So far in this series we’ve looked at two of the marks of a Methodist that John Wesley laid out in his 1742 tract, The Character of a Methodist. The first mark is that a Methodist loves God—that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us, as Wesley put it. We said that the love of God isn’t something we conjure up from within ourselves but, rather, God enables us to love him and love others through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. When we empty ourselves, God’s love fills us and begins to shape us in the image of Christ. All of this is at God’s initiative.
Last week we looked at the second mark, A Methodist Rejoices in God, and we said that the reason for our joy is grounded in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—namely, God has dealt with the ultimate worst case scenario of sin and death and has given us the promise of new life sealed in his own blood. We have much to be joyful about when we embrace this good news.
We might say that these first two marks are marks given to us by God at God’s own initiative. The next three, on the other hand, are really about our response to what God has done—we give thanks, we pray constantly, and we love others. After all, if we really embrace what God has done for us then we cannot help but to respond to his love. A real Methodist, a real Christian, orients his or her life around what God has done in Jesus Christ.
The first of these responses, according to John Wesley, is to give thanks. Now, we would expect Wesley to tell us to count our blessings, which is what most of us do when we think about thanksgiving (besides turkey and stuffing). It’s always interesting to me that we celebrate Thanksgiving on one day a year, giving thanks for what we already have, and then, the very next day, we go out and feel obligated to buy more stuff to be thankful for. Only in America…
But Wesley will do more than tell us to be thankful for material and familial blessings—the good things in life. In fact, Wesley bases this section of The Character of a Methodist on Paul’s short statement in I Thessalonians 5:18 –
“Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Did you catch that? Every situation. Methodists are thankful not just for the good stuff that we have and that happens to us, but are to be thankful in every circumstance, good or bad. That seems a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little daft.
But John Wesley reasoned from the Scriptures, from Christian tradition, and his own experience, that thanksgiving is actually a spiritual discipline grounded in the nature of God and not dependent on circumstances. We give thanks not because things are always good (we know that they are not) but because God is always good.
Indeed, Wesley believed that thanksgiving is, first and foremost, the Christian response to God’s grace and love.
Jesus remarked on this kind of thankfulness in our Gospel lesson for today. Ten lepers cry out to him for help in curing their horrible, disfiguring disease. Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests (who had to determine that they were now “clean” instead of “unclean”) and while they were on the way to temple they were healed.
Only one of the lepers, however, turns around and goes back to Jesus to say thanks—only one responds and, Jesus said, he was a Samaritan—an unlikely candidate in those days. Jesus castigates the other nine: “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” The people who should have known better, Jesus’ fellow Jews, were happy to go on their way and count their unexpected blessings. The outsider turned around and gave thanks and notice what Jesus says to him: “Your faith has healed you.”
Giving thanks is an act of faith, a recognition that without God’s grace we would be lost. In giving thanks we find healing, for we focus not on our deficiencies but on God’s sufficiency to meet all our needs.
John Wesley embodied this kind of thanksgiving in his own life. Every Saturday he took time to look back at the week past and noted where God had been at work in his life, regardless of the circumstance, and asked himself three questions for reflection:
Have I allotted some time for thanking God for the blessings of the past week?
Have I, in order to be more sensible of them, seriously and deliberately considered the several circumstances that attended them?
Have I considered each of them as an obligation to greater love, and consequently, to greater holiness?
Wesley did this every week for some 60 years. This discipline created in him a constant attitude of thanksgiving and prayer. It’s a discipline that can take us outside of ourselves and regularly turn us back toward the Christ who heals us. Wesley saw giving thanks as a key to greater holiness and a greater capacity to love God and neighbor. It’s a discipline we need to recapture if we’re going to be Methodists who increase in holiness of heart and life.
Because Wesley saw giving thanks as a response to God’s grace, he also recognized that the discipline of giving thanks is more about the character and nature of God than about the circumstances. Here Wesley agrees with Paul who, in addition to the passage we read earlier, says this in Philippians 4:11-13:
“I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all things through the power of the One who gives me strength.”
This is actually one of the most misquoted verses in the whole Bible. People use it all the time to suggest that we can achieve just about anything because God gives us strength. That may be true to a degree, but that’s not the context here. Paul is saying that he can endure any circumstance, including bad circumstances, because he knows that no matter how things turn out God is with him and wills all things for good. I think the CEB has the translation right here: “I can endure all things through the power of the One who gives me strength.”
