Heart and Head: A Blog for Serious Christians
Why Christians Suffer
By Paul LeFavor
“We are immortal till our work is done.” – George Whitefield
God has a purpose for suffering. The following are at least ten ways that God uses suffering in the lives of His people:
- Suffering is part and parcel of living in a fallen world that is under the sentence of death (Gen 3:15-24; Rom 5:12-21; 8:18-20). The wrath of God is death and condemnation. We must remember that death signifies God’s judgment. D.A. Carson helps us remember this fact when we think we are all entitled to seventy years on this planet. He writes, “For the believer, the time of death becomes far less daunting a factor when seen in the light of eternity…although death remains an enemy, an outrage, a sign of judgment, a reminder of sin, and a formidable opponent, it is, from another perspective, the portal through which we pass to consummated life.”
It’s important to remember, that as Christians, we have hope even in death because Christ has already conquered Satan, death and hell, and those who are alive in Jesus Christ will never see death but will pass from this life seamlessly into the next (1 Thess 4:15). Death is therefore a defeated enemy that we will face in the confidence that Christ already has the victory (Jn 11:25-26; 1 Cor 11:25-26; 2 Cor 5:8; Rev 1:5, 18). For the Christian, death is an entrance into glory.
2. God uses suffering to separate His people from the false contentment of the world (Dt 8:3; Mt 10:34-37; 13:21). God uses suffering to sever our allegiance and bondage to the world. In order to keep His saints from finding their way in the world, or the world from finding its way in the saint, God employs various trials enabling us to keep our eye on the prize. C.S. Lewis observes, “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.” 
The point is: God doesn’t want His saints to grow too comfortable in this world and so He will employ suffering to release our grip on it. For, God has said in His Word, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15). God desires His people to turn away from the world and look to Him for everything, and He will employ suffering to bring it about. John Piper writes, “For us there is the need, not only to have our obedience tested and proven but also to be purified from all remnants of self-reliance and entanglements with the world.” When we suffer trials, God allows us to see how odious sin is and how miserable we are without Him.
Describing this further, Richard Sibbes writes: These depths are left to us, to make us more desirous of heaven; else great men, that are compassed about with earthly comforts, alas, with what zeal they could pray, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ etc.? No; with Peter they would rather say, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here,’ Mk 9:5; and therefore, it is God’s usual dealing with great men, to suffer them to fall into spiritual desertions, to smoke them out of the world, whether they will or not.
3. God employs suffering as a means of disciplining us so that we will avoid future opportunities to sin. (Ps 107:17; 119:67, 71; Pro 3:11-12; Heb 12:5-11; Rev 2:9-10). God scourges every son He receives (Heb 12:6). God creates staying power in us so we may endure His chastening love and the world’s hate. John Currid rightly sees the suffering associated with God’s discipline as preparation. He writes, It is like a vaccination for smallpox or some other disease. The inoculation itself is unpleasant, and the side effects are uncomfortable, and the reality is that one is given a minor dose of the disease. However, when confronted with the disease itself, one’s immune system is able to fight it because of growing immunity. Thus, one’s system is trained and prepared. That is like the Christian life. 
God brings temporal judgments upon Christians so that we will not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor 11:32, cf. Rev 2:22). Christ corrects us as He is our Lord. And this correction shows that we are His legitimate children (Heb 12:11).
4. God ordains suffering so we will rely more on Him and not ourselves (2 Cor 1:9; 12:9; 1 Pet 5:6-7). This is one of the many ways God proves our faith. Afflictions shatter the myth of our self-sufficiency. We clearly see our weaknesses when we suffer. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, the apostle Paul tells us, the reason why God appoints sufferings is so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
Likewise, John Currid writes, “By means of adversity, God then restores believers to proper creaturely dependence upon Himself. This is to say that God frequently afflicts Christians that they would again realize their hope, joy, and sufficiency lies in Him alone. God is thus being gracious in adversity, and uprooting the Christian from the world.”
