The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks

The mark of a soul that loves wisdom always gives thanks to God. If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations. It is not we who are injured but those who are the authors of them. – St. John Chrysostom


My experience in writing and teaching about the life of thanksgiving has had a fairly consistent response. I find general agreement among readers when I write that we should “give thanks to God in all things,” meaning that we give thanks to God despite our circumstances – the relationship of thanksgiving is removed from the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

I have a completely different response when I write about giving God thanks for all things. The insane activity (or so it would seem) of giving God thanks for the cancer one has, or for the tragic death of a child or other loved one, is more than many people can bear.

How thankful should we be and for what should we be thankful?

St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:20 that we should be “giving thanks always for all things unto God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is not ambiguous. The underlying Greek uses the construction [hyper panton] which cannot be interpreted as “in” all things. It clear means “thanks for all things.”

The quote from St. John Chrysostom given above echoes this same commandment:

If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations.

The scandalous nature of the commandment, to my mind, underlines its place within the Kingdom of God. Anyone can give thanks for good things, or even give thanks to God despite the bad things that surround them. But the purposeful giving of thanks for even the bad things, is repulsive. It is this very plunging into the heart of the repulsive that carries the mark of the Cross. The Cross “makes Him to be sin who knew no sin.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Where is the justice in that? There is no justice – only love. It is the same love that is “gathering together in one all things in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:10).

The life that we are called to live as Christians is the “eucharistic” life [eucharistein=to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity. In living out this calling, we fulfill the “priesthood of all believers.” That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ.

We are commanded to love our enemies (many of the fathers also teach that we should give thanks to God for our enemies).

There is no “limited atonement.” Christ is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is no modifying clause, nothing that delimits what sins it is Christ takes away. From an Orthodox understanding, Christ’s descent into hades (at the moment of His death) is an entrance into the whole of human sin, the fullness of our emptiness.

It is the good God who loves mankind who offers Himself on our behalf, and also makes it possible for us to be united to His offering. We become creatures of the Eucharist, and are transformed from grace to grace into the image of Christ, becoming eucharistic beings. We become what we were always created to be.

The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.

There is no two-storey universe of thanksgiving. We give thanks always for all things – else we risk giving thanks for nothing at all. I understand that this is a hard word for many and I do not say these things lightly. I know the pain of losing a child, of murders within my family, of tormenting disease ravaging loved ones, and all the tragedy that is common to most. And yet I have seen no other way towards healing and reconciliation other than the fullness of giving thanks as taught in the Scripture.

Glory to God for all things!

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.





54 responses to “The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks”

  1. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    I caught a couple of minor typos (then you can delete this):

    “. . . Christ descent . . .” should be “. . . Christ’s descent . . .”

    And “I no the pain of losing . . .” should be “I know the pain of losing . . .”

  2. davidperi Avatar

    Thank you for posting…this is a very difficult lesson(s) to learn….especially in sickness/disease and other health issues.

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  4. Margaret Avatar

    I so appreciate your posting these words! I can read: There is no “limited atonement.” all day long as I need to pray continually with Thanksgiving in all things. So very difficult to do and so very much the absolute truth. Glory to God for All Things!

  5. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Once again, you have clarified a very troubling concept that certainly appears illogical on the surface. Thank you for your keen insight into these issues.

  6. maryxmas Avatar

    Reading your last two posts, I have the strangest feeling that you’re writing specifically to me…This is very hard and very good news. How can I now consciously limit God’s grace in my life by refusing to give thanks for an extended illness? Thank you.

  7. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Dear maryxmas: I feel the same way.

  8. Galatian Avatar

    The post makes me think immediately of Corrie ten Boom’s account of the lice in the concentration camp. Her sister insisted they thank God for the lice. Only later did they realise it was the lice who kept the guards out of their block – enabling the women to hold impromptu services (which were highly ecumencial: catholic, orthodox, protestant all worshipping together ).

  9. Thomas Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    How are you certain that “huper” would be best translated as ‘for’. Most literally, it means ‘above’ or ‘over’ (<PIE *su-per-; Latin super; French sur; Eng. over, etc.). Certainly it does not mean "in all things", but how is one sure this is not a command to give thanks and praise "more than"/"above and beyond" all things?

  10. Peter Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    I see the truth in this, but I wonder if one should ever be thankful for actual sin or evil in itself. When ill befalls your enemies, should you be thankful for that? Or when someone is condemned to Hell, should that be an instance of thanksgiving? So ALL THINGS might mean “Things that are of God” which can of course include suffering we experience, which God can use for good.

  11. Karen Avatar

    Thomas, good question. “Over” or “above” makes sense to me as well. I immediately thought of how one prays a blessing “over” a meal before eating in the traditional Jewish or Christian manner. In that context, it is understood that we are offering thanks “for” the meal as well, so I don’t see Fr. Stephen saying something different than this about difficulty and suffering. When even these circumstances are offered to God and we give a sacrifice of praise for them, they are redeemed for His purposes.

