How Can We Give Thanks?


Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic and that there are many things worth saying in a second article. Most specifically I want to write on what seem to me necessary elements in giving thanks to God. If giving thanks to God is difficult these may be places to begin or to which to give attention.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalm tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


17 responses to “How Can We Give Thanks?”

  1. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Your four points concerning the goodness of God are neither trite nor worn; they bear repeated reading. Removing an ill-intent from an event connected with human hands, and awaiting the goodness of God to shine through the event, is the meddle of faith. My opinion is that theodicy leaves few without doubts about God’s goodness, but the Church persists despite it all to repeat the words of thanksgiving. Maybe I can “thank” my way into faith when I feel sad about things, or even when I feel powerless to help or change things.

    Please continue writing about this topic of thanksgiving.

  2. Elizabeth in Alaska Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Father, it brought tears to my eyes…

  3. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    To believe these about God’s goodness requires faith and faith requires experience of God’s trustworthiness. Experience of God’s faithful love makes one thankful and giving thanks to God strengthens our faith in God’s goodness. The mystery of God’s goodness can be entered at different points, but for thankless hearts there is no entrance.

  4. Fr. Raphael Johnston Avatar

    My dear brother Father Stephen –

    I truly appreciate your offering today on God’s infinite – and personal (from both His point of view and our own) – goodness. Thank God! I am expecially grateful for the witness of your father-in-law’s argument-ending declaration “Mark the manner of my death.” God grant me such faith and trust which endured in the face of (and beyond) death.

    It is difficult in our God-denying culture to not only remember but celebrate the reality of God’s goodness. Your reflection on “This is for his salvation” is especially apt. I continually tell people who ask for my prayers (God help them!) that I am pleased to pray for them “that God would grant their petitions which are unto salvation and eternal life.” But I often (just as often as I agree to pray for them it seems) have to remind tham that what we think is good for us likely often isn’t. And that what we are asking deliverance from may actually be exactly what we need at the moment. With that counsel I’ve even had a few folk tell me “Never mind, then, Father. I can do without THAT kind of prayer!”

    May God continue to bless your ministry on the web.

    Pray for me a weak brother.

    Fr. Raphael

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you all for your comments. I daily give thanks both for the conversations I had with this wonderful man of God, but his unwavering faithful witness through the more than 30 years I knew him. I am grateful that I learned the lessons he was teaching before he died. In our last several years, our joyful times of visiting with my in-laws, consisted especially in the mutual joy he and I found in simply discussing the goodness of God. He knew no greater joy, and I have had no greater.

  6. juliana Avatar

    He is good, but I am not. He gives such goodness, but it seems all I do is hurt it. That can make it hard for me to be thankful. Sometimes I wish He would stop giving it to me so perhaps I could stop hurting it, but I need it so much. I feel like such a blemish. I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say and perhaps I should not be trying to say it here. Please forgive me.

  7. jennyjuliana Avatar

    I struggle with really believing God’s goodness. I know it theoretically, but in my heart, I’m often waiting for his wrath.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I believe that the improper teaching of the “wrathful” God, coupled with other things in our culture has done as much religious harm as anything I can imagine – often bordering on religious abuse.

    First, it is God’s will to know Him and His goodness. So these difficulties we have can and will be healed. It took a large amount of time for this to take place in my own heart. Some of it before I was Orthodox, the rest afterwards. When I say the Creed each morning, I remind myself that the One God, Creator of Heaven and Earth is good. There is no creation except in goodness. And He has not come into the the world that the world might be condemned but that we might have life. He is a good God.

    It’s possible to place it in the Jesus Prayer. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, for you are good.”

  9. Sean Avatar

    Passing along the following video I found clicking through links of a tribute to Fr. Schmemann produced by CBS and narrated by Fr. Hopko:

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the Divine Liturgy, we sing about the ‘sacrifice of praise’. Is that an indication that giving thanks is not just about how we feel? Isn’t the Church tell us that praise is an offering; something we do even when we don’t feel like it, simply because it is the right response?

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. If my communications to God were simply a moment-by-moment update on my feelings, what a poor amount of blather it would be. Sometimes I’m crazy. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I’m full of unbelief. Sometimes I’m so swallowed in grief that I think I’ll die. But I am learning that I can give thanks in the midst of and even for all of these things – not because I feel good – but because God IS good. Amen! Amen! Amen!

  12. The Scylding Avatar

    His goodness remains in spite of our failings: A major shift in my theological worldview came when somebody told me to rmember Jacob: At the ned of his life, he attested to God’s sutenance, protection and blessing throughout his life. But now came the crunch: Remeber Jacob’s life – he tricked, (and thereby stole), he lied, he tricked some more, he fled, he lied some more, he had unruly kids etc etc. God’s goodness did not depend on his own goodness.

    That gave me great comfort in the face of many of my own struggles. God is Good.

  13. Rebecca Avatar

    I don’t know if you had heard this before, Father, but St. Clare of Assisi would rise in the morning and thank God for giving her another day to be loved by Him.

    Glory to God!

  14. Carl Avatar

    Sean, that video was quite nice to see. Thanks for linking to it.

  15. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Regarding point # 3: the perceived limits to goodness as the origin of envy. Father Stephen, your suggestion is very sensible, which is a quality of writing and thinking that motivates me to think as I act according to faith.

    God’s biography in the Hebrew Scriptures shows jealousy in it, such as in the Decalogue (Commandments 1 – 3) and in the Great and Minor Prophets. The word count on jealousy must be high in reference to God’s response to Israel’s apostacy.

    One wonders if there are different kinds of jealousy, therefore. The stories of the Greek gods depict a petty, inter-communion jealousy such as any one can see inside and outside the Church; it is of all stripes and nations. People–I included–act under the delusion that goodness is limited. The Greek gods wrote jealousy large, as they plotted against one another and the creatures called “man.”

    But God’s jealousy is different. God does not chase after humankind with monstrous threats in tow, but speaks in the ordinary or familiar things of life to open us to God’s presence.

    Would you say more about human beings as the source of the mythological kind of jealousy. Such petty jealousy seems to come from denying who we are and accepting who we think we are as substitution for the real self. Equally so, God remains jealous of our affection, love, and devotion…but not in the same meaning of the word.

    Late Middle English carried one meaning of jealousy, which was intense desire or love. Now God’s jealousy is narrowly defined as exclusivity or demanding worship as God (paraphrased from the Oxford English Dictionary).

  16. […] goodness, and our own health of soul, calls forth our thanksgiving. And Fr Stephen sets forth four things we must know in giving thanks (streaming mp3 audio from AFR here), the first of which is God’s goodness. To give thanks in […]

  17. dinoship Avatar

    Truly, even if the enemy deservedly drags us to the very depths of the blackest Hell, our Lord will be waiting to pull us out, merciful beyond all human comprehension, if only we turn to Him for a split second…
    Your posts bring tears to the eyes Father!

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