In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, the Apostle Paul provides a lengthy litany of sins that characterise the lives of people who live during “the last days”. There is one particular transgression, however, which the church seldom talks about and which some Christians may not even think of as a proper sin: ungratefulness.
In his commentary on this epistle, Ralph Earle explains that the Greek word that Paul uses here (achristoi) means “the opposite of being thankful”.1 This indicates that the Apostle regards as sinful the attitude or disposition of thanklessness or ingratitude.
What makes this passage even more unsettling is that here Paul was not speaking about unbelievers, but about Christians who are the undeserving recipients of the self-giving love of God—they, of all people, should be thankful.
As John Calvin (1509–64) points out: “He [Paul] does not attack or accuse external enemies who are openly opposed to the name of Christ, but people who belong to the family and wish to be reckoned among the members of the Church.”2
Thankfulness is a theme that reverberates throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. This should not surprise us at all because the God that it portrays is good (Ps 86:5). The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1221–74) has repeatedly described Him as Supreme Goodness.3
To give thanks to God, however, is not only to recognise His goodness. It is also to keep it in remembrance always, and in remembering, to commemorate and celebrate it. It is to pay homage to Him, to acknowledge Him for who He is, and to acknowledge the gifts He lavishes on us.
The majestic words with which Psalm 136 begins says it all:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
The goodness of God is revealed in His persistent and unending love for us. The God whom we worship, who governs the universe, is immutably loving and good, and Christians can be thankful even when the circumstances in which they find themselves are challenging, difficult or dire.
In the midst of very trying circumstances, David could burst out in songs of joy and thanksgiving. In Psalm 28:7, he sings:
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.
It is in light of this that we must understand Paul’s injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in all circumstances”. It is our faith in the God who is at once good and loving, and unchangingly so, that makes this possible. Absent that, this command becomes just another instance of vacuous triumphalism or a species of pietistic lunacy.
Thanksgiving is an important and indispensable aspect of the Christian life. In giving thanks we acknowledge, as we have already seen, our faith in the God who is unchangingly good and loving, the God who is always with us.
Approached from a different angle, in thanksgiving we recognise the fact that our lives are a graced horizon, that they are to be lived by grace alone (sola fidei). When we give thanks, we acknowledge that we are always debtors, always dependent on divine grace. Thanksgiving makes us humble.
But thanksgiving also fortifies our faith. For in giving thanks our spiritual myopia is corrected and we are drawn to a wider vision. We are reminded of the big picture, the greater reality—God’s sovereign governance over our lives, His providential care.
In remembering and celebrating the goodness of our loving God, thanksgiving reinforces the meaning of faith and how to live by it. It tames the tyrannies that beat us down. It transfigures the present and nourishes hope for our promised future.
1 Ralph Earle, 2 Timothy, vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelin (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 406.
2 John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 10, eds. David F. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 324–5.
3 See Saint Bonaventure’s Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, trans. Zachary Hayes (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1979).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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