By Scott Martin, 11/11/2020
When I was asked to deliver the devotional at the 2020 Harvest Blessing Dinner, I knew I wanted to speak about thankfulness. Although many of us haven’t spent the past weeks doing much harvesting, harvest dinners have always been a time of thanksgiving for abundance and provision since probably the first wheat harvest in some Sumerian village 6,000 years ago. That certainly was the case for our nation’s first thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 by the English Puritans, we call them Pilgrims, at Plymouth colony in Massachusetts.
Before we get to that story, I’d like to lay out an argument. As you may know, I am the logic teacher at Grace Christian Academy, and I can’t resist the temptation to bring some clear, deductive reasoning to bear on the topic of thankfulness. I’m going to present what’s called a conditional syllogism. A conditional syllogism has three parts: two premises and a conclusion. It goes something like this:
- If A, then B.
- Therefore B.
Or here’s a real example from Romans 6:
- “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
- I have been united with Christ’s death through baptism.
- Therefore, I will be united with him in a resurrection like his.
The first premise describes what will happen if a certain condition is met. The second premise affirms that condition has indeed been met. Therefore, the conclusion must follow. And that’s the beautiful thing about deductive reasoning: If a syllogism is valid, meaning it has the right structure, and if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. You can’t argue against a true and valid syllogism. So that’s what we’re going to look at now. I’m going to present a conditional syllogism in order to convince you to be thankful for something that may be surprising to you or you may not have thought of being thankful for. You are going to affirm the truth of my major premise, and James, the brother of Jesus, is going to affirm the truth of my minor premise. Here we go.
Thankful for Joy
To introduce my first premise, I’m going to ask you a question: “If something gives you joy, is that something you should be thankful for?” To put it another way, think of all the things in this life that give you joy. Think of your family, your children, your grandchildren, your close friends. Think of any music or art that gives you joy. Think of the perfect cup of coffee on a Saturday morning or your favorite meal or dessert. Think of the experiences in your life that give you joy like hiking or fishing, playing with your kids at the playground, or a cherished family vacation. Most of all, think of your great salvation and the joy of knowing your righteousness is secure in Jesus Christ, all your sins have been forgiven, you’ve been adopted as a son or daughter of the Lord of the Universe, and your inheritance is fullness of joy at his right hand for unending ages. Can we agree that these things which give us so much joy are things we ought to be thankful for?
I think anyone can answer with a resounding “Yes!” In fact, I would argue that we are (or we ought to be) thankful for things precisely because they give us joy. Anytime we aren’t thankful for something we ought to be thankful for, it’s because our affections haven’t been stirred up towards that thing like they ought to be. So, my major premise of this conditional syllogism is this: If something brings you true, pure, Christian joy, then you ought to be thankful for that thing. Amen?
Joy and Thanks in Trouble
Now we’re ready to turn to James chapter 1. James is going to give us our second premise. The Book of James is to the New Testament as Proverbs is to the Old Testament. It’s a collection of often short, pithy wisdom statements for New Covenant Christians to heed as they carry out life in the Spirit. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, so this very well may be a collection of his teachings over the course of many years that was compiled into a single letter in order to circulate through many other churches. The very first thing he writes in this letter is among the most counterintuitive statements in the entire Bible. James says this:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4
James is saying anytime you experience trouble, anytime you go through a trial, if you go through it in faith, then your faith is being strengthened. In the end, that will result in your complete maturing as a disciple of Jesus. For that reason, because the end of suffering is perfection, we ought to consider suffering, trouble, or trials all joy.
This teaching is all over the Old and New Testaments…
In Romans 5:3-5 Paul says:
“…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
In 1 Peter 1:3-7, Peter, talking about our hope and salvation, teaches:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
And later in the same letter Peter says:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
As you can see, we have clear teaching from across scripture that we ought to rejoice when trouble finds us because it inevitably leads to a purer faith and complete salvation. I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t pray for God to deliver us from trials, to hasten their end or soften their blows, but after we have done that—after we have asked God to remove the trials from before us—we enter into them with rejoicing that God has ordained them as the means for perfecting our faith and conforming us to the image of his son. As Pastor Brian taught from Ecclesiastes 7:14 last Sunday: God has made both the day of prosperity and the day of adversity.