    Yet I think it probably good to make a distinction that we offer thanks for evil circumstances, not in their meaning in and of themselves, but only as they are redeemed for God’s purpose. We can give thanks “over” Christ’s crucifixion and death, not because His suffering was good in and of itself, but because, through this, Christ in His love came near to us at our deepest point of need and destroyed the power of sin and death by the power of His Resurrection. At the Eucharist, the Priest gives thanks over the blessed Bread, not just because it is ordinary bread nourishing our bodies, but because it has become for us the very Body of Christ enlivening our souls and bodies. It seems to me this is a call to transcend all things temporal, entering into the Eternal meaning by faith.

    Fr. Stephen’s challenge puts me in mind of the following Scriptures from 1 Peter 4:1-2:

    Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

    Because of our disordered and idolatrous attachments to temporal goods, in His wisdom many times God allows them to be withdrawn from us, that we may learn to attach ourselves to Him above all else and thus be transformed.
    By offering thanks for all things, we cooperate with God’s grace to make everything in our lives, good and bad, serve only the ultimate Good resulting in our salvation.

    St. Nicholai Velimirovic’s Prayer for Enemies is a beautiful example of this attitude:

  12. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    I live in a country area. When I drive into town to pick up supplies, I encounter a lot of crazy drivers. Things are often hectic and conjested: streets, parking, road construction. When I get back home safely–when I pull my car up the driveway–I thank God that, again, I did not have a car accident. According to todays’ post, am I wrong to be thankful for the bad things that did not happen?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    In Greek, the preposition “hyper” can also mean “in behalf of” or “for”. Like English, prepositions in most languages are hard to translate. Here, the natural use and meaning of “hyper” would simply be “for.” It is the normal expression for that meaning.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The harder it is to give thanks, the more scandalous the act, the deeper the mystery. But I would make no exceptions.

  15. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    I do not want to sound absurd: but are we supposed to be thankful for 9/11? For the innocent people that were killed? For Al-Quaeda or Hamas? How do we spiritually redeem or transcend 9/11–given that it was a political or ideological act? I know this is getting complicated–but my mind is wandering on this–how do we distinguish this from Jerry Falwal’s remarks on 9/11?

    I am also thinking of the novel, Les Miserables, where the priest let the thief (Jean Valjean) get away with stealing the candlesticks, and how this was redeemed by the end of the novel. Of course, Valjean was obviously a very poor and hungry man. But, I can see how the priest would be thankful for the opportunity to do something that had a lasting imprint on someone–in other words, to be thankful that the candlesticks were stolen and to have faith that his response would possibly lead to a postive outcome.

  16. Anna Avatar

    I was told recently that we often do not have the discernment to know whether something is evil or good. I think especially out of that weakness, we can thank God, knowing that in all things He is good, and in the face of all real and perceived evil in our lives, He works salvation throughout the whole world.

    Sometimes I wonder if giving thanks is a admonition that needs to be embodied in each person. Let me explain… Perhaps the specific injustices within other societies, or within others lives are not something for which we are specifically responsible to give thanks, like giving thanks for the suffering of each person in 9/11. But what I can do, is give thanks within my own life, and the suffering that 9/11 has brought through my connection with and love for all those and the nations connected to it. And in my small life, I can begin to redeem the tragedy and turn it back to Christ. Is that boxing things up too much, Fr. Stephen?

  17. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you, Anna, I really appreciate your explanation about the possibility that thanksgiving should be embodied rather than generalized. It seems to make sense within the context of our communal existence.

  18. Karen Avatar

    Aunt Melanie, good questions!

    Re: 9/11 I suppose, as difficult as it is, we can be thankful for it, because it is a continual reminder to all of our helplessness and need for God (and it awakened many Americans from the stupor of a false sense of security in the might of their own nation). It is a reminder of the transience of this life, of the need to forgive and express love to others while we have them with us, and of the need to examine our lives in light of the inevitability of our mortality and final judgment before God. It is a reminder that even the greatest human power and wealth cannot protect us from these inevitabilities. We can also give thanks for it because it became the occasion of a demonstration of real heroism on the part of many to help and rescue others, which points in a vivid way to the true potential of our humanity made in the image of God and spurs others also onto love and good deeds. We can give thanks for Al Quaeda because it reminds us of what slaves we become to our sinful inclinations and to the demons when we are without hope in the true and living God. Their activities have been the occasion for many to concern themselves with others outside of their own community and nation and consider the needs of millions of vulnerable poor in Islamic nations. They are a vivid illustration that if one member of the body of humanity suffers, then all suffer with it. These are just some of my thoughts and are certainly not exhaustive.

    All evil inevitably points us to our need for God and our intrinsic interdependence with all of creation and especially fellow human beings, for good or evil. When we become aware of that and struggle to connect with God and others in a redemptive way, this results in our salvation.

