And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21).
I hate cancer. It is a vicious disease, and it seems like it is everywhere. In our church family of around 250 people, over the last three years six different members have been treated for it, my wife among them. Three of those facing the disease have passed from this life. I hate cancer.
Yet when I read Paul’s description of what it is like to be under the control of the Holy Spirit – to “be filled with the Spirit” – among the list of Spirit-led actions is “giving thanks always and for everything.” How am I supposed to give thanks for the disease which has taken so many dear friends? How is it possible to be grateful for the pain, misery, and anguish cancer brings? How can I tell God, “Thank you that my wife has cancer”?
I don’t believe Paul is telling us to give thanks for cancer in the abstract – or to give thanks for any other disease, for that matter. “Lord, thank you for pneumonia” is not a prayer you can read about anywhere in Scripture! And the same is true for evil in the abstract. Nobody gathers around the table at Thanksgiving to reflect on the wonderful blessings of theft, rape, and murder.
So then what does Paul mean when he says that those led by the Spirit should be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father”? The key is the next phrase, which qualifies this statement about gratitude – “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A bank robber could not give thanks for a successful heist in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ because Christ doesn’t condone robbery. And we know how Jesus feels about all sin, about all disease, about all the evils in the world. He came to heal the sick, to forgive sins, and to set in motion God’s plan to put everything right (Luke 4:18-19; Acts 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26). So whatever Paul means here in Ephesians 5:20 about “giving thanks always and for everything,” we must bear in mind that this gratitude is offered in the name of Jesus.
With that disclaimer in mind, what does Paul mean? Bear in mind that Paul was in prison when he wrote these words. He was “an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). Paul wasn’t immune to the evil and suffering of this world. He experienced it to a degree most of us will not (2 Corinthians 11:23-28; 12:7-10; 2 Timothy 4:6-18). But even in his chains, Paul was grateful and called upon his readers to be grateful, to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The key to the sort of gratitude Paul has in mind is looking at our suffering in the power and grace of Christ. For instance, Paul was not thankful for arrest, abuse, and imprisonment in the abstract. But he was thankful for what Christ accomplished through his imprisonment (Philippians 1:12). The proclamation of the name of Christ to soldiers normally off-limits (Philippians 1:13); faithful brethren emboldened to greater evangelism (Philippians 1:14); unscrupulous preachers who thought by preaching to as many people as they could that they would incite Paul to envious resentment (Philippians 1:15-17). But the joke was on them!
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Philippians 1:18).
Paul wasn’t grateful for sins like selfish ambition, but he was grateful that God was working through those evil motives to bring about a greater good. And that’s what I think Paul means in Ephesians 5:20. We should be thankful for everything in the sense that we know God can accomplish amazing things through all circumstances – even evils like cancer.
I hate cancer, but in the name of Jesus I am grateful for Kristi’s cancer. Why? Because God has worked through this circumstance to bring us closer to Him in ways I can’t imagine would have happened otherwise. I can give thanks for this situation because God has used it to create a level of intimacy in our young life as a married couple it may have taken decades for us to reach without it. And I can thank God because He has poured out His love through His people to a degree we would never have known had this disease not invaded our lives.
As one commentator puts it –
Believers are to be thankful during times of trial and suffering as we endure them patiently, not because we have lost all feelings of moral sensitivity or because we can no longer distinguish between good and evil. Rather, we humbly and gratefully submit to his sovereignty, knowing that he works in everything for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). This is not to claim that God is the author of evil or that we are praising him for what he abominates. But we recognize that he uses even the suffering which comes upon us to produce character, perseverance, and hope (Rom. 5:3–5). [Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, p. 398]
This doesn’t mean cancer is any less horrible. It doesn’t mean tears never fall. It doesn’t mean we are immune to grief. No, our heart breaks each time we receive bad news from a scan. But it does mean that broken hearts can also be grateful hearts, that through our tears we can also rejoice, that even as we suffer we are also blessed. This is what it looks like when we are “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”