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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

26 November 2008

Thanks in All Seasons

Reposted from Thanksgiving 2006

Paul GerhardtIt’s easy to thank God or man when life goes smoothly. Yet God moves believers to thankfulness even in difficult circumstances. Hymn writer Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) surely understood trials and troubles. He lost his wife and four children before his own death. His prince barred him from the pulpit for a number of years because Gerhardt refused to speak anything but God’s word and wouldn’t compromise the Gospel for the sake of politics.

Earlier in his life, he endured the plague for the sake of his theological education. He witnessed the bloodshed and terror of the Thirty Years’ War. He certainly had ample opportunity to despair, doubt, or deny God’s grace. Instead, he wrote hymns of hope, certainty, joy, and thanksgiving.

Among his works is O Lord, I Sing with Lips and Heart, a hymn of thankfulness for God’s gifts for this life and the next. Surely he echoes the Psalmist, who wrote, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. (Psalm 92:1-3)”

Singing for JoyGerhardt began the hymn by saying, “O Lord, I sing with lips and heart, Joy of my soul, to Thee; To earth Thy knowledge I impart As it is known to me.” His knowledge of a gracious giving and forgiving God overcame his knowledge of a violent, diseased, sin-infected world and he willingly confessed faith in the Giver of all good.

Knowing that each of us needs forgiveness and restoration each day of our lives, he then said “Thou art the Fount of grace, I know, And Spring so full and free Whence saving health and goodness flow Each day so bounteously.” Gerhardt thus leads us away from dwelling on our problems to the One who provides their ultimate solution.

The next few stanzas confess God’s activity in creation and providential preservation. Gerhardt praised the Lord’s sustaining activities, pointing to Him who sends refreshing rains, warming sun, and a bountiful harvest. Even though he witnessed the deaths of many believers through plague and combat, he celebrated the gift of life as given and sustained by God: “Who is it life and health bestows? Who keeps us with His hand In golden peace, wards off war’s woes From our dear native land?”

The Rich Young RulerFinally, after citing other earthly blessings, including food, shelter, and His comforting presence in our times of need, Gerhardt recognized the Father as the One who calls us from our short, sin-encumbered lives to eternal life and peace. The last stanza leads us to give thanks for the place our Savior prepares for us in the eternal kingdom: “Our deepest need dost Thou supply And all that lasts for aye; Thou leadest to our home on high, When hence we pass away.”

Through the course of this hymn, as in so many other of his works, we meet a saint who models Saint Paul’s words to the Christians of Corinth. Paul Gerhardt followed the apostle and so many other laborers in Christ’s vineyard who could make this confession: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)”

Likewise, today’s believers give thanks as we recognize that also in our bodies “the life of Jesus [is] manifested.” For Christ’s sake, God counts us worthy both to suffer and to celebrate, to receive blessings and to be blessings to others.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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