    I would say this attitude is a far cry from the character of comments made by Jerry Falwell and others in the wake of this and other tragedies, such as Hurricane Katrina, in which such events are framed as God’s “judgment” in a punitive-as-an-end-in-itself way. Even if we must understand some suffering as God’s punishment/chastisement, it is clear from Scripture that such chastisement is only the means to an end that has our ultimate healing and rescue in mind.

    “Les Mis” is a beautiful illustration of the power of grace to triumph over evil and the ultimate impotence of man’s ideas of justice! Great example!

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Aunt Melanie, et al.
    Such tragedies as 9/11 are real and they are truly tragic – as is much of sin and its consequences. To some degree I think that our culture lives within a mindset that we should “love our friends and hate our enemies” even though we would never state it that way. The giving of thanks is not saying that something is not tragic, or painful or evil in its actions, rather to give thanks is to confess God’s goodness and the triumph of His goodness over all things. To give thanks is to sing to God from the belly of the whale. In that circumstance (which prefigures Christ’s descent into Hades) Jonah says:

    When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; (Jonah 2:7-9).

    The Incarnation of Christ into a broken and fallen world, is God’s song of thanksgiving within this foreign land. Our offering of thanksgiving is an act of worship, not an explanation of cause and effect. It is the confession of the goodness of God when the enemy seeks to force from us a denial. It is the joyful song of the martyrs, the hymn of the Three Young Men in the furnace. We join the Great Chorus when we make our song of thanksgiving. It is the song of heaven.

  20. Merry Avatar

    Wow. This is a very strong message, but absolutely right! I too have lost a child to death, loved ones to terrible diseases and accidents. Each of us has known tragedy that thanking God for must indeed seem insane.
    It is truly the way to survive and allow healing to come back into our lives, our hearts, and our spirits. Three yrs ago I lost my beloved husband of only 7 1/2 months to by-pass surgery. I had endured much in the past, and had finally found a really good and loving husband. When he was taken, I was so angry with God! I felt abandoned, betrayed (all the prayers for his life went unanswered), and was in terrible pain. Had you told me to thank God for what I was living with then, I would not have understood how that was possible. Now, I will say I thank God every day for what happened, and the good that God has brought from it. I realized, after much prayer and grief, that it was never about “me” – it was about my late husband. He had not been a Christan, but living with me and my openly practicing my faith, had gradually led him to where he mentioned God the night before the surgery. He was believing in a good outcome. He never woke from the surgery, but was in a brain injured and eventually brain dead coma. I babtized him with water from the tap, after he had been declared brain dead, and had been totally non-responsive for 8 days. The moment I babtized him in the trinitarian babtism, he startled – like a normal person you threw water in their face. His eyes flew open, and for about 3 min. he was “there”. He could blink his eyes and wiggle his toes when asked to. Then he was gone again.
    I believe it was the Holy Spirit – letting me know he was forgiven and taken into Jesus’s kingdom. He was at peace for the first time since the Viet Nam war, and we took him off life support the next day.
    I was devastated, but God had an even larger plan for my life. He had a widower and his son who needed me, and who brought me to the place that God truly wanted me to be. (We were truly a “lifeline” for each other.) I was led to Christian Orthodoxy thru Michael and Garrison, and have been blessed with the most wonderful, loving, and amazing husband, marriage, and faith I could ever have imagined. At 63 yrs old, I am happier than I have ever been, and have found where I truly belong. Thanking God for what seems like the worst things in our lives is how we say to God that we trust Him to care for us.
    That we give Him thanks in even the hardest things – knowing it will allow Him to bring them to good – in His time. Not easy, but a part of including Him and trusting Him in every part of our lives.
    Fr. John is leading us in a way that truly allows us to heal – thru God.
    Thank you for publishing this wonderful reminder today. I am struggling with pain and injury to a knee and God has brought good thru even that.

  21. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for the clarification!

    It seems to me part of what you are saying is the reason to be thankful is that even in the worst of circumstances, God in His goodness is still here with us faithful to complete His triumph over all evil. This ultimately is the only, and always sufficient, reason to give thanks.

    Consequently, the possible temporal good effects that I suggested coming out of 9/11, as one example, are only possibilities because the transforming presence of God with us enables them to become such. One thing that is troubling about looking for good effects out of evil events as THE reason (rather than only A reason) to give thanks is that it implies that the evil was somehow intrinsically necessary to give birth to the good. This is patently false and repugnant to the gospel. IOW, there are other ways in which we could have been made aware of the needs of others and our need for God, etc. Again I’m reminded of David Bentley Hart’s excellent work in “The Doors of the Sea” and indebted to his insights in that book about the genuine Christian response and attitude to the problem of evil and suffering.

    Another troubling thing about looking for “good effects” out of evil as the reason to give thanks is the point of Anna’s comment, particularly her first paragraph, about our lack of discernment. It reminds me of a story of the Desert Fathers I read once (if I can find it, I’ll post a link). In any case, the story illustrated that we lack this discernment of whether a particular happening in our lives is actually “good” or “bad” with regard to serving God’s good purpose for our ultimate well-being because we can’t see where all events in our life when completed will lead us, only their immediate results, whether pleasurable or painful. Our confession of God’s goodness in thanksgiving for every event, good or evil, is a confession of faith that He will indeed direct all for our good and salvation and restore to us all that has been lost when we entrust ourselves and our circumstances to Him.

