Millions of people celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday last week, or at least, they think they did. The nature of thanksgiving demands an intentional act. It is impossible to give thanks accidentally. Simply gathering around an elaborate dinner table with extended family members is not itself an act of thanksgiving. If that’s all that took place, what was really celebrated other than a traditional meal?
There is no such thing as arbitrary thankfulness. If a person truly celebrated thanksgiving, he would be able to give specific answers to questions like:
- To whom are you thankful?
- For what are you thankful?
- Why are you thankful?
- How are you expressing your thankfulness?
Gratitude is much more than an attitude. It is an activity. It certainly has similarities to contentedness, which is a mindset. A content person takes comfort in the knowledge that he is satisfied in his circumstances. Thanksgiving begins with a mindset of contentedness but then acts on such knowledge. Contentedness says, “I know I am satisfied, therefore I am at rest.” Thankfulness says, “I know someone has been good to me, therefore I will express gratitude to them.”
The New Testament letter of Paul to the Colossians makes clear that thanksgiving is based on knowledge. No one can truly celebrate thanksgiving ignorantly. It requires knowledge to be able to answer questions like those listed above. Thanksgiving and knowledge are necessarily connected. Paul shows the Colossians (and us) how this is the case.
He begins by telling them, “We always thank God . . . when we pray for you” (1:3). He expresses thanks to God on their behalf because of what he knew about them. Specifically, he (and Timothy, 1:1) had heard of their faith in Christ, their love for the saints, and their hope of heaven (1:4-5). The Colossian believers had heard of this hope in the gospel, which had come to them and been increasing in them “since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (1:5-6). They had “learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant” (1:7), and Paul says that Epaphras had “made known to us your love in the Spirit” (1:8).
In summary, Paul and Timothy thank God for the Colossians because they had gained knowledge that the saints there had gained knowledge of the gospel. They are thankful for what they know, and what they know is that the Colossians have knowledge of the gospel. They heard evidences of the Colossians’ salvation (namely faith, love, and hope), therefore they knew that the people had heard and received the gospel. The primary verbs in this section are repetitive, synonymous, and structurally arranged.
We heard (v. 4)
You have heard (v. 5)
You heard and understood (v. 6)
You learned (v. 7)
He made known to us (v. 8)
In addition to thanking God for what he knows about the Colossians (which is that they now have knowledge of the gospel), Paul also makes petitions to God on their behalf. These requests come in two categories.
First, he asks “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . . bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:9-10). He follows up his thankfulness for their knowledge by asking for more knowledge for them. He wants them to know God and his will. He expects that they will increase in their understanding of who God is and what he is doing.
Second, he asks that they “be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father” (1:11-12). That is to say, he adds to his request for their increased knowledge by asking that their knowledge would make them thankful to God, even as they patiently and joyfully endure hardship for the sake of his name. Like contentedness, thankfulness is not circumstantial. With the kind of knowledge for which Paul prays, they could be thankful even in suffering.
For Paul, suffering was not a foreign concept. He wrote to these saints while imprisoned (4:18), yet he could say to them, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (1:24). He did not hide his hardships, saying rather, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you” (2:1). The stewardship Paul had received from God for them was “to make the word of God fully known” (1:25). God had revealed it to the saints, choosing to make known among them the greatness of “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:26-27). Therefore, Paul toiled to proclaim Christ, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:28-29).
Paul’s work was to make Christ and his word fully known. It was a difficult work. Yet he persevered in it for the sake of the Colossians, “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3).
Previously he had prayed that they would be filled with the knowledge of God. Now he says he is laboring through difficulty to make Christ known to them for their encouragement. Apparently Paul understood that God would answer his prayer, at least in part, as he fulfilled his stewardship to proclaim Christ to them.
And what should the church do with this knowledge? “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, . . . abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). Walk in Christ, abundant in thanksgiving to him. Knowledge, particularly knowledge of who God is and what he has done in Christ, begets thanksgiving. And even when making God known results in struggles, thanksgiving does not waver.
There are central ways in which these truths are applicable for missions. The stewardship of Paul is the stewardship of all missionaries. It is the stewardship of all pastors, which is why the training up of new pastors equipped for this role is so crucial. The task is not an easy one, but it is necessary. The work which we pray for God to do–to make himself known in the world–will not be done without the voices of toiling, struggling proclaimers of the gospel. God has arranged it to be so. And with this knowledge of him and of his will, we give thanks, even in the struggle.