As we approach the holiday, we consider the practical meaning of the word “thanksgiving”. It appears many times in scripture, including this week’s passage from Colossians. How do we differentiate the Christian and secular forms of “thanksgiving”? Furthermore, apart from merely understanding it, how do we talk about it with people who do not share our faith?
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, 4 so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.
5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.
This passage is eminently practical. God opens many doors through which we can claim and proclaim our faith. But if we are going to be able to use those opportunities to ‘declare the mystery of Christ’, at least two things have to happen. We have to be able to articulate the ‘mystery of Christ’ in words. Then we have to be able to present those beliefs in ways that are consistent with his love. You can’t preach love with a sword. You can’t be respectful, much less inclusive, if you are busy telling people they are wrong or if you are insisting they agree. We have to conduct ourselves wisely and make the most of our time.
So first, we’ll look at a portion of the ‘mystery of Christ’. How would you describe that mystery? It is hard enough to find words within the faith community, much less use words of faith outside of our community. For ‘outsiders’ language about Jesus is a foreign language. In order to communicate our beliefs we not only need to understand them ourselves, we also need to translate them in ways ‘outsiders’ can understand. That is a difficult task.
We start to see the predicament in today’s very first verse Paul enjoins his readers to ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.’ He is in prison at the time. It seems counterintuitive that he would be emphasizing thanksgiving in such a place—prayer, perhaps, but not thanksgiving. How is it possible to be thankful when you have lost your freedom and your life is at risk? It is like being told to be thankful when you have a terminal illness or someone you love is suffering. Those predicaments do not evoke gratitude. They evoke despair, fear and those terrible ‘why’ questions. We need to make sense of the pain and joys of life and secularly we call one bad and the other good. Hence the book title, “Why do Bad things happen to Good people?’ The question itself reveals all kinds of assumptions that we make about ‘fairness’ and justice.
Paul’s words and attitude regarding thanksgiving highlight an important difference between a secular and a spiritual understanding of the word. Secularly, we are thankful for ‘good things’—we count our blessing and give thanks. On this scale, anything that enhances our lives—family, friends, relief from pain, healing, a promotion, etc. are instances to be remembered and appreciated. Even the phrase: ‘there but for the grace of God’, acknowledges that even if life is difficult, it could be a whole lot worse—and we give thanks.
It is extremely helpful to live life out of such gratitude. Such a tally is the rationale behind the ‘attitude of gratitude’. Don’t take your life for granted. But it is only part of what Christians mean when we give thanks. It never hurts to remember we live well but far beyond that gratitude is the idea that living well—or suffering hardship —is not an indication of the favor or disfavor of God. Our equating of ‘good’ and blessing as well as the reverse, the equation of suffering with God’s placing ‘trials and tests of our faith’ in our path—is false. It is all too human, but it is not Godly.
As Paul famously writes in Romans 8: 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Our life experiences will include hardship and suffering. They will include joy and blessing. But neither matter to Paul. God’s care for us is steadfast and cannot be measured. And it is certainly not measured by either our prosperity or by any particular relief from pain. God is not doling out life cards and changing the order for the faithful. We believe that it is God’s presence with us that is redemptive. It is that presence that allows us to have an abundant life—even as we experience great pain and grief. We can not explain or arbitrate the circumstances of this life, we can only ask “How will I live and love in those circumstances. We can be in prison, be disabled or have cancer but we live in the confidence that God is with us.
Suffering cannot be avoided, but Christians can be safe with God in the midst of it. That is an entirely different kind of thanksgiving. Instead of worrying about why bad things happen to good people or seeking to explain the inexplicable, we realize that ‘trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, fear and conflict’ are part of the stuff of life, and we believe that God is with us through it all. The questions change. Instead of asking “Why?”, we ask, “How can I live and love now.” That was and is Paul’s testimony—even in prison. That is the mystery of the Christ. That is something to be thankful for and something to rely upon. And it is far different than our ordinary tallying up of the ‘good’ in our lives at our Thanksgiving tables.
Understanding this difference between secular and Christian thanksgiving is only one example of the clarity that is required if we are to give witness to what we believe. Ours is a saving faith and every time someone asks ‘why’ or ‘how could God let that happen?’ or any time there is a discussion of values either personal or political, God is opening a door for us articulate and claim our faith. We are given the opportunity to explain how our faith informs our living, our decisions and our politics. In traditional language, it is our opportunity to give testimony.
But, in our century, it is not sufficient to say we believe in Jesus. If we are to communicate our faith we have to translate our faith claims into the language of the listener. That is always difficult because it requires us to learn a new language and to translate our faith into it. It is one of the important reasons we meet and study.
Paul had the same difficulty in his day and he counsels us to ‘Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.’ Practically speaking, I’d like to address two points. First is: how things are said makes a difference and the second refines the point: we can disagree and speak hard truths (seasoned with salt) but we cannot be self righteous about our convictions (we must be gracious).
It is contradictory to preach of the gospel of love while insisting on having the one true way. The way of Christ includes those who disagree and those who don’t ‘get’ who we are. One woman described a work setting in which she was episodically challenged in the face of injustice—’OK church lady, how do you explain that?” There is no convincing there is only ‘I do not know, but I believe living and loving still matter.’ Perhaps that is why we are called ‘fools for Christ.’ Our testimony is not logically defensible, yet we hold to our faith that following Jesus leads us to the abundant life.
Finally, being respectful and inclusive does not translate into withholding your truth. Paul tells us to be gracious but he also calls us to be salty. Those two belong together. Salt enhances flavor but too much salt is offensive. I am often called to ‘speak the truth’ in a counseling room, but I try to be ever mindful that ‘too much’ can be hurtful or punitive.
Stating our faith claims is far different that trying to convince someone that they should believe—or that we are ‘right’, God opens many doors for us to claim our faith. It is Good News, and it is our responsibility to share that news—with our words and our lives. Often it is not something we are very good at, but it remains the challenge before us—in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1Peter 1:8-9
Live and share the abundant life no matter where you find yourself. Let it be so.