By Pastor Glenn Pease
The comedian Joe E. Brown lost his son in World War II. Captain Don Brown was a handsome and healthy strong boy with a quick mind and a flair for leadership. He was student president at UCLA, and student Colonel of ROTC. He was an ideal boy, and as far as father was concerned, the sun rose and set on him. An enemy sabotaged his plane and he crashed to his death. When his father received the word he was performing in Detroit. Here he was as a professional funny man who had to make people laugh when his own heart was broken.
He rebelled and doubted, not only God's love, but his very existence. For 20 hours he wondered in a dark cloud. He wondered out to the airport where he saw 10 boys in uniform in the same outfit his boy was with. It started him thinking of their parents who loved them as he loved Don. He saw them as boys far form home, and often lonely, and ill, and his heart went out to them. He felt he should give these boys all of the laughs he could pack into an hour.
He not only went on with the show, but he began to perform at camps all over the world. His schedule was so furious that he developed a severe case of sciatica. He insisted on keeping his schedule, however, even though he had to be carried from place to place in an ambulance. One night on Christmas Island he gazed out over a sea of faces, and he was just busting to give them more fun than any man could possibly give.
He went into an act that included a crazy dance he use to do in Vaudeville and kept them howling with glee. When it was over and he stood mopping his brow he suddenly realized his pain was gone, and it was gone for good. He had been healed in his zealous act of serving others by cheering their hearts in sorrowful circumstances. He said, "I don't know what faith is or how you get it, but one thing I am sure of, I trust God with my whole life." His heart was grateful for two things: For what God did for him, and for what did through him. This is an experience in the secular world that is a parallel of Paul's experience in the ministry of the Gospel.
In verse 12 Paul says that he came to Troas to preach and the door was wide open. The opportunity was there, and the prospects for success were excellent. But he says in verse 13 that he had no rest in his spirit. He had no peace of mind, but was restless and full of anxiety. In spite of the ideal setting Paul was not in an ideal state of mind to buy up the opportunity. Here is an honest man of God telling it like it is. He had an open door, but he just didn't feel up to entering it.
Titus was suppose to meet him there with a report from Corinth, but he didn't show up. Paul was almost out of his mind with anxiety over the church at Corinth. They had many problems, and Paul had written his first letter to them and try and resolve some of them. He knew that there were critics in the church who were opposed to him. They were trying to get the church to reject his leadership and authority. They said he really didn't care for them, and so Paul is writing this letter to make it clear just how much he does care. He tells of all the suffering he had to endure on their behalf. He tells of such strong anxiety over their state when he did not hear from Titus it was so strong that he could not concentrate on his ministry, and he had to move on until he found Titus.
Paul could not work in a state of mind in which he was uncertain about what was happening in a touchy situation like Corinth. The torture of suspense was too great and it robbed him of his power to work and preach effectively. Many people feel that it is not worthy of a Christian to be so emotionally disturbed and worried about things that they cannot control, but such people are more interested in idealistic fantasies then in real Christian people. No person can claim to be more Christ like, or more committed to Christ than Paul, and he gives his personal testimony to the fact that his mind was so restless that he could not be an effective preacher until he knew how the Corinthian Christians had responded to his letter. Therefore, he left a promising field and went to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul felt that it was of no value to make new converts if he lost the old ones. Conservation of his fruit was very important to Paul, and that was the motive that produced all of his letters.
Paul does not hide his feelings in this letter. In 1:8 he says he was crushed and in a state of despair. In 2:4 he describes his anguish of heart and the fact that he wept for them. Paul does not hesitate to add himself to the list of great men who shed tears out of concern for others. He bears his soul and shows his inner most feelings over and over, and yet he also reveals that he had an incurable optimism, and that he was habitually thankful. For suddenly, like lightening flashing across a dark sky, Paul goes from an anxious mind in verse 13 to verse 14 where he burst forth into praise and thanksgiving.
With Paul there is no way of knowing when he will break forth in thanksgiving. The context gives no hint, for he can be on the mount of blessing, or in the valley of affliction - it makes no difference where, or under what condition-Paul's songs of thanks pop up spontaneously. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "The man who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in life." If this be so, Paul was a man who never slept, for he never forgot to be thankful. Paul's thanksgiving was no mere formality, as it is for many.