Therefore, from James, but also from Paul and Peter and other texts, we get our second premise: “Trouble is something that ought to bring us joy.” And now, if you’ll recall the first premise of our little argument, I’ll bring it all together for us:
- If something brings us true, pure, Christian joy, then we ought to be thankful for that thing.
- Trouble is something we ought to consider pure joy.
- Therefore, we ought to be thankful for trouble.
That’s the inevitable conclusion: we ought to be thankful for the trouble God sends our way. This is an incredible statement, but as Christians we know that Christ, and us through Christ, triumphs in the end. Since we know that the goal of the universe is total victory for the lamb and his bride, we can trust God and rejoice as we travel whatever path he has chosen, in his infinite wisdom, to lead us to that end. As Hebrews 12:25-29 teaches, the Lord shakes our world “so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” The only unshakeable hope in this world is the Kingdom of God (Heb 12:28). We should rejoice and be thankful anytime God shakes things we have mistakenly placed our trust in, for it turns our hearts back to true, imperishable, and everlasting joy in him.
This Thanksgiving, I hope we will respond to the Lord with thanksgiving for the trouble he has led us through in recent days and days long past. If we can’t find the thankfulness within us for the many trials we have endured, then let us pray that God would awaken our affections and give us an imperishable joy over his unceasing faithfulness. To help us see that, I’m going to tell you about one of the first Thanksgiving celebrants, one of those old English Puritans, William Bradford, and how he found thankfulness in the face of tremendous trials.
William Bradford was a born in 1590, in the middle of the English reformation. One year later, his father died. Within the next few years, his grandfather, mother, and step father all died as well. At age 12, he was roped into the Puritan movement by a friend, right as King James I was cracking down on dissenters from the Church of England. He was committed to the Puritan congregation at Scrooby Manor, led by William Brewster. So, when the congregation decided the Church of England was too far gone, they decided to illegally travel to the Netherlands in pursuit of religious liberty. Unfortunately, their boat captain turned them over to the authorities, and Bradford and others spent some time in prison.
By 1608, this group, the Scrooby congregation, had all escaped to the Netherlands by traveling in smaller groups. Bradford was 18 years old, and William Brewster adopted him into his family. Despite their new freedom, the Pilgrims were treated as second-class citizens, living in terrible conditions and working the lowest-class jobs. William Bradford was married to Dorothy May, the daughter of an English couple in Amsterdam.
It wasn’t long before the Scrooby congregation decided to set out for the New World in order to establish a colony. In 1620, exactly 400 years ago, the Pilgrims set sale for Virginia Colony. William and Dorothy Bradford left their 3 year-old son, John, behind in the Netherlands because they knew the initial phase of the colony would likely lead to his death. They set off for the Virginia colony with fifty other Puritans, many of whom also left family behind to later follow once the colony had been established. Their original boat, the Speedwell, became structurally unsound as it headed for the Atlantic, so they had to cram everyone onto the sister ship, the Mayflower. Constantly wet, unsanitary, cramped conditions were the norm for the passengers during their month-long journey across the Atlantic.
Strong winds prevented the Mayflower from sailing to Virginia where they hoped to settle, so the group landed at Plymouth Rock, in modern day Massachusetts. The month was November, and it was far too late to plant or harvest any food. The colonists had to rely on resupply from the Mayflowers food stores in order to survive the winter. William Bradford volunteered to join the initial scouting parties to select the best site for their colony. When they returned, he learned his wife had fallen off the Mayflower and drowned in the freezing waters of Provincetown Harbor.
Almost as soon as the Pilgrims had offloaded the Mayflower and began building their first homes, a pandemic broke out, killing half the colonists before the end of the winter. Bradford fell seriously ill, but recovered. That spring, the first governor died, and Bradford was elected governor of the Plymouth Colony. Over the course of the next thirty years, William Bradford was re-elected Governor 31 times until he died in 1657. His book, History of Plymouth Plantation, is the most authoritative history of the Pilgrims. At the very end of it, he reflects on God’s providence through miserable, tragic, and nearly life-ending trials he and the Pilgrims endured in order to find a place where they could worship God rightly. As you read his final reflections about the trials that perfected his faith, I hope you will admire his spirit of thankfulness and cultivate a similar spirit this Thanksgiving as you consider how the Lord has, is, and will sanctify you in the fires of affliction so you may be “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc. “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.” “Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”– William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Chapter IX