5. God uses suffering to forge Christ’s character in us (Ps 119:66-67, 71; Pro 27:17; Rom 5:1-5; Heb 2:10; 5:8). God’s refining process is so that His Son will be more clearly displayed in us. Suffering teaches us that the greatest good of the Christian life is not absence of pain but Christ-likeness. Suffering is one of the means God uses to sanctify us. God’s refining process is an expression of his love, never His wrath. His judgment begins with his own people, and then consumes unbelievers (1 Pet 4:17). And only the man who can endure the refining fire of God’s holy presence can remain in God’s house forever (Jn 8:35).
God, as it were, pours Christ’s character into us, forming iron in our souls, and works the rough edges out on His anvil of the world (Is 54:16). Thomas Watson insightfully writes, God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us. It is good that there should be symmetry between the Head and the members. Would we be parts of Christ’s mystical body, and not be like Him? His life, as Calvin says, was a series of sufferings, ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Is 53:3). He wept and bled. Was His head crowned with thorns, and do we think to be crowned with roses? It is good to be like Christ, though it be true He drank the poison in the cup (the wrath of God), yet there is some wormwood in the cup left, which the saints must drink: only here is the difference between Christ’s sufferings and ours; He were satisfactory (that is, to pay the price for sins), ours are castigatory (that is, in order to amend and correct).
6. God uses suffering to create in us staying power to faithfully endure persecution (Jam 1:2-8). God prepares His saints for trouble by causing them to experience suffering. However, this is not just for sufferings sake, but because God’s wisdom is as manifold as it is infinite, He causes us to grow in grace, mirroring Christ’s image, thereby creating staying power in us, while He prunes us of our sinful proclivities (Jn 15:1-8). The point is: the Christian’s continuing (covenant) loyalty to Christ despite trouble serves to define our character and produces staying power. When I say staying power I refer to what the Bible calls patient-endurance.
Patient-endurance can only be acquired through testing, and suffering definitely tests our faith. For example, the apostle Paul tells us in Rom 5:3-4, “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” What character is the apostle Paul talking about? The very character of Christ, Who Himself is forming Himself within us. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys, we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles.
Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character. A character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us because if we are born again, already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. Sufferings temper Christians and is part of God’s discipline.
7. Suffering is the result of a Christian’s battle against the three enemies of the kingdom of God – our sin nature, the unbelieving world, and Satan. When we mortify our flesh, crucify our sin nature, and say no to the desires of the flesh, we carry around in our body the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor 4:11-12). When we take a stand for Christ we will suffer demonic attack and incur the world’s enmity, not to mention the fact that our sin nature will hate it, but this will result in the glory of God (1 Pet 4:14).
8. Suffering affords Christians the opportunity to witness the saving power of Christ (2 Cor 4:10-11; Col 1:24-29; 1 Pet 2:19-20). Suffering furnishes on opportunity for Christians to testify of the saving power of Christ’s Cross, and thereby suffer for His sake, for which there will be two ends: a hardening obstinacy for some, and a means of grace for others. God uses Christian suffering to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings (Col 1:24).
Rather than being bitter or upset when justice doesn’t come swiftly, we can say along with John Bunyan, “Therefore, I bind these lies and slanderous accusations to my person as an ornament; it belongs to my Christian profession to be vilified, slandered, reproached and reviled, and since all this is nothing but that, as God and my conscience testify, I rejoice in being reproached for Christ’s sake.”
9. Suffering affords God the opportunity to manifest His grace. Tribulation arises on account of the worship of God, the gospel message, and holy living (Rev 12:11). It’s important for us to remember that when Job was afflicted he didn’t say, the Lord has given and Satan has taken away, no; he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And the Bible, ascribing Job’s response as correct says, “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22, emphasis added). Job was not suffering for his sins. He suffered so that God might demonstrate that Job would retain his integrity in spite of all of his afflictions. Hence, “The greater the trouble, the greater the deliverance.”
10. Suffering is the price for winning the lost for Christ – to fulfill the Great Commission (Mt 24:9-14). As we have said, Jesus gives us the express purpose of evangelism – to be a witness to all nations (Mt 24:14). The goal of evangelism is for “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” to hear the glorious saving power of Christ’s cross; and suffering is the cost of fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus said, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.” This is the cost for the completion of the Great Commission (Mt 24:9).
