Wednesday, November 14, 2012


“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God…” (I Thessalonians 5:18a)

Particularly at Thanksgiving, St. Paul’s admonition to give thanks in all circumstances is readily affirmed by most Christians and persons of other faiths too.  However, the statement that giving thanks in all circumstances is God’s will may strike a particularly discordant note to one whose life is in tangles or to one who struggles with a serious illness or a deep hurt or grief. Once, when I was in a particularly awful situation, I found myself responding with anger to these words. I questioned how I could be expected to give thanks; perhaps I confused giving thanks in all circumstances with giving thanks for such a circumstance. Over time, I have seen how deeply my spiritual life has been shaped by attention to gratitude and thanks to God in every circumstance. In fact, it is in the most bitter of circumstances that my spirit is lifted when I realize just how many blessings abound, even in the midst of suffering. What has your own faith tradition taught you about thanksgiving?

Upon reading your reflections, I remembered how as a child I was taught that the etiquette for replying to someone’s “How are you?” is to say first Alhamdulillah, which means, All praise and thanks are due to God.  In fact, it is sometimes the only thing a Muslim answers, eliminating the need to give further details. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the five daily prayers—or seventeen cycles of prayer—I am commanded to perform every day because my preoccupation with daily life can divert my attention from “giving thanks in all circumstances.” Knowing that I have to plan my day according to the times during which I need to perform those prayers helps me to refocus, reflect, and transcend my worries and pain, as well as remember the bounties I have been blessed with. Muslims, who stop whatever they are doing to engage in the prescribed prayers to recite the opening sentence of each of the seventeen cycles, find themselves in a state of thanksgiving as they say these words: “Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” (al-Fatihah 1:2)

Grace, I am glad you raised this question and grateful for your emphasis on giving thanks in all circumstances.  I, too, have found myself in difficult circumstances struggling to recognize the blessings in my life.  According to Jewish tradition, a person is supposed to recite a blessing upon hearing bad news, in particular the news that someone has died. The prescribed blessing is “Praised is the True Judge.” I have often choked out these words, against my will, without the proper intention of praising God.  But I believe that it is appropriate to say the words of praise or thanks without truly feeling them and hope that feelings of praise and thanks will eventually follow. The early rabbis taught, “One is obligated to bless upon the bad as he would upon the good….” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:5) Perhaps Paul and the early rabbis were responding to a natural human tendency that they observed: While it is not easy for a person in pain to offer thanks to God, there are always things for which to be thankful; and it is a worthy endeavor to offer thanks even when it is difficult to do so.


  1. Many years ago, my father had surgery to removed a benign tumour growing on his pituitary gland. It was one of the more frightening experiences (at the tender ago of 20) of my life.

    I told God that I wasn't going to pray to Him until everything was all over. I realized that up until that point I tended to pray -- really pray -- when I needed Help. But that I usually neglected speaking with God when things were going well and good. And so, as I explained to the Holy One, I didn't feel as though I should reach towards Him just because I was really scared until I learned to reach towards Him to offer my gratitude.

    It was a wonderful lesson for me because it was such a turning point in my relationship with God.

    (And again I would like to point out the commonality that we share with cousins: when someone asks "how are you?", the traditional response is Barukh HaShem -- "Praise God.")

    1. For me, personally, it was having to pray after my miscarriage that was a turning point. At that time, I was so mired in sorrow that I found offering praise and thanksgiving to be spiritually painful, and a perfect accompaniment to the physical pain. But after it was "all over" I saw that so much good grew out of that experience. Of course, you don't always realize "it's over" until long after "it's over."

      Thanks for adding the Barukh HaShem line. Yasmina's segment was actually written after mine, and I didn't want to add it into my segment. I was counting on you, Rebecca, because I know that you often respond in this traditional way!

      Blessings to you from all of us, Tziporah