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Discussion in 'Christian Theology Forum' started by bingyroy, Nov 19, 2007.

  1. bingyroy

    bingyroy New Member

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    Give thanks for what?
    By B. Richard Nicholson

    1 Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us, “In everything give thanks”? This, Paul’s call to gratitude, is widely taken to mean we ought to be thankful for everything, triumph and tragedy alike. So my neighbor’s goats eat a hole through my fence, come over and devour my crop of tomatoes. I drive out the intruders and stop up the hole in the fence, then go over and thank my neighbor for allowing me to have that experience. Certainly, I’m going to be the better for it. Indeed it might serve to deepen our relationship as neighbors. Then I plead with him to find some way to keep the animals out of my yard. They come over again and mow down my morning glory. Again I go over and say thanks and beg him to do something. After several repetitions of this cycle, with hardly any fence left and my garden a mangled shadow of its former self, my neighbor, quite confused, asks, “Do you want them coming over there or don’t you?”
    Is that what I Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us to do? After a typical church discussion on the verse, one brother was asked if we should be thankful for sin. “Yes,” he replied. “Because I find that when I fall into sin, it alerts me to the need to draw closer to God.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Falling into sin never in any way draws anyone to God. To even imagine it doing anything to help our relationship with him is preposterous, it does the very opposite. Isaiah 59:2 tells us, “...Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you...”
    Along the Christian path, there are trials and tests which present us with opportunities to draw closer to God. It is the proper recognition of those opportunities, not sin, that draws us to God. Sinning fails those tests, squanders those opportunities and can never be credited with any good outcome. Whatever good emerges is due only to the constant working of Omnipotence to thwart the Devil’s plans.
    As Christians we believe that sin is the one cause of whatever problems there are in our universe. It threw God’s perfect creation out of whack. It was why Christ had to subject himself to the horrors of Calvary. It is the one thing that we are told God hates. Should we be thankful for it? If so, whom should we thank? Only the Holy Spirit can call us to repentance and back to a right relationship with the God who hates sin. Typically that involves convicting us of sin. How about not sinning in the first place? Isn’t that about as close to God as you can get? Isn’t that how Enoch is said to have “walked with God,” at least in the dominant trend of his journey, until he walked straight into heaven? Isn’t that how Jesus lived so he could say, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30)?
    Paul’s counsel is sound: “In every thing give thanks.” Not “for” everything. We live in a world awash with evil and tragedy, for which we have only sin and rebellion to thank. Our elusive moments of happiness are often tainted and tenuous and we can never tell what terrible news the next moment might bring. Yet even in the midst of the deepest, darkest gloom, there are still blessings for the child of God to count. In the regular run of life when problems weigh down on us, we can stop and thank God for the other things that are going OK. Nearly always, things could be a lot worse. Ultimately, whatever the circumstance, we can be thankful that the God who loves and cares for us is bigger than the problems.
    “...I have learned,” Paul wrote from a filthy Roman jail, possibly chained to a Roman guard, “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” (Philippians 4:11). Our circumstances will affect us only in relation to our focus. With his focus so firmly fixed on the gospel and its advancement that nothing else mattered, the apostle could be content in the worst of circumstances. Not complacent or apathetic, but calm and settled with a patient hope. Content rather than contentious. That’s not always easy, even in the regular run of life. Then what’s to be said in the extreme circumstance when all is gone and nothing is going OK and life is worse than death? Imagine yourself in the hands of brutal captors, deaf, mute, blind and asthmatic, with your fingernails ripped out, being threatened with more torture, or about to be, like the prophet Isaiah, “sawn asunder”. And your prayers for healing and deliverance all go unanswered. Do you honestly see that as a circumstance for which you ought to be thankful? If you do, then maybe that’s what you ought to be praying for.