Likewise, “He who endures to the end shall be saved,” is the confidence which a perfect atonement secures (Mt 24:13; Rom 8:28-39). As Christians, we are enabled to do this because we have been crucified with Christ, Who now dwells in our hearts by faith. Christ, Who has rooted and grounded Himself to us in love, compels us to minister the gospel to see the lost saved (2 Cor 5:14; Phil 1:8).
Like Joseph, we may suffer at the hands of even our own family members, but God, working graciously behind the scenes, can bring about a great deliverance out of a great tragedy (Mt 10:34-39). Joseph was a type of Christ; when he suffered, it wasn’t because he was a sinner, it was because God was going to use his life to save His people. God takes ordinary people like you and I, and through us accomplishes extraordinary things. God orchestrated events so that the young lad Joseph would end up delivering a nation from certain destruction; Joseph’s suffering was the price of it all.
The Bible tells us that Joseph spent roughly thirteen years as either a slave or a prisoner (Gen 37:1; 41:46) but all this was preparing him for extraordinary tasks. And as Joseph’s suffering brought about deliverance for others, so does Christian sufferings for the gospel.
It’s important to note that, not all suffering seems to fit neatly into one of the above categories we have made. On the Lord’s Day, February 6, 1870, the reverend George Mueller’s wife Mary died of rheumatic fever. They had been married 39 years. The Lord gave him the strength to preach at her memorial service. He said, “I miss her in numberless ways, and shall miss her yet more and more. But as a child of God, and as a servant of the Lord Jesus, I bow, I am satisfied with the will of my Heavenly Father, I seek by perfect submission to His holy will to glorify Him, and I kiss continually the hand that has thus afflicted me.”
Suffering doesn’t always make sense, but as Christians we have a hope that’s beyond death. Our hope is in the One Who has conquered death and lives forever; Who always lives to intercede for us, is preparing a place for us, and will take us to our heavenly home (Heb 7:25). My friend, repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and so be saved!
 D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? : Reflections on Suffering and Evil, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 133.
 C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper One, 1982), 155.
 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 108.
 Richard Sibbes, Complete Works, VI, 162.
 John Currid, Why Do I Suffer? : Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2014), 73.
 Currid, Why Do I Suffer? , 66.
 Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 28-29.
 John Bunyan, The Complete Works, Part IV (London: Bradley, Garretson & Co, 1873), 69.
 Sibbes, Complete Works, VI, 162.
By Paul LeFavor
To live life as a Christian, is to live within a redeemed covenant community consisting of God’s people who enjoy the fellowship of His presence – eternal life (Ps 133:3). This is fellowship. Fellowship with God is the starting point that shapes and defines how we are to view everything else. The goal of our fellowship is the corporate worship of God – to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever (Jn 4:23-24), which includes becoming more like Jesus Christ. God’s covenant community consists of everyone God calls out of darkness into His marvelous light (Dt 4:20, 34; 1 Pet 2:9). This Messianic community is the Ekklésia – the called out ones. The New Testament church is the continuation of the Old Testament people of God, and as such, the Ekklésia or Qahal consists of all the redeemed of all the ages (Eph 2:19-22). Regarding the church there are three significant truths: (1) Christ has begun to build the true Temple of God with His resurrection (Jn 2:19; Eph 2:20-22); (2) the place of true worship has now been universalized to any place where the Spirit resides in true worshipers (Jn 4:21-24); and (3) Christ is the True Temple, and if we are in Him, than we are a part of it (Mt 12:6-8; 1 Pet 2:4-5). God created the church to be His covenant community, to be His visible witness, and to be His instrument for the gospel.
What is Fellowship? Fellowship was created when the Son of God was incarnated in the Man Jesus – Emmanuel. God calls us out of darkness and into the glorious light of Jesus Christ not so we can go at it alone but so we can experience fellowship with Christ and each other through the Holy Spirit (Jn 17:21; Eph 2:5; Col 1:13, 22; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 10:25; 1 Jn 1:7). The Bible uses the word “communion” κοινωνία koinonia meaning ‘common’ to describe the union believers have with the risen Christ and each other. Koinonia in the biblical sense is used largely to refer to the enterprise people share together, by way of resources, in order to work together toward a common goal. With this in mind, Christians share a common life with God and each other. The Scriptures tell us that God’s people are one body in Christ (Jn 10:16; 1 Cor 12:13; Eph 2:14-18; 3:6; 4:4). And Christ indwells His church in the fellowship or communion of the Spirit (2 Cor 13:14). In this way Christians have fellowship with Christ and each other through the Holy Spirit. Fellowship with God is the starting point that shapes and defines how we are to view everything else.
