Are we really supposed to give thanks for everything?

Q. I wonder if you’ve encountered the idea that we’re supposed to thank God for everything, even for the bad things that happen to us.  I’ve heard Paul’s statement in Ephesians referenced to support this notion:  “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This concerns me mainly because I can’t recall examples in Scripture where people thanked God for bad things that happened to them.  Did Jesus thank God for sending him to the cross?  Did Job thank God for taking everything from him?  And so forth.   Am I missing something?

Bible translations are generally agreed that when Paul says there in Ephesians that we should give thanks hyper pantōn, he does mean “for” everything (as opposed to “in” everything” or “in all circumstances,” as he says in 1 Thessalonians).  Hyper followed by a noun in the genitive (in this case an adjective used as a substantive), when paired with verbs of thanksgiving or praise, clearly means “because of” or “on account of,” as these other examples from Paul’s writings show:

“that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”
“many will give thanks on our behalf
“something I thank God for

But regarding that substantive pantōn, the NET Bible makes the interesting suggestion that Paul is actually saying we should give thanks “for one another.”  The term pantōn can be either neuter (“everything”) or masculine (“everyone”), and the context in Ephesians does have to do with relationships in the community of Christ’s followers.  But practically all other translations take it to be neuter, meaning “everything” or “all things.”  So the broad consensus understanding is that Paul is saying we should give thanks “for everything.”

What does he mean by that?

I understand him to mean that we can always be thankful for what God is doing in a given situation or circumstance.  God is always active to make all things work together for our good.  But I agree with you that we’re not called to be thankful or grateful directly for things that are destructive and evil.  I don’t see Scriptural examples of this, either.

To use one of your illustrations, Jesus didn’t thank God for sending him to the cross.  In fact, he prayed that he’d be spared the cross if at all possible.  But I think he was aware of what God wanted to accomplish through the cross (which he calls his “hour of glory” in the gospel of John), and he celebrated that even in advance.

To use a contemporary situation as another illustration, I don’t think a follower of Jesus would be called to thank God directly for a loved one’s serious disease.  But they could still be very grateful for what they were learning through it about God’s grace and sustaining power, and for the way they were discovering that they were surrounded by a community of caring, loving people.

I hope this is a helpful distinction.  We don’t give thanks directly for evil or destructive things.  But we do give thanks for the way God is at work in every situation.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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