    BTW, like Maryxmas above, this post and your comments in this thread address a question that has been on my mind a lot as I have tried to minister to a friend who has battled physical and emotional pain nearly all her life and especially acute physical battles over the past several years since I have known her (numerous surgeries and several brushes with death among them). She is a Christian, but struggles greatly not to see her circumstances as God’s punishment for things she feels guilty for and which she is often tempted to try to bargain her way out of by “being good” on the one hand, or on the other hand, unfair, undeserved, and evidence of God’s indifference to her pain and reason to despair. I’m always looking for a word that will encourage her faith, but mostly I’m at a loss because her pain is often quite severe and always unrelenting. Generally, I have accepted that any words will fall short, and whatever demonstration of real care I can provide is what is most needed.

  22. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Can the ‘tree of life’ and ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ apply to this post? At the heart of giving thanks in all things, is the simple reminder that I am not God…life is availabe to me fully only in Him; while death lies as I elevate myself to God convinced I know what is good and evil without Him. Thus, life depends upon me finding Him in all things….and faith that He is and He is Good…especially when every ounce of me says otherwise. I like your recent post about ‘showing up’. Finding God where I’m convinced He isn’t seems to me an aspect of the exercise of faith ‘showing up’. I love the ‘sacrifice of praise’ in the Psalms and Hebrews. This is what showing up looks like especially through the tears I shed as I ‘sacrifice’ my desire to be judge, jury, and convict God of not being Good and not being Here; and instead praise Him as ‘everywhere present, fillest all things, treasury of good gifts, and giver of life’ with the simple faith that my eyes are too blind to see.

  23. Thomas Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Yes, ‘huper’ can mean “on behalf of”. That is a minority use of the word and a semantic extension from “over”. If ‘huper’ usually (and/or originally) means something closer to “over”, “above”, “beyond”, etc., and that meaning can fit for this reading, what is the justification for saying it means “on behalf of”. Is there a reason why you do not read this verse: “always giving thanks *above all* in the name of our Lord…”?
    I am not expressing an opinion or trying to argue. I was hoping you would know if there be a commentary or any sort of allusion by church fathers to this verse, which would help us understand its intended meaning. The simple fact the word in Koine was polysemous does not mean it has the “on behalf of” (or any other specific) reading.

  24. Andrew Smith Avatar

    @Karen – aren’t we told that, at least sometimes, God makes good things happen out of evil things (Genesis 50:20)? It would seem that God can work with making good things happen out of bad, even if it’s not immediately obvious.

  25. Karen Avatar

    Well, yes, Andrew, I believe He does work all things for the benefit of those who love Him as the oft-quoted Romans 8:28-29 states. That is a very hope-filled promise (and the OT story of Joseph is one of my favorites, as I’m sure it is for many). In my comment, one thing I intended to stress that evil is not *necessary* (as some Christian thinkers have rationalized) to the accomplishment of God’s purposes, neither does God cause evil that good might come out of it (although He permits it and works through it). I thank God that He does redeem and transfigure for His good purposes even what evil men and demons intend for harm. I was also reflecting on Fr. Stephen’s clarification that the command to give thanks does not rest upon seeing the good effects that come about from supposed evil “causes,” but upon faith in the presence of God and in HIs ultimate triumph over all evil even through the most painful and tragic of circumstances.

  26. Andrew Smith Avatar

    My apologies, Karen, I didn’t intend to say otherwise. I also dislike the idea that evil is necessary.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thomas, interestingly, it is Chrysostom’s Homily XIX that is quoted in the article, specifically commenting on the verse in question in Ephesians. It simply is not the way one would construct the sentence “giving thanks above all things…” There are some things that become obvious with a great deal of reading (of Greek). That it is a “minority” usage of hyper is insignificant. In this context, the fathers read it in the same manner as is found in its traditional English translation.

  28. Karen Avatar

    No apology necessary, Andrew!

  29. Peter Avatar

    I don’t know if I quite buy this or not. I will have to think and pray about it. There is tendency in some christian circles to think that the thing that runs counter to common sense is always in some mysterious way right. I don’t have a problem with being thankful to God for things that happen, but if one loves others, how can one be thankful for evil befalling them, especially the ultimate evil of eternal damnation? If I hate someone, then it would be easy to be thankful for their misfortune. Come to think of it, I can’t think of an instance in the New Testament where Jesus gives thanks for evil happening to others, or being thankful for the sin of somebody. I believe God can make good come of evil, but to be thankful for the evil itself makes it seem like one loves the evil.

