Giving Thanks in All Circumstances
“Give thanks in all circumstances!” This was the response that an amazing prisoner gave me, when I asked him how he maintained such a grateful spirit inside the medium security prison where he lived. I met this man during my weekly visits to a prison during my seminarian years. During our friendship that developed, this man shared that he was serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. Yet, while in prison he encountered Jesus Christ and had a radical conversion of faith.
Now, I’m not naïve to believe every so-called conversion that I hear about in prison or anywhere else, but what convinced me of the sincerity of this man’s change was how all the other prisoners in our group viewed this man. They saw something special in him, and received encouragement and support from him. Inside the prison, they witnessed the genuineness of his faith and the authenticity of his life in Christ.
So when I asked Carol what his secret was, he surprisingly responded, “To give thanks in all circumstances, you need to remember all the things in life for which we can be grateful, and then continuously thank God for them. I never focus on what I don’t have, or on how unfair life is, but I thank God for what I do have, and for the blessings He gives me each and every day. Such an attitude of gratitude radically changed my perspective on life.”
Now that sounds like good advice for anyone, but considering that it comes from someone who will spend the rest of his life in prison, it’s incredible! Giving thanks in all circumstances!
St. Paul highlighted this advice to the Church in Philippi when he himself languished in a prison and the Philippians suffered the threat of persecution. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he exhorted, “Again I say rejoice.” Here, the Apostle Paul suffered in prison and the Philippians lived under the fear of persecution, yet he encouraged them to maintain a spirit of joy and gratitude. Later in this same letter, St. Paul reveals his own secret of peace and joy: “For I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” In any and all circumstances, St. Paul learned to not only be content, but to actually carry a attitude of gratitude! And how could he do this? He revealed his secret in the same letter: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Christ is his source of contentment and the well-spring of his gratitude. In St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Thessalonica he highlighted, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In fact, throughout Paul’s letters, he admonishes his readers more than 50 TIMES to give thanks! “Give thanks to God at all times… Keep alert with thanksgiving… In whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God.”
Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, and seeing all of life – even its surprises, struggles, disappointments, and crises –is an extremely important spiritual discipline. It doesn’t come naturally or easily, but is a discipline we cultivate over time. I remember how Archbishop Anastasios would say that “one’s inability or forgetfulness of expressing gratitude reflects a serious spiritual sickness!” When we don’t express this spirit of gratitude, it reveals our pride. We do not thank others, because by thanking them, we must acknowledge that they have done something special for us. Our pride hinders us from thanking God because we don’t understand life itself as the most special and precious gift which God has given us.
We see the importance of expressing gratitude in today’s Gospel story. Ten lepers approach Jesus from a distance, crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Our Lord did not heal them immediately, but instead told them to go and show themselves to the priests. Maybe this was a test, to see whether their faith was sincere, or maybe it was a test to see whether they would return and express their gratitude to their Healer. Whatever the reason, as they began their journey to the priests, suddenly all ten realized that a miracle occurred! Their dreaded disease of leprosy disappeared!
Now comes the crux of the story. After seeing themselves healed, only ONE out of TEN returned to thank Jesus for the miracle. Only one out of ten!!!! It’s quite shocking to think that after such an incredible wonder, only one would made the effort to return and express gratitude to Christ. We can hypothesize that Maybe the others were grateful. Maybe they praised God in their hearts. Maybe they thought about going back to Jesus, but first wanted to go and share their good news with their family. Whatever their intentions, the fact remains that only one out of ten actually made the effort to return and thank Christ.
Unfortunately, how often do we imitate such ungratefulness? How many of us turn to God when we are in trouble or in need, yet when all goes well, we forget or ignore God. And the longer we dwell in our comfort and prosperity, the more we deceive ourselves into thinking that we deserve all that we have! We may even feel that we have earned our blessings through hard work, great effort, and our brains, forgetting who gave us our health, our physical strength, our intelligence, and even the chance to live in this country of great opportunity. How arrogant to think we have succeeded all on our own, without the grace and blessings of God!
We must learn to thank God daily for life itself, and for whatever life brings. Ultimately, if we believe that we have a loving Father in heaven who watches over us, than we must realize that this same loving Father will be with us in the midst of any and all surprises in life – both good and bad. He will walk with us, never abandon us, and help us learn and grow from every and any circumstance, no matter how seemingly difficult or unwanted. So we should strive to “give thanks in all circumstances!”
Remember, such a spirit of gratitude is an important spiritual discipline. As the noted spiritual writer Henri Nouwen reminds us: “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our live is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.”
Let’s make gratitude an integral part of our lives and interactions with others. Let us not be like the nine lepers, but imitate the one who took the time to thank Jesus and carried that spirit of thanksgiving with him wherever he went.
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