Thanks for Nothing

Praying woman

I spent the latter part of last week down with one of those nasty bugs which herald the changing of the seasons, so I decided to revisit an old post rather than writing a new article for today. I first published this piece almost exactly five years ago. –DV

It’s almost Thanksgiving, so you’ve probably been thinking more than usual about the things you have to be thankful for. Most of our lists will have roughly the same shape: gratitude for life and salvation, for friends and family, for work and leisure time, for troubles lifted and prayers answered. We’ll laugh and nod as we consider all the good that we and others have received, and we’ll feel a bit guilty for failing to be as grateful as we ought during the rest of the year when we don’t have a national holiday to help us remember, so we’ll resolve to be more aware of our blessings in the coming year. Even if some troubles weren’t lifted and some prayers went unanswered, we’ll try to focus on the good and give thanks for what we’ve been given. Yet in all this thanksgiving, we may well forget to give thanks for nothing.

Nothing is a gift we’ve all received at one time or another. It came to John the Baptist after he was arrested by Herod. The one about whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there is no one greater” lay in prison for months, stolen from his wilderness of river and desert to decay in a hole in the ground. He sent to the Messiah, the one of whom he’d prophesied, the one whom he’d baptized, and his only answer was “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” Nothing.

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Reasons for Hope, Part 3: About America

American flag

So far, my “Reasons for Hope” series has taken a narrow perspective, considering God’s promises of sanctification for individual believers, and then a big-picture one, considering God’s promises for the future. In this final article, I’m going to finish up in the middle, with a look at reasons for hope about our country and our place in it.

While patriotism should never shoulder aside the priorities of our faith, we still ought to care deeply about the state of our country. “Love your neighbor” naturally leads to an interest in our society and government, and in fact Paul instructed Timothy to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). In the Old Testament, God told his exiled people, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). God put us in a particular place at a particular time for a particular reason, so we have a degree of responsibility for “the welfare of our city” and ought to pray and act and feel accordingly.

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Reasons for Hope, Part 2: Confidence About the Future

I started this short “Reasons for Hope” series last week because it is so easy for us to fall into negativity and frustration about the news of the day and the state of our culture. The Bible, though, says that Christians can and even should be hopeful and joyful. Last week I considered a couple of very encouraging promises centered on the gift of sanctification which we receive from God as his children. Those promises were for individual believers in the here and now. Today, I want to look at the bigger picture and consider two reasons for hope about the future.

The first reason for optimism is that we are citizens of a victorious kingdom—and I’m not just talking about the final judgment. For two thousand years, and at this very moment, the kingdom of God has been expanding. If the Christian church was an empire, it would be the longest-lived, farthest-spread empire in history.

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Reasons for Hope, Part 1: Promises for You

Paying attention to the news is a good recipe for pessimism. I noticed the other day that most of what I read and much of what I write is fairly negative, always attacking this or complaining about that. Given the state of American culture and the American church, perhaps that is unsurprising or even necessary. But it is important to remember that even when events are discouraging and it seems like our culture is sliding rapidly downhill, Christians have every reason to be fundamentally optimistic. Today and next week, I’ll be considering a few reasons why we can be hopeful even when the news of the day is not. The first reason is that you and I have very practical promises of daily help from God himself.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel means that any discussion of God’s promises needs to start by noting what he did not promise. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise you health, wealth, or any other material indulgence if you can just conjure up enough “faith.” Rather, the Scriptures suggest that trials are an ordinary part of Christian life. Peter warns, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12), and the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (12:3,10). Of course, like Paul, we can and should pray that God would lift our trials, but, also like Paul, we must be prepared to be content if the answer is “no” (II Cor. 12:7-10).

Feeling the optimism yet? Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. One of the dangers of theological mistakes is that, in addition to misleading those who believe them, they also divert those who swing too far in the other direction. It is easy, in reaction against false prosperity-gospel promises, to act as if God has not offered any promises that might be relevant in the moments between our salvation and the day of final judgment. In fact, though, we have many remarkable promises for daily life, some of which I have discussed elsewhere. For the moment, I want to focus on two promises which I find particularly encouraging when I start to feel downcast about the state of the world.

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Remembering that sometimes things change

A devout Jew in the first century BC would have gone to the synagogue every Sabbath to hear teaching and readings from the Scriptures. Each week, men from the community would rise to read from the books of the Law and from the prophets who foretold a Messiah, scribes and respected elders would explain the meaning of these Scriptures to the people, and then they would all go home as another week cycled on past, as the people and the weeks had done for generation after generation. One imagines a middle-aged man and his family, from Capernaum, say; godly, careful to observe the Sabbath, there every week to listen as the old scrolls are opened and the thinning grey beards move over them in patient explanation. He might sit on the same bench where his father had sat, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, as they listened to the same words, promises so old they predated the worn stone walls around them. So they waited. And then, one Sabbath, someone from the audience rose to speak in the usual way, and the most unexpected thing happened: what they had been expecting. “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

One of the world’s greatest lies is that nothing ever really changes. Sure, Eve, eat that fruit–God may not be happy, but really, what’s the worst that could happen?

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