  30. Peter Avatar

    Ok, now I realize why this is nagging at me. Something is this seems off, and now I know what it is. It is the difference between self and other that is bothering me. To illustrate, think of Christ’s admonition to give the thief the shirt off your back as well as your wallet. This obviously applies in the personal, being directed to each individual. It does not apply in the third person. If your neighbor is being robbed, it would be wrong for you to encourage the thief to take more, obviously. Or take forgiveness. We are admonished by Christ to forgive those that sin against us. We are not instructed to forgive on behalf of our neighbor. If my neighbor is wronged by a person, and the three of us are standing together, It is not my place to tell the wrongdoer I forgive him, as I am not the party that has been wronged. It is for the person that is the victim to forgive. It is the same thing here with thanksgiving. I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to enter someone else’s story, as it were, to give thanks to God for what is happening to them. That is between them and God. My job is to pray for them and help in any way I can. Where I should be thankful for suffering is when it is happening to ME, not to others. I think this is the source of much confusion in christian circles, and why some go for a soft on crime or pacifist approach to evil and aggression in the world.

  31. Scott Morizot Avatar

    Peter, I would say we are to offer back to God thanksgiving for all things in our lives. Perhaps if we were able to do that, the scope of the things for which we give thanks would expand. I can’t say. When we see evil happening to others, our response should be love. And that is hard because love requires that we willfully act for their good. Our response should be pastoral.

    I think perhaps a good example would be Joseph son of Jacob. He tells his brothers at the end of the story that what they meant for evil — and their actions were certainly evil — God meant for good. Joseph is a type of Christ it seems. The patriarchs are called righteous because they did not worship other gods. They remained faithful to God in that sense. But they were often far from what might seem righteous in their actions. Joseph is not like that. At every step he remains not just faithful in his worship, but faithful in his life. And it seems he did not fail in his trust and in giving thanks to God even as evil upon evil was heaped upon him.

    Yes, there is evil. Like others who have posted, I’m not personally unfamiliar with evil. I wouldn’t say I’m able to give thanks for all things at this point, but I do recognize that all those things have shaped who I am and I can see at least glimmers of God working through them all. I do not desire a different life than the one that I have had. And I can begin to see in Christ the way God was with me in anything I suffered — how he understands it.

    If God is God, then evil cannot have the same sort of reality as God. It is not just that God brings evil out of good. God destroys evil. But he destroys it by entering it and making the worst that it can do into good. The ultimate expression of that, of course, is the Cross.

    At least, those are the thoughts that run through my mind. Forgive me if they go astray.

  32. Thomas Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I am afraid in your post there is no apparent co-reference between St Chrysostom’s homily and the Ephesians verse, beyond the vague subject of ‘giving thanks’. However, are his words not simply the same construction (with ‘huper’ … I do not have access to the Greek homily)? The most common ways to express giving thanks to s.o. for s.t. in Greek were eucharisteo: + DAT (recipient) + (epi + DAT) or (peri + GEN). This is found both in Classical and Koine (including by St Paul). Where ‘huper’ has the meaning of ‘on behalf’/’for’, it appears to be closer to a beneficiary than a cause. This is ‘for’ (because of/due to X) vs. ‘for’ (for the benefit of/in place of X), and herein it is the English preposition ‘for’ that is more ambiguous than the Greek.
    I would say this is more typical Greek: (I Corinthians 1:4) “eucharisto: to:i theo:i (mou) pantote peri humo:n (*beneficiary) epi te:i chariti (*cause) tou theou…” … whereas uses of ‘huper’ can be clearly beneficiary…Eph 1:16 “ou pauomai eucharisto:n huper humo:n mneian poioumenos epi to:n proseucho:n mou” (giving thanks ‘on behalf of you’, not ‘because of you’).
    This is why if I just pick up Ephesians in Greek, it would not be my first inclination to read Eph 5:20 as you have. My (classicist) wife has read your blog faithfully for almost two years and neither of us see that this is “obvious” (so obvious it is inexplicable?). Your answer, implying that your knowledge of Greek was superior to all your blog readers, seems to be aimed at defusing trolling comments not left in good faith. But that is not the case here. If this not be the proper forum to discuss how to interpret scripture with philological analysis, then please suggest another forum. The answer that “it is just so” is not satisfying.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Don’t we run the risk of being thankful for sin?

    What of the commands to struggle, to wage war against sin?

    I may, at some point, thank God that I got caught in a sin and thereby led to repentance, but to thank God that I am a sinner?

  34. Peter Avatar

    Thanks Scott. What you say rings true to me. I suppose my objection may sound like a quibble, but I need to work these things out in my own mind.

