Spirituality 101

Here’s a key for sound spiritual health: give God thanks in everything. Always. Tell him you recognize how good and faithful he is. Even in hard times.

This invitation is striking—a real reach. Yet it’s also biblical, a pathway of faith, and a sign of Christ’s presence in us. Jesus, by his Spirit, works in changing hearts, so it’s not something we need to work up ourselves. Instead he draws us into it.

Let’s chase this. Profound thanksgiving runs against common sense, so it’s readily marginalized or dismissed. Human instinct is to save thanksgiving for good times—for receiving gifts or special kindnesses. It’s a tit-for-tat in our being nice to each other, and not a natural impulse if we’ve been deeply hurt or disappointed.

So, what does genuine thanksgiving represent? Try this: it reflects our complete confidence in Jesus. That he works all things for good among those of us who love him. It also presumes we know Christ’s axiom, that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” [Lk 16:15]. Giving thanks, in other words, isn’t a pathway to happy outcomes. Instead it faces the persistent friction of trusting Jesus in today’s upside-down world.

Paul presented thanksgiving as the main feature of faith in sharp contrast to Adam’s fallen values. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” [Ro 1:21]. It is in contrast to Adam’s folly that believers live by seeing God as truly God. And this emerges in our genuine, reflective thanksgiving. It represents an ultimate contrast of worldviews.

As just implied, when Paul spoke of “futile thinking” he certainly had Adam’s original fall in view. Augustine followed him in this by taking sin to be human pride, with souls “curved in on self.” This was first seen in Genesis chapter three where naked shame was the first sign of sin. As God approached Adam, the man tried to hide. So God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” [3:11]. Narcissistic self-awareness was born.

As context, the Bible pictures Adam and Eve as communing beings and not as individuals—made “one” through union with the Son by his Spirit. But the Spirit was grieved and driven away by the fall, and with that the original creation bond of mutual love and selfless devotion was gone. Each soul—Adam’s, Eve’s, and their progeny—then emerged as “curved in” on self after Eden. As spiritual balloons with no pneuma.

Only the Spirit’s presence repairs and refills this collapsed condition as he pours out God’s love in souls. Without this every soul instinctively worships the creation rather than the creator: “… they exchanged the truth about God for a lie [lit.: “the Lie”] and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” [Ro. 1:25]. Human desires for this world replace an original hunger for God and his communion.

The “futility” of sin, then, is an instinct to look for success in this world, either with or without God. And for the former, for those who treat God as a divine resource who lives in the confines of contractual relations and mutual obligations, his role is to ensure a life with happy answers to self-concerned prayers. This version represents the form of religion and lacks any power.

Paul, by contrast, restated the call to be thankful in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.” Thanksgiving is the bedrock reality of knowing God. “In all circumstances.”

Paul’s context for such teaching was his spiritual insight that everyone “once lived” under the rule of the devil [Eph. 2:1-3]. And John agreed, “… we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” [1 Jn 5:19]. A believer’s spiritual awakening comes into play here. As we move into the new life of regeneration a new ambition forms. There is a felt freedom from darkness and a joy in having new light. Jesus still heals the blind and gives new sight today, just as in the past.

This also brings new ambitions. Having been made by Jesus we instinctively hunger to know how to live out our new life with him: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Eph. 2:10].

Thanksgiving, then, is the instinctive exercise of a soul free from sin, death, and blindness. It explains Paul’s upside-down delight, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal. 2:20].

Believers recognize that true thanksgiving leaves behind the trite tit-for-tat values of the world. Instead we see every hardship as an exercise in our new life: of seeing God’s constant providence at work. We know God is with us even in the loss of someone we love. Or in unfair treatment. We aren’t obliged to give thanks “for” a profound loss, but to give thanks “in” that moment. We recognize the spiritual weight-lifting exercises that, in Paul’s words, are “preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” [2 Cor. 4:18].

So, a basic lesson in faith is this: always be thankful. Because Jesus is with you, faithfully holding you in his compassionate arms. And, thankfully, everything will eventually make sense.

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