    In the land of the living

    True, there have been martyrs who embraced that kind of torture, thankful for the privilege of serving Christ in this way. Thankful, not for the bitter enmity being expressed to the gospel, but for the privilege of being God’s representatives in such profound circumstances. Those didn’t pray for deliverance from it, they prayed for perseverance to remain faithful to their cause. Many sang and rejoiced through it and, like their Lord on the cross, interceded on behalf of their torturers.
    “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” Stephen prayed as the torrent of stones pelted his limp body (Acts 7:60). Paul prayed, “That I may know him, ...and the fellowship of his suffering.”—Philippians 3:10. His anticipation of his own execution bore this out as he welcomed its approach. Eyes fixed on the crown of righteousness, he assured his chief protégé in a final epistle, “I am now ready to be offered.” (ii Timothy 4:6).
    Normally, torture and execution are not things about which one fantasizes. What if it has nothing to do with martyrdom? For in this tragedy-riddled world people go through unimaginable extremes of pain all the time, whether through sickness, or through accidents or natural catastrophes, or through man’s inhumanity to man. It is easy, when so much in life is going great, to say that just waking up another day in the land of the living is enough for anyone to be happy about. That’s taking such an awful lot for granted.
    There are people who pray they would go to sleep and not wake up. Maybe you wouldn’t, but let’s not forget the many torture survivors who recall begging their torturers to kill them. Post-traumatic stress has driven soldiers returning from combat to end their lives. Often enough, serial criminals have confessed to a desire for execution, be it by the needle, the chair, the chamber, the gallows, or the firing squad. Under siege by guilt, or by their uncontrollable psychopathy, or both, these wretched souls see death as the only escape from the agony of life.
    This mortal despair knows no bounds of class or creed. Tortured by a debilitating attack of what’s been diagnosed clinical depression, Abraham Lincoln, regarded universally as one of America’s most worthy presidents, confided to a friend in an anguished letter, “I am now the most miserable man living... To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” (Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Shenk) Medical condition or not, here certainly is a case of life being overwhelmingly grim.
    And if you think this confession unmasks Lincoln as just another godless escapist, read the early chapters of Job. Not only did that paragon of patience and godliness curse the day he was born, his despair seemed almost suicidal. “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery,” he implored, “and life unto the bitter in soul; which long for death, but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hid treasures; which rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they can find the grave?” (Job 3:20-22). These dark sentiments expressed by Job are echoed in this anthem by J. S. Bach:
    Come, sweetest death.
    Come blessed peace.
    Lead to that heavenly morrow.
    End for me pain and sorrow.
    O come, I wait for thee.
    Come soft and speedily.
    Give me from earth release.
    Come, blessed peace.

    Yet (as these lines of despair seek to remind us), even in the most excruciating living hell, the believer can still be thankful for the hope of an eternal life free of pain or problem of any kind. So while Job hated every moment of his ordeal and never expressed any semblance of gratitude for it, during or after, even as he confronted God, protesting his own innocence, he could stand firm through it and declare, “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”.—Job 19:26. There’s a difference between wanting to be rid of something and wanting to progress beyond it. Graduating from elementary school with excellent grades is an achievement for which a child should naturally be thankful. But would it be right for that child to want to stay at that point for the next forty years? You certainly don’t want to be rid of the achievement, your prayer is that you’ll keep building on top of it.
    In contrast, if you’re arrested for shoplifting, your only prayer is that the whole disgraceful situation be reversed. And while there may be gratitude for the wake-up call in the arrest, you really would have preferred if none of this had happened in the first place. You certainly could never be thankful for the poor choices that got you there. Discontent and gratitude do not go together. It has to be one or the other. I cannot be thankful for something—a broken home, a terminal illness, financial distress, legal trouble, the neighbor’s goats decimating my yard—while I’m praying to be rid of it.

