Thanksgiving to God the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God
“But fornication, and all uncleanness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks.” Eph. 5:3-4.
Over against filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting, Paul puts giving thanks. It doesn’t at first seem like thanksgiving is the opposite of what it is set against. Shouldn’t Paul have said, “Instead of the filthy mouths, you should speak that which is holy, pure, and clean”? But he doesn’t do that. He puts thanksgiving as the antidote and opposite of unholy speech.
To see why Paul would have done this, I think it is necessary to understand exactly what Paul meant by the terms he uses in verse 4. “Filthiness” refers to moral filth in general. Paul seems to be applying it here in this verse to filthy speech. In verse 12, Paul says that there are some things of which it is shameful to speak. Filthiness belongs to that category. Believers do not make fun of wickedness, nor do they take delight in it.
“Foolish talking” is exactly that: it is the talk of a fool. It is the “idle word” that brings into judgment (Mt. 12:36). It is speech to no use, and that does not edify. It is the “corrupt communication” which Paul forbids, which should be replaced with “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). It is the talk of one who knows not God, whose godlessness is betrayed by the things they like to talk about.
“Jesting” is an interesting word: it refers to someone of ready wit, but who turns it to bad use. It is someone who is good at the allusive joke, the double entendre. It is the description of a person whose nimbleness of expression is put in the service of the devil.
Put together, these words describe a variety of people: from those whose language is just plain vile to those whose talk is aimless and meaningless. Though both ends of this spectrum may seem pretty diverse, the fact is that both kinds of people have at the bottom the same problem: their lives are not oriented around God. And this is discovered in the things they talk about. That’s not to say they are not oriented around something. They most certainly are. But if their lives are not held in their proper orbit by the gravity of the reality of God, then they will orient themselves around things that are at best trivial and at worst vulgar. And thus their speech becomes at best foolish chatter and at worst filthy talk.
Throughout chapters 4 and 5 of Ephesians, Paul has been developing the idea that Christian behavior is to be different precisely because they are oriented differently from those who are not believers. They are not to act “as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind” because they “have not so learned Christ.” Rather, they have been created in the image of God in righteousness and true holiness (4:17-24). And this should exhibit itself in certain differences in lifestyle (cf. vs 25,ff.). In chapter 5, Paul urges the Ephesian disciples to live differently because though they once lived in darkness, now they have been enlightened by the Lord (5:8). Verses 3-4 of chapter 5 thus should be understood in this context. Filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting are characteristic of those who do not know the true God. Believers, who do know God in Christ, should therefore turn away from such behavior. It is “not convenient,” which is to say, it is neither fitting nor proper conduct for one who professes to be an imitator of God (5:1).
But why put thanksgiving as the opposite of these vices? I think the answer is obvious if we just reflect on the nature of true thanksgiving. First, though Paul does not explicitly say it in Eph. 4:4, it is understood that God is the object of thanksgiving. Paul is not talking about thanking your grandmother for giving you those socks (though that is a good thing to do!). He is saying that we should thank God for everything he gives to us.
Consider the following verses. In Ephesians 5:18-20, Paul explains what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like. One of the fundamental ways a Spirit-filled person may be discovered is in the fact that they are thankful people: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the object of thanksgiving here. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes, “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know unto God.” God is the object of both prayer and thanksgiving in the text. In 1 Thess. 5:18, we are commanded, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” The universality of the command in this verse requires the object of thanksgiving to be God.
Of course, the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, is filled with commands to give thanks to God. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 136:1-3). The expression of the psalmist indicates that not only is thanksgiving to God right but that it is a delight.
On the other hand, an ungrateful heart to God is denounced in the strongest language in Romans 1. Describing those who suppress the truth of the knowledge of God in favor of unrighteousness, Paul says that they “glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (v. 21). In 2 Tim. 3:2, Paul says that one of the characteristics of the last days will be an abundance of those who are unthankful and unholy.
So when the Bible commends and commands thanksgiving to us, we are to understand it as referring primarily to God as the object. And this is a huge piece of the puzzle to understanding why Paul would place thanksgiving as the opposite and antidote to filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving to God is the natural outflow of those whose lives are oriented around God, whereas filthy and foolish speech is the natural outflow of those whose lives are not oriented around God.
What then is thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the heart-felt expression of the believer in Christ, despite his or her external circumstances – be they good or bad – that God has been, is, and will remain good to me because of what his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, did and is doing for me by his life, death, resurrection, and intercession. The kind of thanksgiving commanded of believers is more then than a national holiday on which we have some kind of generic happy feeling for the good things we have enjoyed in the here and now. The thanksgiving commanded in Scripture is specifically Christian, and it is to be a characteristic of the follower of Christ whether the road is smooth or rough. Thus Paul says that we are to thank the Father always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:19).
The kind of thanksgiving required of believers is therefore impossible apart from Christ. It is impossible not only because Christ is the object of thanksgiving, but because his redemption is the basis of it. And so we see why Paul might have put thanksgiving as the opposite of filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving in the sense of which he is speaking is not something anyone can do. A pagan can clean up their mouths. But thanksgiving in the sense of which Paul is speaking is only something a redeemed man or woman can do. It is an attitude that can only be properly held by a God-centered person. And so by contrasting sinful words with thanksgiving, Paul is again underlining the difference of behavior and attitude between those who belong to Christ and those who don't.
Consider then how thanksgiving to God is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.
1. A thankful heart recognizes the sovereignty of a Good and Just and Holy God over all things.
First, a thankful heart recognizes that whatever happens to me, it comes through the hands of a loving Father. This includes bad things as well as what we would normally call good things. In other words, thanksgiving is not just commanded when the “lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6, ESV), but also when afflictions befall us (cf. Ps. 119:71). After all, we are commanded to give thanks “always for all things” and “in everything” (Eph. 5:19; 1 Thess. 5:18). With Corrie Ten Boom, we need to learn to be thankful even for the fleas.
