GIVING THANKS "IN" AND "FOR"

NASHVILLE -- There are a few verses that most Christ followers at least sort of know by heart. Verses like John 3:16. Or Hebrews 11:1. Or this one:

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

It's a strange passage coming from someone like the apostle Paul. He's been bitten by snakes, shipwrecked, beaten within an inch of his life on numerous occasions, abandoned by his friends on some occasions, maligned by people he cared about on others. And yet, Paul stresses the obedience of joy and thankfulness almost as much as he stresses grace and faith.

And make no mistake -- it is an issue of obedience. Often we think of joy and gratitude in the realm of feelings. Either we feel joyful or thankful, or we don't. When we feel it, we do it. But obedience doesn't work that way.

Obedience is doing regardless of whether you're feeling. Thankfully, as we grow in Christ, we find the Lord not only bringing about in us the correct actions but also the correct feelings that come alongside those actions. But until we are made right and whole again, it is left to us to give ourselves to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit by continuing to do, even (and perhaps most especially) when we do not feel.

So, your gratitude -- just like mine -- is not a question of whether you feel thankful, but whether you are willing to obey this command from the Lord.

But there is another issue here to examine this time of the year set aside in this country for giving thanks -- whether there is a difference between giving thanks IN all circumstances and giving thanks FOR all circumstances.

If there is, it means that no matter what situation you find yourself in, there is always something to be thankful for. You may not be thankful for the suffering, the pain, the hardship or the persecution, but there are other things to lift your heart. When you consider everything that the Lord is, all that He continues to do in the world, and the next world waiting for the believer, there are plenty of reasons to say "thanks," no matter what happens to be going on.

If there's not a difference, it means you believe that every circumstance, regardless of how devastating or marvelous, has come from God. And since you know that God is for you, not against you, then you can be thankful for the circumstance, even if you are doing so in faith. You are thankful because you believe that ultimately good will come of it.

I think people love Jesus and believe both of these things. And at the end of the day, both sets of believers are thankful.

In my own life, I have seen how, over time, you become more thankful "for." Over time, and with perspective, you begin to see the invisible hand of God moving in times that, in the moment, you could not see. You begin to reflect on God's providential care and love and wisdom even when He may have seemed so significantly absent. You see how He has shaped you and guided you into a deeper experience of Jesus. And so, over time, you become thankful "for."

To bring it full circle, notice that the command here is to give thanks in all circumstances. That's what you can do right now, even if you don't feel like it. You can practice the discipline of gratitude, finding the grace of God, in general and in particular, at work in your life.

But as you do that, think back a bit. Think back to those moments when you thought you would never have another reason to feel thankful again. Think back, and then look and see the redemptive hand of God at work because of those times. And maybe this is the year that you are not only obediently thankful in, but also being thankful for.

Michael Kelley is director of groups ministry for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of "Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God" and "Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life." He is on Twitter at @_michaelkelley and online at michaelkelley.com, where this article first appeared.