of thankfulness is one of the most distinctive marks of a Christian whose heart is attuned to the Lord. Thank God in the midst of trials and every persecution.”
Regardless of what a person concludes with regard to the meaning of the scriptures that we have discussed in this article, a statement made by Teilhard de Chardin, who was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, should be given thoughtful consideration. On page 86 of his book entitled The Divine Milieu, he asserts, “Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.” In other words, for those who seek to do God’s will, good can come out of any situation.
In this regard, Graham says on page 71 of his book entitled The Armageddon, “Trials and difficulties may assail the life of a believer, but they also have the ability to remold his character and banish from his life those impurities which might impair growth and service.”