Thanksgiving and Prayer
© 2021 C. O. Bishop
1st Thessalonians 5:16-18;
We are called to thanksgiving and prayer, throughout the Bible. It is important to realize that the call to thanksgiving is in spite of circumstances, not because of circumstances. The call to Prayer is similar, in that we are not guaranteed to get what we want: We may be those who ask, but it is God who replies. And, because we ask in our ignorance, and our relative blindness, He, in His sovereign knowledge and infinite wisdom, sometimes must refuse our request. We must remember that His knowledge, His wisdom and His purpose not only all are higher than we can hope to understand, but also all are better from the perspective of eternity.
In ancient Israel, particularly in Judah, even after the nation had been split by bad leadership, occasionally a king, desiring the mercy and blessing of God for his nation, or, desiring the direction and protection of God, for an upcoming challenge or threat, would proclaim a National day of Prayer, and usually a fast, as well. As far as I can recall, in every single case, God answered those prayers; not always in the way they had hoped, but He always answered.
He has left those histories for us to learn from them, but we don’t want to “learn the wrong lesson,” so to speak: There were a few to whom God gave special authority, and what came out of their mouth really was His will, and it really did occur. It was not that they were “special saints,” but that God put them in a special position. Moses called for the ground to split and swallow up some rebels in the camp: and it happened exactly as he said. But it was for God’s purpose, not that of Moses. God uses miraculous intervention, as a rule, to draw attention to and to validate His message: and Moses, right then, was the messenger of God.
Thanksgiving was Part of the History
The times when God stepped in and rescued Israel, at least for the moment, usually resulted in national giving of thanks. But they soon forgot the blessing, and began to grumble again, or, worse yet, they turned to other gods, the heathen idols of the nations around them.
We have the history of Numbers 21:5-9, when they were scarcely out of Egypt, and were already forgetting the Salvation that was poured out upon them while the Judgment was being poured out on Egypt.
They grumbled and were very ungrateful toward God, failing to appreciate His supply in their lives, and He sent Judgment on them in the form of venomous vipers, migrating across their desert path, and killing many of the people. But God used even this calamity as an opportunity to demonstrate His Grace, in a prophetic “picture”—the bronze serpent on the pole, represented the judgment for their sins, and God’s solution for sin: The Cross, where our sins were judged forever, and Jesus’s blood served as the eternal satisfaction for God’s Justice and holiness, for the sins of the Whole World, forever! In regard to that particular history, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the Serpent in the Wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
So, even our ingratitude and our unbelief are under the blood of the Cross.
In Romans 1:21, we see the nature of God’s judgment for sin: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened.”
Humans fail to recognize the authority and Grace of God. We fail to Give Thanks…and because of this, our hearts are darkened, and we fail to see the truth that, when God’s reply to our prayer is “NO,” it is just as worthy of thanksgiving as when He gives us the desire of our hearts. We need to thank Him for His wisdom and grace in those times, too.
What about Prayer?
In Luke 18:1, Jesus taught that we “ought always to pray and not faint.” The apostle Paul reiterates this command in 1st Timothy 2:1-4, saying that we are not only to pray for ourselves and for one another, but for unbelievers as well, and especially for national and civic leaders, so that we might reap the benefits of “a quiet and peaceful life.”
Today, we live in the only nation in the history of the world which was originally founded upon specifically Christian values, and grounded in the whole truth of God’s Word, the Bible. It was not founded upon greed, or nationalism, but upon humility and public awareness of our utter dependence upon the Almighty Creator God. Perhaps the unbelieving world around us has forgotten this, but we as believers have no excuse: We are to remember; we are to pray, and we are to give thanks, regardless of the circumstances.
We live at a time when those Christian values upon which our Nation was founded have largely been set aside as “old-fashioned,” or “outmoded,” or “irrelevant for the realities of today.” However, the Word of God will stand for all time and Eternity, and does not depend upon the opinions of humans for validity. The Law of Gravity will cease to exist before God’s Word will fail to be relevant. In Ps 119:89, the psalmist says, “Forever, O Lord, thy Word is settled in heaven.” In light of eternity, the values of the humans of today are merely a passing aberration, while the values of God are the principles upon which the very Universe is founded.
The Prophet Daniel was ordered by a heathen king to cease praying to his God: he immediately went to his balcony, opened the doors, and in public view, prayed toward Jerusalem, as was his habit. You know the rest of that story, from Daniel chapter 6: Daniel “spent the night at the zoo,” as it were—specifically, in the Lion’s Den. But in the Morning…in the morning, he was released, and his enemies took his place. He had been under the protection of God—they were not…(It was feeding time at the zoo!)
We have a “Morning” coming, too! The Apostle Peter tells us in 2nd Peter 1:19, that we are to focus our attention on the written Word of God as the only light in this dark world, “until the day dawns!”
King Jehoshaphat, under threat of an invading army, declared a national day of prayer and fasting, and God answered through a local prophet. The troops of Judah went to the battle, all right, but they were led by the national choir, singing, and praising the beauty of holiness. They were giving thanks in advance, and worshipping the God of their salvation! The resulting battle was fought by God alone. The people of Judah never lifted a weapon. And every single enemy soldier died that day.