There are three great unions in Scripture: (1) the union of the Persons of the Trinity (Gen 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Num 6:22-26; Mt 3:16-17; 28:18-20; 2 Cor 13:14, et al.); (2) the union of the two natures of Christ in One Person (Jn 3:13; 17:5; 20:28); and (3) the union of Christ and believers in the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:20; Jn 14:17-18; Rom 8:9; Col 1:27; Heb 13:15; 1 Jn 1:3, 6-7). This chapter regards the third great union. As God’s people we are the house of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Fellowship is the participation and common life that believers enjoy in Christ. Fellowship entails sharing our lives with one another. Stepping out in the covenant community to share the new life we’ve received. There are essentially three basic elements to a Christian’s fellowship with God: (1) The Scriptures – God speaks to us by His Word; (2) prayer – God speaks to us in prayer; and (3) fellowship – God speaks to us through His people. In these three ways, God draws us nearer to Himself.
How do we enter Fellowship? When the Lord appeared to Abraham, He said, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward” (Gen 15:1). As Calvin states, “Here we see that the Lord is the final reward promised to Abraham, that he might not seek a fleeting and evanescent reward in the elements of this world, but look to one that was incorruptible. A promise of the land is afterward added for no other reason than that it might be a symbol of the divine benevolence, and a type of the heavenly inheritance.”2 The author of Hebrews tells us, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9
By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:8-10). Abraham’s commitment to what he was to receive afterward was demonstrated, as John Owen tells us, by the way he sojourned as a stranger:
He built no house in it, purchased no inheritance, but only a burying place. He entered, indeed, into leagues of peace and amity with some, as with Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre (Gen 14:13); but it was as a stranger, and not as one that had anything of his own in the land. He reckoned that land at present no more his own than any other land in the world – no more than Egypt was the land of his posterity when they sojourned there, which God had said was not theirs, nor was so to be (Gen 15:13). The manner of sojourning in this land was, that he “dwelt in tabernacles;” These tents were pitched, fixed, and erected only with stakes and cords, so as that they had no foundation in the earth; And with respect unto their fitting condition in these movable houses, God in an especial manner was said to be their dwelling-place (Ps 90:1).1
Owen adds, “This place whereunto he went is described by his future relation unto it and interest in it; he was ‘afterwards to receive it for an inheritance.’ At present he received it not, but only in right and title, nor during his life.” The point being made here is Abraham’s call is a pattern of the call of every Christian. We, like Abraham, are called out of the world, to live as pilgrims on the Way (Ps 84:5-7; Is 26:7; 35:8; Act 9:2; Jn 10:4; 1 Pet 2:11); And, like Abraham, not having a permanent residence here, “confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” as we look to the “heavenly country,” the heavenly Jerusalem – the city of God (Ps 48; Is 26; Gal 4:26; Heb 11:13-16; 12:22; Rev 21).
All of these titles, “heavenly country,” city of God,” etc. represent the future state of blessedness and rest which the saints are permitted to enjoy now in part. For the rest God promised to the patriarchs was far more than just a secure life in an earthly land of promise. The promise of the land typified the eternal inheritance they were to receive – God Himself (Gen 15:1; Eph 1:11, 18; 3:6). The author of Hebrews makes this point abundantly clear when he writes, “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (Heb 4:8-10).
The point is this, long after the conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua was achieved, David spoke of a rest that might be entered or forfeited. The author of Hebrews uses the word rest no less than eleven times in twenty verses (Heb 3:11, 18; 4:1, 3 (2x), 4, 5, 8, 9 (Sabbath rest), 10, and 11). That rest katapausin is a positional one which awaits a future consummated one. For, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest’ (Is 66:1). And in the fullness of time Jesus comes and declares, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30). Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the place of eternal Sabbath rest. But a sword guards the way to that rest (Gen 3:24; Mt 10:34; Heb 4:12). Jesus is the True Temple, the place of God’s eternal rest. But the only entrance into the Temple is through the narrow gate (Mt 7:13-14; Acts 4:24).