In other words, not every circumstance is good, but God is always good!
This is one of the major theological turns that separates the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition from many others. At base, most American Christians are influenced by a deterministic form of Calvinism (which I think John Calvin didn’t actually intend). It goes something like this: God is so sovereign that God has already willed what will happen to us before we were even born. Therefore, whatever happens to us, good or bad, is actually God’s will. If something bad happens to me, God must be teaching me a lesson. If something good happens, well, that’ a bonus.
You hear this a lot in popular speech. “Everything happens for a reason.” “It was just meant to be.” You hear it in the idea that God “takes” people at death. Whatever happens, it’s God’s fault. Spin this out to its logical conclusion: If God wills bad things for us, if God has preordained some to eternal life and some to damnation, that makes God the author of much of the evil in the world. It makes God the author of war, of disease, of the death of children.
And because of this theological distortion, a lot of people want nothing to do with Christianity. Steve Harper, in the book we’re using as a companion to this series, quotes the famous Methodist preacher Charles L. Allen who was asked about the number one problem he faced over his years of ministry. Without hesitation, he answered: “The number one problem I have had to deal with is the mistaken notion that so many people have that God is mad at them.” As long as people see themselves as being the pawns and victims of an angry God, God can never become a meaningful part of their lives.
But this is a view that betrays the witness of the Bible itself. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God. When God found them, he didn’t smoke them, he clothed them and provided for them. Yes, there were consequences for their actions, but they knew them in advance. But even when they experienced those consequences, God did not abandon them. He loved them. He loved Israel when she was disobedient and went into exile. Jesus loved the disciples who abandoned him as well as the people who nailed him to the cross. God does not will evil and death; they are God’s enemy. We have a God who does not randomly will evil on us but, as Wesley says, a God who orders all things for good.
So, “whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he giveth thanks from the ground of his heart to Him who orders it for good; knowing that as ‘every good gift cometh from above.’ so none but good can come from the Father of Lights, into whose hand he has wholly committed his body and soul…”
It reminds me of that liturgy we often use: God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. When we believe that, we can give thanks in any circumstance because we know that God is good and will not abandon us. That is something to be thankful for every day!
And so, we give thanks—not for what is happening to us but for the fact that nothing can happen to us apart from the presence of God with us. Remember the affirmation we said last week from Romans 8—that nothing can separate us from the love of God. No matter the circumstance, we give thanks knowing that God is present with us, that God is ready, willing, and able to assist us. This is what enabled Paul to say that he could be “content in any circumstance.” This is not a pollyanna kind of thankfulness, but the kind that comes from a deep, abiding faith—the kind of faith that ultimately makes us well.
It should be clear to you that this kind of faith isn’t easy or sentimental. It’s the kind of faith that requires radical trust in God; the kind of trust that is cultivated through an ongoing relationship with God. It’s the kind of trust that is birthed out of constant prayer, which is the mark we will discuss next week. It’s birthed out of reading the Scriptures and being in community with other people of faith. A Methodist gives thanks not because everything is good with us, but because God is good even when things are not.
I like Wesley’s practice of setting aside a day to reflect and give thanks for the week past. I want to challenge you to try it this week—that next Saturday you set aside time to ask those three questions (and I’ll update them a little bit for you):
Have I taken the time to thank God for the blessing of his presence in every circumstance this week?
Have I considered the circumstances I found myself in, both good and bad, and reflected on where God was present in each?
What did I learn about God through these circumstances that can increase my love for God and my response to Him?
Do this weekly and my guess is that you will begin to see the world, and see God, and see yourself quite differently.
As I was writing my sermon this week in my basement study at home, I looked at a prayer that I keep under the blotter on my desk—a prayer by the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. I picked up this prayer when visiting The Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, where Merton served and where he is buried. It’s a prayer that has stuck with me and one that I think demonstrates the kind of life of thankfulness and faith we’ve been talking about. I invite you to pray it each day as a reminder that while every circumstance may not be good, God is always good and always with us:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and that fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen. – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Silence
Harper, Steve. Five Marks of a Methodist. Abingdon, 2015.