    The will of God concerning you

    A lot of this confusion stems from how we view the will of God. There is the tendency to think that everything that happens is the will of God. In fact, some might even cite this as the reason the verse gives for that kind of indiscriminate gratitude: “...for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” For Paul also tells us “...All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). So when tragedy strikes, when loved ones get sick or die, when there is institutionalized social injustice, victimization or exploitation, we say we must accept it as the will of God. Yet the Bible’s fundamental message is that so much of what happens in this world is against God’s will. It is not his will, for instance, “that any should perish.” He created man to live forever. Yet people are constantly perishing. That’s about the one thing we can count on. Taxes some have been able to evade, but “Death passed upon all...” None of us would suggest that sin is God’s will. Yet the world is full of it, “...for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:1). Paul’s assurance to believers about things working together for their good, is not the all-encompassing statement we make it out to be. It is not a call to accept the evils that abound in our world as part of God’s plan. It is not a call to roll over and play dead.
    The word ‘all’, like the words ‘perfect’ and ‘everlasting’, does not always have the same meaning every time it appears in scripture. Sometimes it is absolute, sometimes it is relative. Romans 8:28 has three important messages. First, while, without exception, everything painful and negative is because of the existence of sin, there are times when God does something negative to either produce or prompt a positive result. On that ground, the verse could rightly be understood as saying, “...All kinds of things work together for good...” Second, it’s a general reminder that God is able to frustrate the plans of the enemy and make good out of what has gone wrong and out of what was meant for evil. Joseph, years after he was sold into slavery by his jealous, resentful brothers, was able to lay their fears to rest with this view of the event: “...Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good...”—Genesis 50:20.
    Which, by the way, ought never to be taken as an approval of those brothers’ mistreatment of him. Nor were their hateful actions ordained by God. Joseph’s dreams of the entire family bowing down to him were not meant to determine those events. Instead, it was simply that God, with whom there’s no past or future, was able to tell from the character of that family, exactly where they were headed. Had those brothers instead lived loving, circumspect lives, God could have taken care of them and worked his purpose out in some other way. Perhaps the famine might not even have come. In any event, there’s nothing to indicate that Joseph was thankful for any of the injustices meted out to him.
    Third and at its most basic, Romans 8:28 is an assurance that whatever the believer has to go through in this life, as long as his life is ordered by love for God, his ultimate destiny is pure good. “...God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away”—Revelation 21:4.
    Those are three ways in which Romans 8:28 may be understood. None of the three takes the sweeping view that everything that comes our way is God’s will for us, or thankworthy. After all, isn’t the life of faith a constant struggle against those things that are contrary to God’s will and that “war against the Spirit”? Isn’t the believer wrestling “against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”? (Ephesians 6:12). Being thankful and expressing thanks, to God as well as to our fellow human beings for good things they do for us, big or small, is a godly virtue to be sure. A virtue that’s right up there with love and respect. Paul warns about the perilous last days when folks will be, among other vile things, “unthankful” (ii Timothy 3:2). “From such,” he urges believers, “turn away.”
    Ellen White tells us in her book Ministry of Healing, p.251, “No tongue can confess, no finite mind can conceive, the blessing that results from appreciating the love of God.” Some even stretch this truth to claim that it’s the sure secret to success, material prosperity and realizing life’s dreams. While that’s not entirely the case, the ‘attitude of gratitude’—to borrow a pop-religious coinage—is healthy, healing and beneficial in many ways: mentally, emotionally, physiologically and socially. And when we take the time to recall, so many positive things abound in our lives, there’s no need to resort to legitimizing the negatives.
    On the other hand, if all that happens is God’s will, why bother to change anything? Why work to relieve suffering? Why offer salvation to sinners through the gospel? Why not just go with the flow? Well, it may be argued, it is God who places these realities in our path as opportunities for us to work with him and witness his power to change things. Yes it is God who brings them to our attention. That doesn’t mean that it is he who creates them or that he approves of them. If he did, why would he require us to work with him to reverse them? More than enough of those opportunities exist without God joining in to add to the mayhem.
    Of course, we cannot impose parameters on God’s ways of doing things. His ways are past finding out. It bears repeating: there are times when pain and problems come from God, whether as punishment or as measures to mold and refine us. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”—Hebrews 12:6. “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten,” he reassures, “Be zealous therefore and repent.” Indeed he creates both good and evil (Isaiah 45:7). More importantly, bad situations can be used by God for our benefit and his glory. So Peter encourages us, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you... But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”—i Peter 4:12, 13.