But how do you do this? It is easy to be thankful when we are prospering in every way. But for many of us it can be unimaginably difficult to be thankful when terrible tragedy strikes. The only way we can do this is to know that God works all things for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). The only way we can do this is to know that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to know that God is the one who is producing it. The only way we can do this is to be able to say with Job, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the LORD” (Job 1:21).
Having to know the reason why something happens to us is not going to generate a thankful heart. But trusting in a trustworthy God who is wise and powerful and loving even when calamity strikes is the only ground in which thankfulness can live and prosper.
In the middle of the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary lost their daughter Annie at 23 years of age. Lee was away from his family at this time. Only able to console his wife by letter, he wrote these lines which illustrate the kind of attitude a thankful heart takes in times of catastrophe: “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. . . . But God, in this as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave us. . . . I wish I could give you any comfort, but beyond our hope in the great mercy of God, and the belief that He takes her at the time and place where it is best for her to go, there is none.”1
When, therefore, a person can thank God in every circumstance in life – who can say with Paul, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11) – then that person glorifies God as the sovereign and good God that he is. Such a person is in the truest sense God-centered. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.
2. A thankful heart recognizes its own unworthiness and the grace of God behind every gift.
I think we can all agree that thanksgiving cannot emerge from a heart overgrown with bitterness and self-pity. But people are bitter and have pity-parties because they think God has dealt them an unfair hand. In other words, they don’t think they deserve the bad things they have had to endure. Most of us, if not all of us, are prone to this attitude, especially here in the West. We have had it good (in comparison with many Third World countries) so long that we have begun to equate things like a house with a two-car garage as one of the necessities of life. If we can’t get our “needs” met, we begin to grumble and think God unfair. Instead of thanking God for what we do have, we complain about what we do not have.
Such a person cannot be God centered. To be God centered, to live coram Deo, before the face of God, is to recognize our own weakness and wickedness. It is to be like Peter, the minute he recognized that Jesus was more than just another rabbi, and to say, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). It is to be like Job, as soon as he got his interview with God, and to say, “Behold, I am vile” (Job 40:4). It is to be like Isaiah, when he saw God “high and lifted up” and with him to say, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5).
Now, I’m not for a minute saying that a person who lives in the presence of God is going to be immune to hardship. I am no advocate for Stoicism. The best of believers will weep. The holiest of men sometimes have cause to say, “I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God” (Ps. 69:3). God-centeredness does not lead to a glibness and shallow bubbliness that pretends that everything is alright when it isn’t.
Rather, a God-oriented heart recognizes that I have not received what I truly deserve: eternal separation from God. It recognizes that I am a sinner, worthy of the wrath of God, and that everything short of that is really and truly a gift.
But a thankful heart does not stop there. It not only recognizes grace in loss, but grace in plenty. It recognizes that when we are filled with food and gladness (Acts 14:17) that this is really a gift of God’s grace. It does not take God’s good gifts for granted, but like the leper in Luke 17:11-19, returns and gives thanks. A God-centered person does not consider themselves worthy of such gifts, and so delights to thank the God who graciously gives them. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.
3. A thankful heart recognizes that God is the best of all gifts.
I take it as axiomatic that the giver is always greater than the gift. And nowhere is this truer than of God. When a person thanks God, they are implicitly affirming this reality of him. When we recognize that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), we are saying that the good gifts have come from God and that without him we would not have them.
But a thankful heart actually says more than that. I do not show thankfulness to someone who has given me a gift if I like the gift but despise the giver, or if I like the gift more than the giver. Although we might expect that of children, it would be offensive in adults. Even so, I do not show thankfulness to God if I love his gifts more than God himself.
The reason why Paul could exhort others to be thankful in every circumstance is because he himself was thankful in every circumstance. And the reason why he was thankful in every circumstance is given in Phil. 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As long as Paul had Christ, he was good to go. Even so, a truly thankful heart affirms that God is indeed the greatest of all gifts, the summum bonum, as the Puritans used to put it.
But this is just what a person who is God-centered recognizes. They know that God is indeed the best of all gifts. They know that the goal of redemption – that God might bring us to himself (1 Pet. 3:18) – is better than living forever in perfect health with plenty of money in a tropical paradise without him. Thankfulness is thus the echo of a God-besotted heart, and therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.
4. A thankful heart sees all earthly blessings in the light of the saving and secure grace of God.
What I mean by this is that for a Christian, every earthly blessing is a true blessing because of their enjoyment of “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The Christian is in a position that an unbeliever cannot enjoy. The man of the world may truly enjoy great wealth and prosperity. But they are enjoying something that will inevitably be taken away from them. Or, if their prosperity disappears in the here and now, they have nothing upon which to fall. But the Christian occupies an entirely different position. He can be thankful for the blessings of this age, and remain thankful even if they are taken away from him. This is something the man of the world cannot do.
Suppose a person were expected to be thankful that they had a good life, even though they knew that they were about to die and go to hell. It is immediately obvious that such an expectation would be ludicrous. However, a believer can be thankful in every circumstance because of his/her confidence in a sovereign and saving God. A Christian knows that despite what happens here, he/she is justified by grace and accepted before God. This is something that cannot be taken away from them. They know that they have an inheritance in heaven that cannot be taken away. A Christian may lose his job, his family, his health. But nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is the glory of God in the salvation of sinners that it is sure. Jesus places the security of the believer in greatness of God: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (Jn. 10:27-29). Therefore, it is the joy of a God-centered person to rejoice in this reality and truth. It is the joy of believer to find a reason in the security that God provides for being thankful always for all things. And therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.
1John Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington, page 260.