Benjamin Franklin recalled his boyhood experience of thanksgiving. They had an old salt barrel in the corner, and from that the meat was taken for every day's need. Every day his father would pray at the table, "Thank thee, Father, for the meat thou hast laid before us." One day Ben got an idea that seemed like an excellent idea for saving time. He said to his father, "Why not say one prayer over the whole barrel and get the thanking done with, and then we won't have to thank the Lord every meal..." He also remembered the sound rebuking he received for his ingratitude. Many, however, do think of thanks to God as a mere formality, but for Paul it came spontaneously out of a heart that could never adequately express his gratitude for two things: For what God did for him, and for what God did through him. These two categories for thanksgiving ought to be inexhaustible resources for every believer. Let's consider Paul's thanks first-
I. FOR WHAT GOD DID FOR HIM.
The first part of verse 14 in the RSV reads, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph." Moffat has it, "Wherever I go, thank God, He makes my life a constant pageant of triumph in Christ." Paul met Titus in Macedonia, and there he heard the news that the Corinthians were repenting and reforming because of Paul's first letter. The very mention of Macedonia brings forth these precious memories, and it leads Paul to shout, "Thanks be to God!" He was so anxious, but now he is so grateful because God has led him again to victory. Paul cannot thank God enough for the blessings and joys of the victorious Christian life. It is a life where the enemies of the cross are defeated, and the captives of darkness are being led out into the light by Christ the conquering King, as He rides in His triumphal train.
Paul is using imagery common in the Roman world, as the victorious Roman Generals would return form battle with their proud soldiers marching in victory with much booty and many captives. The ground would be strewn with flowers, and the air would be filled with the fragrance of incense, as well as music, so that all the sense might enjoy the beauty of victory. Paul is saying that God in His providence is always leading him to one victory after another, but the paradox is that it is the threat of defeat that makes him so appreciate victory. It is no easy victory that Paul experienced. It was only after much suffering, toil and pain, sweat and blood, and much anxiety that he gained the victory. Even then it was not his victory, but Gods. It was God who was leading him in triumph. When God does a great thing for us, however, He does not always lead us in a pleasant path beside still waters, but often through the valley of the shadow of death.
The average American Christian does not experience the kind of thanksgiving that is uniquely biblical. With stuffed turkey and stuffed selves in a beautiful, warm and comfortable environment, even a pagan can be thankful, and is. There is nothing Christian about being grateful when all is going well. The question is, do we praise God from whom all blessings flow when they cease to flow, and the battle rages, and we taste the bitterness of life instead of the sweetness? Biblical gratitude to God does not depend on circumstances, but on unswerving confidence in God no matter what, because of what he has done gives assurance he will lead again in triumph.
The prophet Habakkuk expresses it in Hab. 3:17-18, "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." Nothing could change the fact of what God had done for him. He was the God of his salvation. Godly thanksgiving almost always grows stronger in the midst of trials. Thanksgiving originated in America out of a setting of much suffering for the Pilgrims. Many died, and the living suffered, but thanks be to God was still their victory cry.
Lincoln's official proclamation in 1863, which made Thanksgiving a national holiday came out of a setting of a nation torn by the Civil War. Lincoln, in spite of the problems of unequal magnitude, was mindful of what God had done for this nation. In his mind he believed, as Paul did, that God was always leading him in triumph. He referred to national blessings as, "The gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
Christian Thanksgiving is not a negative matter of being grateful for what is not. Paul was not thankful that he escaped severe beating and imprisonment. He was not grateful for never having been in a shipwreck; for never being stoned or run out of town; for never being criticized by fellow believers. Paul was not joyful because he had no physical problems. He was not thankful that he had never hungered or thirsted, or that he had never been cold and full of anxiety, which gave him sleepless nights. Paul did not escape any of these things, and so he could not be thankful that he had escaped them. He was thankful for what God did, and not just for what God had prevented. God did not prevent hardly anything for Paul, but He did lead him in triumph in spite of all his suffering, and for this Paul was deeply grateful.
Let us keep Paul's experience and perspective in mind when we tend to complain over the pains we must endure. Some poet put it-
Forgive us, Lord, when we complain
Of little pains and small delays;
Help us to carry cheerfully
Our little crosses to thy praise.