According to Greg Beale, in Christ we have a positional rest in which we await a future consummated practical rest. Beale writes, “Christians begin now to enjoy existentially a Sabbath rest by virtue of our real inaugurated resurrection life which has been communicated to us through the life-giving Spirit. But our rest is still incomplete because our resurrection existence has begun only spiritually and has not been consummated bodily.”2 Then as Augustine said, “Our flesh will be renewed by being made exempt from decay, just as our soul is renewed by faith.”3
The point being made here is the Sabbath rest, the rest Christians enjoy because of Christ’s perfect atonement, is both a personal and corporate dimension. Christians begin now to share Christ’s resurrection life together in covenant fellowship. They enter that fellowship with God in Christ and with each other by the Spirit.
Although the capacity for fellowship was given by God to all men this capacity was mutilated by sin. John White tells us that “Sin has damaged our capacity to know one another because it damaged our capacity to know God. Therefore any attempt to mend the broken fragments of humanity, however exciting or apparently successful, will be illusory and doomed to ultimate failure unless humanity’s relationship with God is restored. I cannot have true fellowship with you unless both of us have fellowship with God.”4 That is why the author of the Book of Hebrews in chapter four culminates his teaching on the Sabbath rest with these words:
11 Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
The Word of God spoken of here is the Person of Christ – the incarnate Word of God (Heb 4:12); the pronouncement of truth to which we must either receive or reject. To Him we must give account (Heb 4:13). Christ knows and searches all hearts. His words penetrate into our very souls and deal directly with our consciences, discerning who is regenerate or not. He is like the flaming sword that guards the way to paradise. Our words regarding Him will either justify or condemn us (Mt 10:32; 12:33-37; 16:15; Lk 19:22).
In chapter four of the Book of Hebrews, we are admonished with these words: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Heb 4:1-2). God led Israel out of bondage in Egypt to serve Him in the desert. They had the gospel preached to them (Gal 3:9), but virtually end masse the visible assembly proved unfaithful to Yahweh, forfeiting the Sabbath rest because of unbelief (1 Cor 10:1-22; Heb 3:19) – the unpardonable sin. By virtue of their being part of the visible assembly, the Israelites reckoned they had eternal security.
How many in the church today are guilty of the same presumption? We cannot go to heaven on our father’s coat tails. Or perhaps they think they are saved because of some outward acts they’ve done – they went up forward, raised their hand, or filled out a decision card. And those actions might accompany saving faith, the point is we have to know Christ personally! It is to Him we must give an account. So, how do we enter fellowship? Christ calls us into it (1 Cor 1:9). As a result of Christ’s resurrection, God’s people, as mediating-witnessing priests are to extend His tabernacling presence throughout the whole earth, themselves serving as God’s building materials for His end-time temple (1 Pet 1:4-5).
What we have discussed so far is fellowship with God and each other is grounded solely on the Word of God (Heb 4:1-16). The proof our regeneration is that we submit to the authority of the Scriptures. And because our corporate faith rests on the conviction of God’s revealed truth, the belief in biblical infallibility is an imperative. It is the great sin of modern times that many deny this. If we deny the infallibility of the Bible what do we stand on (Mt 7:24-25)? For the church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15). A second important aspect of fellowship is it’s only on the basis of Christ perfect atonement (1 Jn 1:3-4). Of this much has already been said. A third aspect is our fellowship with God is evidenced by our obedience to the gospel (1 Pet 1:22). With these points in mind we may see that God’s purpose in Christian fellowship has two goals: first, is so the church may be a visible witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. And, second, that through His established means of grace, He may build His church.
Fellowship is God’s instituted way of making a public profession of the faith and hope of the gospel. The apostle Paul, encouraging Timothy, admonishes him to “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12). It is by our true profession of faith that we enter into fellowship with the saints (Rom 10:9-13). Fellowship is also the visible bond of our union with the disciples of Jesus. When we meet with other Christians we are bearing testimony to the saving power of Christ. We begin to share the common life of the saints.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!…For there the Lord commanded the blessing—Life forevermore” (Psalm 133:1, 3).