  35. Valja Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Your reflection for today was indeed difficult and has lead to much discussion in our home. (I am Thomas the earlier commenter’s wife). I was actually the one who originally brought this entry to his attention. I can assure you that he was not trying to provoke an argument for its own sake and meant no disrespect to you personally. While we are not theologians — his background is originally in Slavic and Indo-European philology and I am a Classicist (BA and MPhil, done, DPhil. in progress) — we do our best to understand these texts in the original. Certainly you are right to point out that we have much to learn, we do (especially myself). I am less used to reading Koine than my husband (due to our research interests, I spend my time with the Aeschylean corpus and he reads Biblical texts). which is why I asked him to review the uses of ‘hyper’ in the NT with me. That was how we discovered that ‘hyper’ as ‘for’ in the sense of ‘because of’ or ‘directly in response to’ is a less common reading. Again, you are right to point out that that fact in itself doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read that way (I myself have argued for less commonly accepted readings of various words and phrases in Eumenides, so I know that one cannot make these kinds of judgements on the basis of statistics alone). Further, it is the case (as you stated) that the usual translation of this phrase in English is ‘for all things’, but I think that is most likely due to the fact that ‘hyper’ becomes ‘pro’ in the Vulgate (a preposition which is functions very similarly to ‘hyper’, at least in Classical Latin). So, I think the difficulty here is really the English preposition ‘for’, which is remarkably unclear itself in many ways.

    Thank you for providing the reference to Chrysostom’s homily. Unfortunately, I was only able to find it online in English (I am not very good at searching the internet in Modern Greek, so if there is a Greek site with his homilies in the original, I would be glad to know about it). My reading of the translation, though, gives me the impression that Chrysostom is writing about giving thanks in difficult circumstances, or in the face of evils, but not necessarily for those difficulties or evils. I am thinking particularly of these lines:

    What is required is, for a man to give thanks when he is in afflictions, in anguish, in discouragements. Utter no word in preference to this, Lord, I thank you. (Not, Lord, I thank you for my permanent disability, or for the death of my family member, etc.)

    He does go on to specifically state that we should give thanks for the evils of Hell:

    It is our duty to give God thanks, even for hell itself, for the torments and punishments of the next world. For surely it is a thing beneficial to those who attend to it, when the dread of hell is laid like a bridle on our hearts.

    This, however, amounts to giving thanks for a deterrent, something that would motivate even stubborn people, like myself, to repent. It seems to me, though, that it would be quite different, to thank God for having been raped. And what of the rapist? Are we commanded to thank God for the rapist’s action as well? I have heard that kind of argument before, but only from radical Calvinists whose positions force them to make God the source of evil. I know that is not your position, so I would really appreciate it if you would elaborate on this point. (Mr. Bauman’s questions seem very appropriate).

    I am fully prepared to accept that these arguments, philological and otherwise, are simply my way of rejecting this very bitter pill. (Certain personal circumstances make this kind of thinking very hard for me to accept). Still, I think that many good questions have been posted here in response, and sometimes the veracity of a thing does not render questions unimportant.

    My husband wrote a follow-up comment containing many of these observations, but I notice it has yet to be posted. I know you moderate your posts, but I hope this does not mean he has been totally blocked from the forum, as his questions were asked in good faith.

  36. Karen Avatar


    Likely your husband’s comment is not being blocked, but sometimes comments get hung up in Fr. Stephen’s spam filter (misdirected by the program). I’ve had that happen to me, and generally Fr. Stephen ends up finding them and adding them back to the thread. Likely, it will appear eventually, especially since your comment will alert him to look in the spam filter. Your work sounds interesting. Good questions, too!

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    My apologies to all…I was en route to South Carolina to visit my ailing father today and was thus unable to answer (or clear the spam problem that had Thomas’ comment hung up).
    Thomas, your philological points (as well as Valja’s) are well made – I do not mean to disparage them. I thought my comment viz. “reading lot’s of Greek” was indeed a bit arrogant of me (I ask forgiveness). I was trained in the Classics (it’s my B.A.) and I’ve read the NT in koine (as well as liturgical texts) since college (some near 40 years now). I do not claim to be a scholar, but there are times that “how something feels” is a good answer. I can recall being corrected in class on occasion by a professor who would say, “You will not see it that way.” I cannot profess such prowess.

    I see Valja’s point, though I read Chrysostom as seeing the verse as I had rendered it – (“giving thanks for hell”) seems rather bold.

    If I might suggest a thought… God is the cause of our thanksgiving because He is good and works us good. It is the overwhelming goodness of God alone that makes it possible to give thanks for all things. Were these things taken by themselves, I dare say we could not give thanks. But we can give thanks because the good God is triumphant.

    A subtle problem comes in (I think) when we begin to make the distinctions between “I can give thanks for this, but not this.” The problem is a subtle one of the heart. I think what St Paul and St. John Chrysostom (and other fathers) are asking is extreme and a very hard word indeed. It even seems crazy on the surface. I do not deny any of that.

    As Michael Bauman notes, there is the fear of “giving thanks for sin,” though I can think of any number of situations in which this is precisely the right thing to do. I know many recovering alcoholics who give thanks for the alcoholism (and all that it entailed) for without it they would not have found sobriety.

    St. Paul himself speaks of “boasting of his weaknesses or infirmities,” that he might be found not with a righteousness of his own but that which is his in Christ Jesus.

