This pandemic seems so different from others that man has survived. During the Black Death in the 14th century, we could at least watch people turning black and dying. During the Spanish Flu of 1918, we’d watch as young people were healthy at breakfast and dead at lunch. But Covid-19 is so quiet. Deaths are simply numbers; very few of us know anyone who has had it, unless you figure that many of us may have had it without knowing it. Yet, we were ordered into our homes, our economy was put into a coma, and nobody really knows how this ends.
What seems especially destructive about this pandemic is how social media, our political class and our journalists seem intent on squeezing every ounce of hope out of us. Because it’s invisible, we have to rely on others to tell us what’s going on, and the news is uniformly bad. If fatalities are down for a day, we hear “worse is coming later”.
We’re desperate for a different message, and so we turn to the Bible and read in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
At a time like this, when someone says “you should be thankful”, something in me pushes the opposite direction. What, precisely, am I to be thankful for? I was supposed to retire in June after 37 years of teaching high school. Suddenly that’s ended, very much like a death. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my students. And my story seems like a fairy tale compared to people who have lost jobs, who have been separated from loved ones for non-Covid hospital stays.
Let’s look at the context of Thessalonians. Most of the Greeks at this time (and Paul was writing to Thessalonica, today Salonika, in Greece) were stoics. Stoics “were trained to bear evils with indifference, and so to be independent of externals.” A Stoic would bury his feelings about the virus because it would be useless to be angry at nature.
Paul is calling us to a very different point of view. He doesn’t call us to be passive, but to “give thanks in all circumstances”. Unlike the Stoics, we know who is behind every event in the world, natural and human. At the very least, we can praise Him because we know He’s in control.
Paul isn’t suggesting we give thanks FOR everything. (Look at 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 for a partial list of a few of the things Paul had been through) What Paul was suggesting was that, in all circumstances, we refocus. Look for where you can find His hand in your life.
No matter what, we can’t make ourselves feel something. I can’t make myself like rap music, green bean salad or dress shoes. I can’t sincerely give thanks for the disruption, isolation and death that Covid-19 has brought; but I can look around at my life and find what He’s done, and what He’s doing. The Stoics tried to ignore their feelings but Paul suggested that, in all circumstances, we refocus to find reasons to be thankful.
Instead of being angry for what has been taken from me, I refocus on what He’s given me in the first place. I could start with Linda and my kids and grandkids, or I could be thankful for the 35 years I’ve had in Esparto and how He protected me from myself many times. By this process of refocusing, we build up our thankfulness muscles. And being thankful is the kind of people that He wants us to be.
My muscles still have a ways to go. But now, when I get discouraged by some medical person saying this will last at least 18 months, I know to refocus and extinguish my discouragement with thankfulness.