1 – John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vol 7, 67.
2 – Greg Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 293-312.
3 – Augustine, City of God, Book XX, Chapter 5, 715.
4 – John White, The Fight, 141.
Thanksgiving in America
A Guest Post by Dr. Kenyn Cureton
Whatever happened to Thanksgiving? Have you noticed that the store colors and décor changes from Orange and Black to Red and Green overnight? They trade the pumpkins and witches for Santa and Christmas trees. In fact, now there’s no wait, and they are all mixed together. So for most Americans, Thanksgiving is becoming little more than a “speed bump” between Halloween and Christmas. This year more and more businesses will be open on Thanksgiving. It is becoming the vanishing holiday, isn’t it? I recently saw a cartoon that had a Pilgrim husband and wife getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey is on the table, but the wife is putting up a Christmas tree, and the husband asks: “Can that at least wait until after dinner?” Good question! Yet Scripture encourages us to give thanks for the Providential goodness of God: Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever… Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness… Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving, and declare His works with rejoicing (Psalm 107:1, 8-9, 22 NKJV).
The tradition Thanksgiving as a time to focus on God and His blessings dates back over 400 years in America. For example, such thanksgivings observances occurred in:
1541 at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas with Coronado and 1,500 of his men;
1564 at St. Augustine, Florida with French Huguenot (Protestant) colonists;
1598 at El Paso, Texas with Juan de Oñate and his expedition;
1607 at Cape Henry, Virginia with the landing of the Jamestown settlers;
1619 at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia;1
So there were a several times and places where groups of European Christians gave thanks after the discovery and early settlement of America, but it is primarily from the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving celebration of 1621 that we get our current tradition of Thanksgiving Day. You remember their story. The Pilgrims were basically a part of an Independent church that separated from the Church of England, and met secretly in a town called Scrooby. King James I demanded that groups like them conform to the official church of he would: “Harry them out of the land.” Well, the Pilgrims left England and re-established their church in Holland. But after their young people began to be lured away by the wickedness there, their Pastor, John Robinson, prayerfully led the church to consider re-locating the church in the New World of America.
After several setbacks, the first group of church members joined with a group of adventurers and set sail for America on September 6, 1620 in the Mayflower. For two months they braved the harsh elements and storm-tossed sea, missed their target of Virginia, and landed at Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts. Before they disembarked, they huddled beneath the deck and drafted a self-governing document they called the Mayflower Compact that begins: “In the Name of God” and gave this reason for their coming: “For the Glory of God and the Advancement of the Christian Faith.”2 William Bradford described the Pilgrims’ thankfulness when they disembarked:
Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente… What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?”3
After trying to sail south to Virginia and being rebuffed by strong winds, the Pilgrims prayed and discerned that God would have them settle where they had originally landed in what is now Provincetown Harbor. Already late December by this point, they hastily began building shelters, beginning with the “common” or meeting house on Christmas Day.4 However, they were not prepared for such a harsh New England winter, and nearly half of the Pilgrims died before spring.5 When spring came they were out of food. In March, an Indian named Samoset surprised the Pilgrims by greeting them in English, which he had learned from traders on fishing expeditions. A week later, Samoset returned with Squanto, a former captive of English slave traders, who had taken him to Spain, where a monk reportedly rescued him and taught him the Christian faith. Squanto eventually made his way to England and then back to America in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims would arrive. When Squanto returned to his native village, he found that everyone had been wiped out by a plague – no doubt brought to them by English traders. He was one of the last Patuxet Indians in America.6
Well this was his chance for revenge, but instead, Squanto came and offered them his services. Now remember, the Pilgrims were craftsmen and townspeople in England, with little experience as farmers or hunters. In four months time they had caught only one codfish. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to provide for the necessities of life, including how to fish for cod, how to plant corn with a fish, stalk deer, plant pumpkins, skin beavers, and what berries were edible.7 So here was this Native American who understood English fluently, he understood English customs and ways, he ate English foods, and he became committed to the same Christ. He was the right man, at the right place, at the right time. Only God can do that. Squanto’s story is not unlike Joseph in the Old Testament – he was shaped and molded through suffering and slavery to be the instrument of God to literally keep the people of God alive. Governor Bradford described Squanto as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”8 And Squanto not only taught the Pilgrims much about how to live in the New World, he and Samoset helped forge a long-lasting peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians.9 In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims gathered a bountiful harvest. They invited their Indian friends for a Thanksgiving celebration. Winslow records:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling (turkey hunting), so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” 10