    Benefits of tragedy

    Should we then be thankful for the bad situations? In the wake of catastrophic events, like the demolition of New York’s World Trade Center or the city of New Orleans being virtually wiped off the map by that horrendous flood, there are many, to be sure, who as a result learn invaluable lessons, many who become less self-centered and more considerate of others, many whose commitment to God is deepened drastically. Should those people be thankful for the massive tragedy? Or should they be thankful only for those real benefits which are prompted by the tragedy?
    Similar things happen to people who survive traumatic terminal diseases like cancer. Many learn to be more appreciative of life and its blessings. Many come to realize that there’s more to life than acquiring stuff and griping about every little thing. Some of them even write books celebrating the traumatic experiences and projecting their own benefits onto others with sweeping generalizations.
    It is true that adversity should bring out our hidden strengths and force us to introspect and improve our mindset. And it is certainly good to encourage everyone to be optimistic and positive and take the noblest attitude to their circumstances bad or good. Sharing constructive insights from firsthand experience on how to beat an affliction is priceless. But saying that everyone benefits from adversity diminishes the role of individual optimism, valor and faith and is, at best, trite. Using a book to profit materially from such a claim is more likely opportunistic and disingenuous, when what ought to be celebrated is the recovery.
    And even if the cancer, the nasty divorce, the bankruptcy, or the untimely death of a loved one is, in fact, the best thing that ever happened to you and you honestly wouldn’t trade it for anything, speak for yourself. The benefits are neither intrinsic nor automatic. It is the individual that must decide what to make of his or her circumstances, to decide whether the lemon is to set the teeth on edge or be used to make lemonade. While some of us end up in various ways better for the adversity, many others come out of those experiences sad, bitter and even more self-centered. For that matter, pardon the digression, isn’t it a pity that some of us just will not be taught much needed lessons by anything short of tragedy? A pity, not a fact for which anyone ought to be thankful.
    Clearly then, although God sometimes allows tragedy to touch us, it isn’t always for our benefit. Perhaps more often it is because we, through our lack of faith, have failed in securing his benefits. In a broad sense, “...ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4:2). Sometimes the tragedies are just straight punishments. As in the case of all those masses in the Bible which he completely obliterated, from the Anti-deluvians to Sodom and Gomorrha to the firstborn in Egypt to Jericho. While it may have been instructive to those left behind, it could hardly have been for the good of those who perished. The same applies to individuals as well: Eli; Belshazzar; Jezebel; Achan; Ananias and Sapphira, to name a few.
    When Uzza touched the ark and fell dead, he derived no benefit from his swift punishment. A modern day parallel can be found in the context of the Lord’s Supper. “...Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself... For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.”—i Corinthians 11:29,30. Since when is damnation of any benefit to anyone? Sometimes also, God snatches away a prized possession, relationship or status that impairs our relationship with him. Painful as that loss may at times be, it cannot be considered a bad loss. That pain is just an unavoidable casualty of the process. And if I understand that something destructive has been removed from my life, I do not ask God to restore it. If the situation is worthy of thanks, even if it is painful, it cannot be bad. But while I may rightly be thankful for being rid of the idol, I cannot be thankful for the temporary pain at losing it.
    Paul accepted his “thorn in the flesh.” Yet that enthusiastic acceptance came only after the purpose of the affliction had been explained to him. Then he stopped praying to be rid of it. And should we, like Paul, be shown a positive purpose to some pain we’re going through, how beautiful to be able to say like him, “I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me.”—ii Corinthians 4:9 (Good News Translation). Proud of the victory available to me that transcends my own inherent ability to be victorious. Indeed, even as we endure the refining, chastening process, or, in the words of Katharina von Schlegel’s hymn, “bear patiently the cross of grief or pain,” what we ought to be thankful for is not the “grief or pain” itself, but the ultimate gain that results and God’s ability to produce good even out of the darkest evil.So amid the conflict whether great or small,Do not be discouraged, God is over all.Count your many blessings, angels will attend,Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
    This timeless hymn by Johnson Oatman, Jr. notwithstanding, the misconception is often poeticized in the songs we sing. André Crouch in the third and final stanza of his song, Through It All, speaks of thanking God for the mountains, the valleys and “the storms he brought me through.” The likelihood that those three are metaphors that cover all of life’s situations, good and bad, is obscured by a distinct emphasis on the bad. Four of the stanza’s six lines focus on how enriched life is by its problems and how sadly lacking it would be without them. Which begs the question, How consistent is the hope of heaven with such an outlook?
    For in that perfect world to which we look forward as our eternal home, there will be none of the problems the verse celebrates. Hence no need for God’s ability to solve them for us. On the other hand, whenever we encounter the problems of this present life, we yearn and pray for deliverance from them. Wouldn’t it be a lot better if sin hadn’t gotten in the way and we didn’t have to pass through this problematic existence to get to the perfectly positive life of pure bliss?

    Are all challenges problematic?

