Ephesians 5:20 and God’s sovereign goodness

January 29, 2019

My focus in this meditation is on Ephesians 5:20—”giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”—a participial phrase that’s part of this sentence (verses 18-21):

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

But it’s v. 20 that intrigues me: we ought to “give thanks always and for everything.” It’s not that Paul hasn’t expressed similar ideas elsewhere. For example, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

But apart from a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty, we could misinterpret Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians to mean something like this: “I’m going to give thanks and rejoice no matter what I’m going through because, as bad as my particular circumstances are, I can console myself that God has done all these other good things for me.” In other words, we think, “Things are never as bad as they seem… or at least they could be worse… or at least I don’t have it as bad as that other guy. I can always rejoice in spite of my circumstances.”

I confess that at one time in my life I would have interpreted these verses in this way. Ephesians 5:20, however doesn’t give me this option. Paul says that we should give thanks “always and for everything”—to give thanks—somehow—for the circumstances themselves, whether favorable or unfavorable.

But let’s be careful: Paul can’t be saying that we are to be thankful for evil itself. In addition to all the other God-breathed scripture about how we should hate evil, just as God hates it and will avenge it (Romans 12:19), Paul himself writes, “Abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). And he tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). While it’s true that “you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we don’t tell our grieving brothers or sisters to buck up or snap out of it—that they don’t really have a reason to weep. Heaven forbid!

Besides, sin has a way of manipulating even perfectly good things—like God’s law (see Romans 7), family and friends, food, sex, work, and leisure—and using them to harm us… to say nothing of evil things!

So, just as the problem isn’t the thing itself—be it something good or something bad—neither is the blessing.

In fact, Paul isn’t saying that we should be thankful for anything in and of itself—only for the way in which God is using that thing for our good (which, according to Romans 8:28, he promises to always do for those of us who are in Christ).

But if you’re like me, even with this qualification, something within you resists this idea; you imagine some “worst case scenario” in which “giving thanks always and for everything” would prove impossible.

But are you sure?

Consider these astonishing words from Acts 5:41, after the apostles were arrested and beaten for preaching Christ: “Then they [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Or Peter’s words from 1 Peter 4:13-14: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Or v. 16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

But you may object: the suffering that Peter and the apostles endured up to that point wasn’t the worst case scenario that we can face; the worst case, or so we usually think, is death.

If so, Paul anticipates this “worst case scenario” in Philippians 1—that he would die while in prison. Yet even this, he says, is a cause for rejoicing. Why? Because “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Indeed, Paul writes, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17). His death, in other words, would be for his personal benefit (because he will enjoy more of Christ immediately) and for God’s glory and praise (which is Paul’s reason for living in the first place).

So even the worst case scenario would be a cause for thankfulness.

Granted, I’m not saying that it’s easy to believe this. In fact, if you’re not already a believer, I wouldn’t blame you if think that these words of Paul and the apostles are utter nonsense.

But I’m not directing these words to non-Christians; I’m directing them to myself—and to all of you Christian eavesdroppers who might also benefit from them.

3 Responses to “Ephesians 5:20 and God’s sovereign goodness”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    “Always and for everything.” My question is: Does this always and for everything mean whatever GOD “sends our way”? (Even if that is painful.) The reason I ask is that I am not sure we are supposed to “rejoice” in the context of our sinning. The disciples and Paul rejoiced in their suffering when it was brought about as a result of standing FOR Christ. James says every good and perfect gift comes from God (and suffering for obedience comes within the “good”). Yet he insists that our sins are our own doing, and lead to death. (Not that all death is from sin, of course–but that is the general direction that sin takes us toward; particularly morally and spiritually. So James later says to weep and howl for our sins. I do think we can be thankful for the resulting discipline, knowing that it leads us toward righteousness (Hebrews 12). But I think that the sin itself is something WE bring to the table, and it is “not good” and a subject for sorrow.

    • brentwhite Says:

      The sin itself, like evil itself (as I say above), is most assuredly NOT good, and we should by no means be thankful that we sinned. On the contrary! Nevertheless, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in as a result of sin will always be for our good if we are already in Christ. That’s why I warned at the end: this won’t make sense for unbelievers. But God’s promise to work good in all circumstances (Romans 8:28) is always true for believers.

      This is also not to say that it’s good that we sinned because look what God made of it. No—because whatever reward that might have accrued from obedience and faithfulness would have been better. But… given that we have sinned, we can be confident that the resulting circumstances will ultimately be praiseworthy—because they will be the best possible circumstances given that we sinned (and repented).

      Does that make sense?

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think I am in agreement. In particular, I agree with the “would have been better.” But on the whole I do think God “makes the best of things” even after we “slip up.”


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