Pilgrim Edward Winslow expressed their thanksgiving: “God be praised, we had a good increase of corn… by the goodness of God, we are far from want…”11 So the grateful Pilgrims declared a three-day feast in December 1621 to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends – America’s first Thanksgiving Festival. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the fifty Pilgrims for three days of feasting (which included shellfish, lobsters, turkey, corn bread, berries, deer, and other foods), of play (the young Pilgrim and Wampanoag men engaged in races, wrestling matches, and athletic events), and of prayer.12 As was their custom, Elder William Brewster would have led them in a prayer of thanksgiving to God for His goodness. This celebration and its accompanying activities were the origin of the holiday that Americans now celebrate each November. The Pilgrim practice of designating an official time of Thanksgiving spread into neighboring colonies and became an annual tradition.13 The Massachusetts Bay colony and neighboring colonies followed the Pilgrims’ example of calling for days of thanksgiving. They also adopted their practice of calling for times of prayer and fasting. The New England colonies typically called for a day of prayer and fasting in the spring and a day of prayer and thanksgiving in the fall.
Although Thanksgiving celebrations were common throughout New England, they did not begin to spread southward until the War for Independence, when the Continental Congress issued eight proclamations for a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. It is also worth mentioning that the same Congress also issued seven proclamations for a Day of Fasting and Prayer, for a total of 15 official prayer proclamations during the American Revolution.14 For example, following the amazing victory at Saratoga, a congressional committee consisting of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams, along with General Daniel Roberdeau, recommended the following resolution on November 1, 1777:
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received and to implore such further blessing as they stand in need of; and it having pleased Him in His abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of His common Providence… It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth day of December next, for the solemn thanksgiving and praise: That with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgements and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance;…That it may please Him, to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people, and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet yield its increase; to take school and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under His nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth “in righteous, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”15
America’s first national Thanksgiving proclamation under the U.S. Constitution was made in 1789 with the commencement of the federal government. On the day after the Framers of the Bill of Rights voted to approve them, the Congressional Record for September 25 relates:
Mr. [Elias] Boudinot said he could not think of letting the session pass without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them. With this view, therefore, he would move the following resolution: “Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer. . . .”
Mr. [Roger] Sherman justified the practice of thanksgiving on any single event not only as a laudable one in itself but also as warranted by a number of precedents in Holy Writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon after the building of the temple was a case in point. This example he thought worthy of a Christian imitation on the present occasion…16 In response to the congressional resolution, President George Washington issued the first federal Thanksgiving proclamation on October 3, 1789, declaring in part:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness;’ Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November next, to be devoted by the People of these United States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this country…; for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His Providence…17
Following this initial proclamation, national Thanksgiving proclamations approved by Congress and issued by the President occurred only sporadically thereafter.18 Most Thanksgiving observances were proclaimed by civil authorities at the state level. By 1820, the various state governments had issued at least 1,400 official prayer proclamations, almost half for times of thanksgiving and prayer and the other half for times of fasting and prayer, following the pattern set in early New England.19
Credit for the adoption of Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday mostly goes to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s publication. For nearly three decades, Hale promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day to president after president, without success, until President Abraham Lincoln responded to her request in 1863, setting aside the last Thursday of that November as a national “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” The Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Lincoln was remarkable not only for its strong religious content but also for its timing. It was issued during some of the darkest days of the Civil War, with the Union having lost more battles than they had won, and the outcome of the war still very much uncertain. Yet Lincoln called the American people to adopt the attitude of gratitude:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, Who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy…20
