In a very practical section of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he encourages his readers to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18). In the immediate context, he had exhorted them to rejoice always (verse 16) and to pray without ceasing (verse 17). These are recognizable characteristics of a person who is encouraged and growing in his or her faith. The first two are easy enough to understand—being joyful and prayerful are not complex ideas. But Paul’s instruction that the Thessalonian believers should give thanks in everything presents a unique challenge.
It is worth noting that Paul doesn’t tell them to give thanks for everything. The preposition used in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is the Greek en, which is best translated by the English preposition in. Paul isn’t telling them they must be thankful for the difficulties they were encountering; instead, he is challenging them to be thankful in any circumstance. Paul recognized that the secret of contentment isn’t found in circumstances. Rather, there is contentment in recognizing it is Christ who strengthens us for whatever we might face (Philippians 4:11–13).
It is also evident that God allows things in our lives to help us grow to be more like Christ—in fact, that pursuit (Christlikeness) is the primary purpose God has for us in sanctification (being set apart or holy). If God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and that good is that we would be more like Christ (verse 29), then we can expect that He even uses hardship in our lives to help shape us to be more like Him. Because He works for that purpose in our lives, we can be filled with gratitude, knowing that there is purpose even in the difficulties we can’t understand.
In Romans 5:3 Paul uses even stronger language than he uses in 1 Thessalonians 5:18—he explains that we can exult or rejoice even in suffering because of what the suffering produces in us. Suffering brings perseverance; perseverance develops proven or tested character; character that has been tested develops hope; and God’s kind of hope never disappoints. If God can use suffering and trials that way, to help us mature, then those experiences are worth it. Like Paul encourages the Corinthians, the momentary afflictions we encounter in this life are producing what he calls an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Paul adds that the sufferings we encounter today are nothing compared to the glory we will see in the future (Romans 8:18). In other words, it is all worth it.
If we have this kind of big-picture perspective, we can give thanks in everything because we understand how God is using those things in our lives to grow us now and in the future. Jesus illustrates the principle for His disciples in John 16:21: the pain of childbirth is exceedingly severe, and during labor it might not seem worth it at all. But when a mother holds her newborn, she is no longer considering the pain but only the joy that has been produced. In the same way, we can give thanks in all things, knowing that the difficulties, hardships, and sufferings are like the pains of labor, and that the outcome of proven character and certain hope is like holding the newborn baby. There is power in understanding what God has revealed about how He causes us to grow. His methods may be painful at times (see Hebrews 12:7–11), but the outcome is the peaceful fruit of righteousness. When our perspective is informed by His Word, giving thanks in everything makes perfect sense.