Today we are still called to prayer, by God Himself. It is possible today, as always, in times of trouble, that some of the human leaders who may make that call are not believers, themselves. We should not be deterred from the privilege of prayer by those who do not know the God who answers prayer. Let us continue in prayer, undismayed. We also should remember that while prayer can “change things,” prayer definitely does not “control things!” Believers under fire are praying, but many of them die.
It is OK to pray and die!
An American missionary in the Philippines (Martin Burnham) was kidnapped along with his wife (Gracia Burnham) by Islamic rebels, there. They prayed daily for deliverance, and they prayed faithfully for their captors as well. But the day finally came when a firefight broke out between the national army and the rebel force. Martin threw his own body across that of Gracia, trying to shield her. Both were praying, but only Gracia came home alive. Martin was shot and killed, protecting his wife.
How do we respond to that sort of answer to prayer? Can I give thanks when the result was not what I wanted?
1st Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing; in every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus, concerning YOU!”
God says His will for us is that we should rejoice evermore, that we should pray without ceasing; and that in every circumstance we should give thanks.
Let’s look at that passage, point by point:
- Rejoice evermore,
- Pray without ceasing, and
- In every thing give thanks
- For this is the Will of God, in Christ Jesus, concerning YOU!
Notice that He did not say, “Feel happy,” or “feel Joyful!” He said “rejoice!” This directly ties into what Jesus commanded in John 16:33 “These things have I spoken unto you that in Me ye might have peace: in the World ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the World.” Joy is a choice: Habakkuk chose joy in the face of the sure knowledge that his nation was about to fall to foreign invaders in judgment as a result of Israel’s sin. He said, “Yet will I rejoice in the LORD: I will joy in the God of my Salvation!” It was an act of the will, not a result of emotion. His emotion was grief at the collapse of Israel, but his choice was Joy!
Pray without Ceasing
This is a clear command, that, as Jesus commanded, we are not to give up on prayer: we are to “press on,” praying in the face of devastating news, in the hope that we will be delivered. And as the young Hebrew men under the threat of the furnace replied, “God IS able to save us: but even if He does not, we will not worship your idol!” They knew they faced death. They did not know that God was going to deliver them.
Martin and Gracia Burnham knew they potentially faced death, and did not know that only one of them would be delivered. But they prayed and they chose the Joy of the Lord in response to their trauma. Afterward, Gracia shared her story in a book: “In the Presence of Mine Enemies.” Perhaps we can learn from her example, and seek to find the “table” God has prepared for us in the presence of our enemies, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Perhaps we can choose to rejoice, in the presence of our enemies, by faith, because of His supply. Perhaps we can choose to pray faithfully, in recognition that His supply is perfect, even when we fail to understand it.
In Every Thing give Thanks
Notice that He does not say “for everything give thanks!” but “in every thing give thanks.” Martin and Gracia Burnham surely were not “happy and satisfied” to be the prisoners of a murderous band of Islamic terrorists…but they chose to rejoice IN that reality, rather than deciding that “God must have ignored their needs.” We are called to do that, as well.
Was I “happy” that my mother had an incurable disease? Absolutely not! But could I rejoice in her testimony and the legacy she left behind? Yes, I really could, once I quit whining and crying to God, insisting that He change His directive Will for the benefit of my desires. But it took a while. (We can grieve; that is OK. It is OK to hurt, but it is not OK to allow the hurt to make us bitter.) Mom simply graduated early. Odd thing: she was valedictorian in both high school and college. She was the eldest of her siblings and the rest all lived well into their eighties, while she died at 65. So, once again, she “graduated at the head of her class!” We were grieved to lose her, but she blessed all those around her, by the overflowing Grace of her walk with God.
Is Martin Burnham unhappy today with God’s decision to take him home and leave Gracia here? Nope! He is rejoicing before the Lord, as we speak! Is Gracia unhappy with His answer to prayer? Not today: at that moment, she was filled with grief! But she was healed of her grief, and once again walked in the sure knowledge of God’s Grace.
We are called to do the same: we are not told that we will always understand God’s will, nor, obviously, that we will always get what we desire. There have been times when I was certain that I was praying according to the will of God, but my hopes were dashed. There have been other times when I gave up hope, because of the circumstances, and God delivered, anyway.
It would be easy to “learn the wrong lesson,” here, and decide that “there is no point in praying, as God is just going to do His own will anyway.” But that attitude ignores that fact that we are commanded to pray; and, to “not faint”…not give up on prayer; and to “pray without ceasing:” How can it be within the will of God for me to disobey those clear commands?
The fact is, we simply have to admit that we do not know what is best. And, if we truly want what is best, then we need to subject ourselves to the will of the One who not only knows what is best, but desires to bless us to the utmost.
The final word in that passage is very personal: He says, “For this is the Will of God, in Christ Jesus, concerning YOU!”
Don’t succumb to the temptation to “shuck that aside,” thinking, “Well, that was to the believers at Thessalonica!” Of course, it was! And it is also to you, personally, just like the rest of the epistles! Take this personally, and apply it to your life: the result will be a greater sense of peace and joy, as you learn to trust the Savior and Judge as your Shepherd and Friend.
Lord Jesus, please draw us close enough to you that we can feel your arms supporting us and hear your heartbeat for the lost around us, and be transformed into your likeness, sharing that care for the lost world.