Some people steel themselves for the worst: “Expect nothing; you’ll never be disappointed.”
That isn’t St. Paul’s approach. Rather than defaulting to cynicism or becoming resigned to perpetually impending disaster, he suggests a thankful heart: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18).
Nor was it the approach of our fellow Christians amidst historical crises. Martin Rinckart served in the midst of a catastrophe. He was a pastor in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The walled city he lived in became a center for refugees and fugitives, but overcrowding led to periodic pestilence and starvation. At the peak of one of the epidemics he was the only living pastor in the city, daily conducting fifty burials. Among the thousands of victims was his own dear wife.
It was in this context that he wrote the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” This beloved hymn of thanksgiving had its origin in death and tragedy, a poignant example of the apostle’s call to joy, prayer, and thanks in every circumstance.
When faced with difficulties, we get the prayer part, but rejoicing and thanksgiving don’t come readily. That’s because we confuse joy with happiness. We don’t get that joy can coexist with sadness. Joy is rooted in God and his promises, while happiness fluctuates with our emotional state.
Same with thanksgiving. It’s hard to be thankful in the midst of distress, but St. Paul lifts us out of our doldrums to contemplate God’s will in Christ Jesus, his Son. That’s when the uncertainties in any present predicament can morph into confidence—because all the promises of God find their “yes” in Jesus (2 Cor 1:19).
And so in the midst of public tragedy and private grief, Pastor Rinckart sat down to pen the familiar words we associate with our national holiday of Thanksgiving:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things has done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.
When you realize these familiar words originated not amid turkey and gravy but sickness, dying, and grieving, they take on an entirely different meaning, don’t they?
Oh, may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us
And keep us in his grace
And guide us when perplexed
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.
There’s a lesson here: if we join God’s past blessings with his present promises in his Son, we will have room for thanksgiving in life’s tight spots as we look to the future—not with dread, but confident prayer.
All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The One eternal God,
Whom earth and heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.
This guest post was written by Harold L. Senkbeil, author of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham Press, 2019).