It is so easy for us to think on the same level as the non-Christian, and be thankful just for our fine homes, life of freedom, and security. All of these are a great blessing, but all of them can change without there being a change in what God has done for us in Christ. Paul had none of these things, but he was ever thankful for what God did and continued to do for him in Christ. Of course, if we are not always moving forward in victory, then we cannot imitate Paul. We are forced to be thankful on a pagan level if that is where we live. If this be so, let Paul's experience be a challenge to you to move up to the Christian level where victorious living leads to true Christian Thanksgiving. It is only in Christ that we are led of God in triumph. Paul was not only thankful for what God did for him, but also-
II. FOR WHAT GOD DID THROUGH HIM.
The second half of verse 14 in the RSV reads, "And through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere." What unique and beautiful imagery. Paul pictures the triumphant Christian as a perfume dispenser spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of God. This fits the picture of the Roman triumph march in which the atmosphere would be filled with sweet smelling perfume and incense. Paul says that the knowledge of God is like fragrant perfume, and that he was used of God to spread this blessing. Paul was so thankful that God would use him and through him bless people everywhere.
There is no greater joy than the joy of being useful for a great purpose. Dr. Bonar expressed the longing of every sensitive and sensible Christian in his poem, part of which goes like this:
Make use of me, my God! Let me not be forgot;
A broken vessel cast aside, One whom thou needest not.
Thou usest all Thy works...The weakest things that be;
Each has a service of its own, For all things wait on thee.
Thou usest the high stars, The tiny drops of dew;
The great peak, and little hill, My God, O use me too!
A small boy came home crying one day and his mother asked him what his problem was. He said he had worked hard for his cousin pulling weeds, but he never even said thanks. That night when he went to bed he said to his mother, "I was sorry I pulled those weeds this morning, but now I am not." The mother said, "Why? Did your cousin thank you?" He replied, "No, but I feel good inside, and now I know why. It's God's thank you." He felt the good feeling that comes when you know you have been used by God to do something right. It is the opposite of the bad feeling that you suffer when you know you have done something wrong, and have been a servant of evil.
This is another area of thanksgiving that we often bypass. How often do we get excited about the fact that God uses us to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Him? If we don't, maybe it is due to the fact that we are stinkers instead of samples of the Rose of Sharon and the Lilly of the Valley. We must be filled with the fragrance of the knowledge of God ourselves if we are to capture the attention of others with this precious aroma. Paul in 5:14 of this letter says that the love of Christ constrains him. Paul cannot help but spread the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere, for he is filled to overflowing with it. Someone wrote,
Long ago the lilies faded,
Which to Jesus seemed so fair,
But the love that bade them blossom
Still is working everywhere.
Man lost the beautiful and fragrant atmosphere of Eden, but in Christ that atmosphere can again be experienced. Paul is so thankful that he can be a part of such a glorious ministry as bringing the aroma of God to other people. The Gospel is the great spiritual air refresher. The rotten and polluted atmosphere of man's soul can be made clean and fragrant if he will breathe in the Gospel of God's fragrance. No man deserves to be used for such a high purpose, but that is why Paul is so thankful that God would use him. If God only blest us as we deserve, we could not get along on so little. He makes us partners in the greatest work on earth, and when you realize it, you cannot help but be thankful. Our problem is that we do so little cultivating of the flower of gratitude in our hearts. We neglect consideration of the great facts of life concerning what God does for us, and what He is willing to do through us.
Paul pictures preaching and witnessing as a delightful, charming and powerfully attractive profession. God has a beautiful use for us, and we need to respond with a beautiful spirit. Paul Rees paraphrases the words of Col. 3:15: "Brother Christian, I know you have the flower of gratitude planted in your hearts. But I want you to cultivate it. See to it that it grows." Thanks be to God for the beauty of Christ that can through me please both God and man. We can be fragrant flowers of Christ in a world of weeds.
Beecher said, "As flowers carry dewdrops, trembling on the edges of the petals and ready to fall at the first waft of wind or brush a bird, so the heart should carry its beaded words of thanksgiving, and at the first breath of heavenly flavor, let down the shower, perfumed with the hearts gratitude." Hosea Ballow wrote, "Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul, and the heart of man knoweth none more fragrant."
Thanks be to God that through us He can spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere, says Paul. What God did for and through Paul He can does do for us and through us. Therefore, let us on this Thanksgiving mix with the aroma of turkey and other delightful odors be sweet smelling fragrance of Christ like, Pauline gratitude.