This poignant Thanksgiving Proclamation came just three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. Over the seventy-five years following Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, every American president faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day (but the date of the celebrations varied widely from proclamation to proclamation). In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of each November, and in 1941, Congress permanently established that day as the national Thanksgiving holiday.21
Let’s go back to the Pilgrims for one final story. The Pilgrims planted their crops in the spring of 1623, anticipating another bountiful harvest, but summer brought a severe drought, “which continued from the third week in May till about the middle of July without any rain and with great heat for the most part insomuch as the corn began to wither away.”22 With no rain in sight and their crops dying, Governor William Bradford “set apart a solemn day of humiliation to seek ye Lord by humble & fervent prayer in this great distress.”23 Everyone gathered in the meeting house early and spent that clear, hot day in repentance and prayer. When they opened the doors of the meeting house that evening, the skies were cloudy, and then it began to rain a gently soaking rain – on and off for the next two weeks, which gave them cause for “rejoicing & blessing God.”24
As Governor Bradford explained: It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in abundance, as that ye earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith, which did so apparently revive and quicken ye decayed corn and other fruits as was wonderful to see, and made ye Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.25
During that “lean year,” before the harvest came in, the ration was reportedly five kernels of corn per person. However, with the abundance of rain, Edward Winslow records that they had a great harvest that October. 26 So they had another Thanksgiving festival with the Natives, inviting Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoags. This time they came with 120 braves and all their women and children, and they had another tremendous time of feasting and celebrating. But before they filled their plates with all that God had blessed them with, the Pilgrims reportedly placed five kernels of corn on each plate as a reminder of God’s goodness, lest they should forget.27
As you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, don’t forget to take time to genuinely and sincerely thank God for all His many blessings, material and spiritual, which has always been the spirit of this – the uniquely American holiday.
Dr. Kenyn Cureton, a former pastor and Vice President for Convention Relations for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, currently serves as Vice President for Church Ministries with Family Research Council.
1 See http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=17984 for all the historical reference notes on Thanksgiving celebrations before that of the Pilgrims in 1621.
2 William Bradford, Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation:” From the Original Manuscript with a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1898), 110.
3 Ibid., 95.
4 Ibid., 107.
5 Ibid., 111.
6 Ibid., 114-119.
7 Ibid., 121.
8 Ibid., 116.
9 Ibid., 115.
10 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1963), 82, which contains Edward Winslow’s letter written to George Morton of London on December 21, 1621.
13 See DeLoss Love, Jr, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1895), 87-90.
14 See the online version of the Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, 34 vols., (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1907-37) at: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjclink.html and search for June 12, 1775; March 16, 1776; December 11, 1776; November 1, 1777; March 7, 1778; November 17, 1778; March 20,
1779; October 20, 1779; March 11, 1780; October 18, 1780; March 20, 1781; October 26, 1781; March 19, 1782; October 11, 1782; October 18, 1783.
15 Ibid., 9:854-855.
16 Joseph Gales, Sr., comp., The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1:949-50. Hereafter, Annals of Congress.
17 Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington; being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private, Selected and Published from the original Manuscripts, 12 vols. (Boston: American Stationer’s Company, 1837), 12:119.
18 See examples provided by H. S. J. Sickel, Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History With All National Proclamations (Philadelphia: International Printing Co, 1940), such as “Thanksgiving Day 1795” by George Washington, 156-157; “Thanksgiving Day 1798” by John Adams, 158-159; “Thanksgiving Day 1799” by John Adams, 160; “Thanksgiving Day 1814” by James Madison, 161; “Thanksgiving Day 1815” by James Madison, 162, etc.
19 David Barton cites Deloss Love, in his work The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England, who lists some 1,735 proclamations issued between 1620 and 1820, in a non-exclusive list. Of those, 284 were issued by churches and 1,451 by civil authorities. See http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=17984 at note 19.
20 Roy P. Basler, Jr., ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols., (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 6:496-97.
21 David Barton cites the following at note 23: The National Archives, “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving” (at: http://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/); see also Pilgrim Hall Museum, “Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations 1940-1949: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman” (at: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1940.htm), Proclamation 2571: Days of Prayer: Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day, November 11, 1942, referring to a “joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day.”
22 Bradford, 170.
24 Ibid., 171.
26 Edward Winslow, Good Newes From New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1624/ND), 54-55. Corroborated by Bradford, 127.
27 Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1977), 144.