    I think the kind of thanksgiving St. Paul and St. John are speaking of, is a thanksgiving that takes us to the very depths of hell (and smashes the gates with its sound of rejoicing).

    The Elder Sophrony (disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite) once said to Archimandrite Zacharias (from whom I heard the story), “If you will give God thanks always for all things, you will have fulfilled the saying that God gave to St. Silouan, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’

    I have only known a few individuals who walked by this rule, but in those individuals, I have seen great spiritual fruit. I should add on a personal note, that one of those individuals was my father-in-law, with whom I argued this point for at least 20 years (he was an amazingly patient man). I was finally overwhelmed by the reality of this “way of life” in his own Christian walk. Thus the last number of years in his life, I came to agree with him and have sought to practice this as well (though I am a beginner and often enough, even forget to try).

    But if this troubles anyone too much, set it aside. I am an ignorant man and would not cause you trouble.

    I deeply appreciate your faithfulness in reading the blog, and in engaging it (and me) seriously. It means very much to me. Richest blessings! Thomas, you are blessed to be married to a classicist! At least my wife would say so!

  38. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I hope your father is feeling better. I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments–even though, academically, I realize that I am way out of my league here. Thank you to everyone for sharing your knowledge. It is so beneficial to have all this information and commentary in one place.

  39. Henry Avatar


    “giving thanks always for all things unto God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ,”

    That scripture is pretty clear, but I note that even St. John Chrysostom finesses the point. “Give thanks even in,” is not the same thing as give thanks for.

    So how do we do we give thanks for all things without becoming intellectually dishonest, engaging in extreme linguistic gymnastics, or becoming fatalistic? How do we find the motivation to continue in the fight against, “Disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations,” if we are thankful to God for their very existence?

    I understand that the big picture is under control, and yet…

    Haiku by Issa

    This dewdrop world
    Is a dewdrop world
    And yet


  40. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti


  41. Andrew Smith Avatar

    @Henry: Just a note on something that’s occured to me before – it isn’t intellectually dishonest, IMHO, to say that while we should do something, we fail to do so. It’s inadequate, but unless I’m mistaken, it’s not dishonest.

  42. mic Avatar

    as difficult as all of this is…especially to the Western mind (even one who has converted to Orthodoxy), i find a single sentence in one of your above responses exceeding powerful.

    “It is the confession of the goodness of God when the enemy seeks to force from us a denial.”

    that not only makes a lot of sense to me, it really sums up a great deal in such a small amount of words.

    thank you for the post, and for expounding upon it.

    on a side note, i recently watched my own father wither up and die from cancer. during his wretched illness his body was racked with pain, and during all of that, i could still hear him continuously saying under his weak breath “thank you, Lord!”. his witness struck me deep, as i was bitter over many things, and he, although dying, did not lose sight of the goodness of God.

    Glory to God for all things!


  43. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks. It is a difficult word and yet so important. I think.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

  44. Nonna Avatar

    Has anyone here read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts? She is not an Orthodox Christian, but she has beautifully described and explained how she’s learned to live a life in eucharisteo… She calls giving thanks to God for the struggles and difficulties of life the hard eucharisteo… It’s a beautiful book…

  45. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Nonna, I have had that book in the back of my mind as one to get soon, if possible. Thank you for your personal recommendation. I look forward to reading it.

  46. […] Father Stephen on Salvation and Thankfulness. […]

  47. Valja Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful reply. Having let this issue sit a while (I have been trying to spend less time online generally, with mixed success ….) and reflecting upon your response, I now see your point and my mistake. I tend to think of ‘the things themselves’ as you said, and do not always remember that God is good (no doubt due to the years I spent subscribing to the two-storey account of the universe, which I only left behind recently) I can understand the recovered alcoholic’s thanks for his alcoholism — I, too, am glad that I made certain mistakes, as I can see now that they helped to bring me to where I am. And yet …. and yet, my difficulty lies in the fact that this is only true for some of my many mistakes; certainly not all of them and certainly not all of the issues confronting me in the present.

    I once had a friend who was deeply (albiet briefly) involved with a non-denominational Evangelical church. He would happily take any and every chance to declare God’s goodness. As I’ve gotten older, though, I see that ‘God is good!’ is more than just a cheerful one-liner, or a pat response to good news (i. e. ‘I got a job’, or ‘I passed my exam’). It is, in fact, a great mystery. Thank you for reminding me of that, and thank you for treating such things with the seriousness they deserve in a culture (certain churches included) that wants to explain away mysteries.

    My husband introduced me to Orthodoxy and I introduced him to your blog. We visit Orthodox churches when we can (the last time was for Vespers in Athens, actually) but we’re nowhere near a proper church. We attend the local Anglican (C of E) church, but often come away feeling like we’ve simply fulfilled a social obligation, rather than been able to reflect upon spiritual matters. (The powers-that-be are very low church). As a result, we often feel adrift, spiritually. For that reason, we both appreciate your writing and the discussions it sparks at home.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have contemplated the mystery of praise over the last several days and I’ve begun to see a different perspective. It are moments from the Divine Liturgy which keep coming back to me plus some sermons from one of our priests.

