Most of us say perfunctory thank-yous” to people we barely know. We thank the doorman, the delivery person, the sales clerk—usually in response to a paid service. Often the word “thanks” is merely a social ritual to maintain politeness. At times it is uttered all but unintentionally.

However real thanksgiving is so much more.

Thankfulness to God is like a wide-angle lens that shows the larger dimension of our reality. It helps us appraise our situation, to see it in context. True acts of thanksgiving sharpen our discernment of God and His ways. We are to give thanks in all things (Philippians 4:6), not out of politeness to The Creator, but to celebrate who He is—and to understand who we are in relation to Him. Scripture commends, even commands, the intentional giving of thanks. “But we are bound to give thanks to God always” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). This verse implies that giving thanks is a debt we owe to the One who has given us so much. But it is a debt we can pay with gladness.

Thanksgiving can even help us comprehend God’s providential care amidst the hardships and tragedies of life. To be biblically thankful is to recognize God’s goodness in all things—even adversity.

Over the summer our daughter Lyn was hit by a car as she was in a crosswalk. Her injuries were many and severe, as were the pains throughout her body. I saw her within a few days of the accident and could barely hold back the tears as I sat with her in the hospital. The whole family was in great distress. Of course, we could thank God that Lyn was not killed or permanently disabled. But I was not in the habit of thanking God for what didn’t happen.

Can you believe that as I prayed thanksgiving for God’s blessing in sparing my daughter’s life, I could also thank Him for the benefit He would bring out of the anguish? That is right. In the midst of this adversity I had to reach for thanksgiving as the door that would open a Romans 8:28 experience:

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”

When distress comes, it helps if we are thankful to God, knowing that He will work in ways we have yet to see or understand. For example, this accident has shown how very close our family is and how much we are willing to do for one another. My respect for our grandchildren grew as I saw the way they handled the crisis.

It is one thing to thank God for adversity in the accidental pains we encounter, but we are also to be thankful when people purposely oppose and try to thwart us.

Raging fires of opposition can actually burn away the dross from the metal of our souls. When I became a missionary to the Jews, I was labeled an apostate. It became the duty of my own people to revile me. Later, when I founded the Jews for Jesus organization—a high-demand mission—I was depicted as a villain not only in the Jewish community, but even among some Christians who thought that being a missionary should be a less demanding, more comfortable vocation.

Nevertheless, I thank God for opposition and I have benefited greatly because of it. At times, God has used people’s anger to show me my personal and spiritual weaknesses. I have sometimes been chastised through opposition for real wrongs which helped me repent and repair what was inadequate or hurtful to others. I can’t say that I have had 100% success in this, but I can say that opposition has helped me be a better person and that every knock has been a boost.

When we look to see where we might be at fault, confess our sin and correct our behavior, we can thank God that our opposition has accomplished a godly purpose in our lives, regardless of their intentions.

Thanksgiving for various kinds of adversity and opposition widens our perception to help us see that even the distressing seasons of life can have meaning. Thanksgiving does not dismiss pain or wrong, but helps us zero in on what is good and right. It helps us to understand what truly has value. When we examine every situation to find something for which we can thank God, He receives glory and we find comfort and joy. So build a list of what God has given you and see the adversity of your life as something He allows for your benefit. Then rejoice in the Lord with thanksgiving.