    Some of us claim that without problems, not only would life be boring, we would be underdeveloped weaklings. For, we claim, it’s the problems that make us strong. What would life be without challenges? we often say, thus implying that challenges and problems are necessarily the same thing.
    But not all challenges are problematic. Certainly not in the painful or disruptive sense. What about all the positive challenges that drive us to enrich and beautify life for ourselves and others? The challenge to concoct a new recipe, or to choose curtains for the home, or to express a beautiful thought in poetry. The positive challenges inherent in competitive sports. And do we really need problems to make us strong? Aren’t there body builders, weightlifters and other athletes who enjoy—even over-indulge in—exercising their bodies. Do not scholars revel in the sheer thrill of expanding their knowledge.
    More importantly, do not the sinless angels, according to Psalm 103:20, who serve God gladly in Heaven’s untainted environment, “excel in strength”? Apparently not. The latter half of Crouch’s verse (the last three lines) suggests that those angels who have remained faithful to God in that problem-free environment are ignorant of “what faith in God can do.” In other words, purity of experience carries with it a somewhat adverse naiveté. Thus it suggests that sin and its problems are a blessing, not a blot.
    This is tantamount to the yin-yang type philosophy of Cosmic Balance, which views evil as just as necessary as good. But as far as the Christian understands the cosmos, isn’t it the contrary that’s true? Evil, far from contributing to cosmic balance, is the very undoing of it. Which is why sin and sinners will ultimately have to be destroyed. The believer looks forward to an eternity of perfect balance, free of the menaces so inherent in this present order. Isaiah describes an ecology in which “the wolf... shall dwell with the lamb... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox... and the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den” (Isaiah 11:6-8). We are assured, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”.—v.9.
    One can only hope that, in spite of the obvious, Crouch’s line “I thank Him for the storms He brought me through” is only meant to express thanks for God’s help in surviving the storms, triumphing over the storms, even extracting priceless experience and insight from the storms, not thanks for the storms themselves.
    Look at the bright side by all means. But accepting everything as God’s will, asserts that things are precisely as they should be. Rick Warren in his hugely popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, says,“Nothing in your life is arbitrary... It doesn’t matter whether your parents were good, bad or indifferent, God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ he had in mind.” (Emphasis supplied). Really? That means that, throughout the Bible, whenever individuals consorted and produced children against God’s direct instructions, it was always precisely what God had in mind. Remember this the next time you see two irresponsible, HIV infected, drug addicts about to go off and indulge in casual fornication or adultery. And if nothing in my life is arbitrary and I’m exactly the way God intended me to be, at what point does anyone have any right to suggest that I change from being a thief or a murderer?
    That is as contrary to the Bible as you can get. God did not create sinners. He created man perfect, “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). What we are today is not what God created. It is the result of sin’s degenerative effect upon God’s perfect creation. God’s constant call to mankind is to turn to him for change. But then, what else do you expect from a book that begins, “It is no accident that you are holding this book,” as, “Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life”? Since when did God start planning people’s choices?
    If everything is God’s will, even to desire change has to be out of harmony with the divine. To work or pray for change is subversive, it’s an audacious refusal to submit to God’s sovereignty. Our prayers, then, should be completely free of request or supplication and should consist solely of thanks. Even thanks for being the thankless ingrates some of us are. For that too, despicable as it is, would be “...the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”. For that matter, the desire to change, subversive as it would be to the divine will, would at the same time be the divine will. Exactly how that works is infinitely mind-boggling.
    While the phrase, ‘thankless ingrates’ might not apply to all of us, Paul’s call to give thanks is certainly not without reason. Look at the way weather is typically described. Instead of being thankful for the beautiful sunshine, we say the heat is oppressive, and when the rain comes in answer to our prayers, it’s nasty weather. One wonders whether the weather conditions of Eden would satisfy some of us.
    To say that things are exactly as they should be, while praying for their reversal, is insane. What kind of expectation can such a prayer have? No wonder we so seldom receive the miracles we pray for. The fact that God can use the most adverse and objectionable people, events and situations to achieve his purposes is a completely different matter altogether. What Paul identifies as “...the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” is neither event nor circumstance. It’s the spirit of gratitude that is not swayed by event or circumstance.
    God’s blessings and the kindnesses from fellowmen are never to be taken for granted. Yet while this spirit of gratitude is a priceless, healthful virtue—even in atheists—the fact remains, we live in a world of sin and blight and tragedy and all kinds of things that run contrary to God’s will. When we fail to acknowledge those negatives for what they are, the distinctions between good and evil are undermined, evil is validated and God is falsely accused. It is always the good that the Christian ought to be thankful for. Never the bad.
    Happy Thanksgiving. (from the book Hold It Right There, Mister Preacher! by B. Richard Nicholson
  2. Peacebewithyou

    Peacebewithyou New Member

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  3. bingyroy

    bingyroy New Member

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    Please look at the context again. It is saying that if everything is God's will, then it is wrong to pray for change. However, most of what goes on in our sin-blighted world is contrary to God's will.