    From the sermon: “The only thing we have to offer God is our sins..” (the rest He already has because He created us and united Himself with us in the Incarnation).

    Liturgy moments: “…let us commend oursevles, and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.” (repeated several times in the course of the Liturgy)

    From the Anaphora: Priest: “Let us stand aright; let us stand with fear; let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.”
    People respond: “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise”

    And later on in the Anaphora: “…send down thy Holy Spirit on us and on these gifts here spread forth…”

    In the midst of giving thanks in the Divine Liturgy, we say repeatedly “Lord have mercy”

    To offer thanksgiving is not simply an act of feeling grateful. It is a sacrificial–even sacramental–act of lifting up so that God can transform calling on His mercy, grace, power and life. We do not just lift up our joys, we lift up our sorrows, our griefs, our pain and sin…”for the life of the world.” It is the only way in which we can participate in Christ’s victory over death I think.

  49. Victor Avatar

    To give thanks for all things is to participate in the transfiguration of all things. I am of the mind that to give thanks for a thing is not the same as having a particular feeling toward it. To be sure, our emotions often correspond to our convictions but we do not generate conviction through emotion…that is passivity. Also our connection to world events is largely an act of imagination or fantasia. I do not think it my place to ‘give thanks’ for 9-11. That is the labour of those who have passed through that particular fire. In giving thanks in my own circumstances, I am removed from the realm of imagination into the lived, the now. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…

  50. Moon Avatar

    I am grateful for how God is present with me in pain, how He transforms evil into good, redeems people despite evil situations, heals conditions which flow from sin, tramples down death in all its forms, and if not here, then in the light and life of Eternity. I don’t thank God FOR 9-11 but can give thanks to Him IN it, for how He manifests in it, despite it, how He transforms the ill effects with the slightest cooperation of any person or group of persons. His Alchemy, His Goodness, His Love never fails. Orthodoxy is the most grateful, thankful Faith Tradition. It may be a bad translation of Romans 8:28 to say “God transforms everything into good” but that is reality. Glory to God for all things because He is in them and transcending them.

  51. Greg Avatar

    In preparing for this week’s Sunday school lesson (Missionary Baptist) I was compelled to give careful deliberation to Ephesians 5:20 (much more careful deliberation I think than did the author of our quarterly). The verse’s apparent demand (which rises a good deal higher than a mere general “attitude of gratitude”) has always given me pause, though I have in the past given it somewhat short shrift, never applying vigorous intellectual attention. Like others here, I immediately pondered the specter of giving thanks for the existence of those actions which lead to the lost soul’s eternal damnation. While the discussion has been more than interesting, it nevertheless falls short of convincing me to accept the proposition that we are compelled (or even permitted) to give thanks for evil qua evil.

    I cannot say that I have anything useful to add, other than this; it is often true that in many things the journey is a great part of the destination. In genuinely seeking after competent scriptural knowledge, study may not lead to definitive, authoritative conclusions, but it will lead one inexorably closer to God. Even in my failure to ascertain to my own satisfaction the exact meaning of Paul’s admonition (or is it an exhortation), there is to be found a certain degree of enlightenment. To know that one doesn’t know is useful knowledge; it leaves one in the unadorned company of faith.

    Grappling with this matter, I find some small comfort in the fact that others, far more erudite than me, have their own expositive difficulties. In approaching interpretive issues, I always seek to do the philological work as a prerequisite to understanding. Look to the original text first; determine what the writer actually wrote. Therein, is often found a pericope’s exegesis. However, in this instance, the philology seems to be as difficult as the underlying theology. While it is certainly arguable that I should give thanks for this circumstance, I remain (without resort to “silver lining” rationalizations) at a loss to fully explain why. Perhaps Deuteronomy 29:29 is applicable to the entire matter.

  52. Rich Avatar

    Giving thanks is not necessarily joined together with feeling thankful. We can very little effect feelings or emotions because our emotions are a result of chemical reactions in the brain. But speaking thanks either mentally or out loud is something we physically can do and can cut off and on at will. When we give thanks either vocally or mentally our brain hears this and automatically go into its store house and pulls the proper chemical that is responsible for feeling good. Why? Because it has been programmed thru the years to connect expressions of gratitude to good events that has happened to us. This feel good chemical cancels out the stress hormone which is the fight or flight chemical which the bad event triggered. Once the stress hormone has been neutralized we feel good or at least neutral about the event. Once we feel good or neutral about the event it no longer plays a prominent role in our mind and we can move on with our lives. When the stres is gone we can then heal physically and mentally.

  53. […] “The life that we are called to live as Christians is the ‘eucharistic’ life [eucharistein = to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity… That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ… The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.” ~ from “The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks” by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  54. […] “The life that we are called to live as Christians is the ‘eucharistic’ life [eucharistein = to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity… That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ… The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.” ~ from “The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks” by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

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