It’s easy to be thankful when you’re thinking about all the blessings poured into your life by God. We sing, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one….” Certainly an appropriate thing to do when you realize how much God has done for you and how many gifts you have been given by our God whom Jesus says we should call “Our Father, who is heaven….”
It’s certainly a biblical thought – the most often repeated phrase in the Bible is “Give thanks to the LORD, for his love endures forever.” You’ll find those exact words 19 times in the Bible, not to mention the other 150 various mentions of thankfulness, thanksgiving and gratitude throughout the Bible. God’s people should be a thankful people.
We’ll all spend some time this week thinking about those blessings and sharing a Thanksgiving meal, in which we hopefully will give thanks to God for his love and blessings.
But, of course, thankfulness shouldn’t be restricted to one season of the year, and in fact, shouldn’t be restricted only to thanking God for the good things he has sent our way.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Th. 5:16-18). All circumstances covers a lot of territory, not all of which is smooth sailing.
James reminds us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2)
Peter echoes that thought: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6)
I want you to think about a passage that we hear fairly regularly before we participate in the Lord’s Supper. Think about the setting and the context of Jesus’ words in Luke 22:19-20: And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Jesus is giving thanks for the bread, then thanks for the cup, but what do they represent? His mind is on the events of the coming day: it will be his body that will be broken, it will be his blood that will be shed. He is contemplating his own torture: the scourging, the crucifixion, the agonizing death he will suffer.
Jesus will pray later that night for God to let this cup pass from him, but even then he will pray, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” He is surrendered to God’s will, whatever that may bring. He is thankful to be used by God in whatever way, for whatever purpose the Father needs him.
I’m not sure I can pray that prayer. When Paul writes to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Phil. 3:10) that would be a tough prayer to pray, knowing that what you’re asking for is the opposite of what we usually want from God.
We ask God to protect us from suffering and pain. We want good health and prosperity, and we readily thank God when he gives us that. But could we give thanks when those circumstances take us through the middle of suffering, trials and death?
If we can’t give thanks to God in all circumstances, I’m not sure thanks for the good things means nearly as much.
And that’s not to say we invite suffering. That’s not some twisted kind of masochism that says pain is good. What it is is a response of faith that says whatever God has in store for me is out of his love for me. I might not understand it, I might not see any blessing in it, but I know that everything God gives me is for my best, and I will give thanks.
I think of what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12-13 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Thankfulness is like joy, it isn’t temporary and circumstantial. It isn’t dependent on whether you feel happy and are surrounded with comfort. You don’t wake up every morning and figure out whether you are going to be thankful (or joyful) that day. It is the long term attitude you choose toward life. Thankfulness is a decision you make, not based on your happiness level, but on your realization that God is at work in your life and blessing you way beyond what you deserve or can even imagine.
How many of us function on that level? It takes a lot of spiritual maturity. It’s like loving those who don’t love you, like turning the other cheek, going the second mile. It doesn’t come naturally. Our human instinct is to be happy and thankful when good things come our way and angry and resentful when we don’t get the things we want.
But Paul said, “give thanks in all circumstances.” It’s a game changer. More than that – Paul wrote, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It’s a life changer.
Illust. – Corrie ten Boom
It was this passage in 1 Thess: “Rejoice always; pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” that got Corrie and Betsie ten Boom through those dark days in the Nazi Concentration camp, Ravensbruck. The barracks were filthy and cold and infested with fleas. They wondered how they could survive this God-forsaken place. They had secreted away a few pages of the Bible and would read it to the women in the barracks at night. When they read this passage, Betsie said, “That’s it, Corrie! That’s his answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!’”
I stared at her, then around me at the dark, foul-aired room. “Such as?” I said.
“Such as being assigned here together.” I bit my lip. “Oh yes, Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.” I looked down at the Bible. “Yes! Thank you, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank you for all the women, here in this room, who will meet you in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie. “Thank you for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly. “Corrie!” she prodded. “Oh, all right. Thank you for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank you,” Betsie went on serenely, “for the fleas and for…” The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” “‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’” she quoted. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstance.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” And so we stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
What they later learned was that their barracks were free from the constant inspections and the rapes and molestations by the guards because of the fleas. The guards refused to enter their barracks because of the fleas. (From The Hiding Place, p. 180ff.)
There is no better place to be than to be firmly in the center of God’s will for your life. Do you want to know what God’s will is for your life? Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
It’s interesting that in the Bible there are two responses to God’s blessings: Gratitude and generosity or ingratitude and selfishness.
We see one of those responses repeated over and over among God’s people, Israel following their escape from Egypt and wanderings through Sinai. God takes them into the wilderness – free people – but they immediately begin complaining that he had led them out there to let them die. He gives them manna, but they want meat. He gives them quail, but it’s too much trouble to gather. He takes them to the doorstep of the promised land, but the inhabitants are like giants and they complain that God has made fools of them. Nothing God did for them was ever enough. And their history was littered with examples of that same kind of ingratitude repeated over and over.
Jesus tells a parable of a rich man, whose crops are so abundant he runs out of room, so he decides to build bigger and better barns – but never a word of thanks to God or a display of generosity toward his neighbors. And God came to him one night and said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar who sat outside the rich man’s front door every day starving to death. They both die, and the rich man goes to Hades in torment and begs for Lazarus, who is in paradise to bring him just a drop of water to cool his tongue, but Abraham tells him, “in your lifetime you received your good things…”
In the book of Acts, we see a dramatic contrast between Barnabas, who, seeing the needs of brothers and sisters in Christ sells a piece of land and gives the money to help them. Ananias and Sapphira want to get the same kind of recognition so they sell some property as well, but they lie about how much they’re giving to the poor. When they are confronted about it, they lie again, and Peter says, “What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” And both of them fall down dead.
Ingratitude and selfishness are such a poor response to God’s rich generosity to us. And yet is a response so often chosen by those who have received so much.
Perhaps one of the most amazing examples of generosity flowing out of gratitude is that of the Macedonian church. Paul writes: And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. (2 Cor. 8:1-5)
God wants us to be grateful, but he wants our gratitude to be expressed in a tangible response as we imitate him in his generosity. And when we do that, it results in even more gratitude being expressed to God. We become, not only givers of thanks, but conduits through which thanksgiving is being directed towards God. Listen to two passages from 2 Corinthians in which Paul expresses this thought:
All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (2 Cor. 4:15)
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:10-15)
You want to know the quickest way to having a heart filled with thanksgiving? Start being generous to others. Some folks love to go out and spend money to make themselves feel better – we call it “retail therapy.” When you go out and buy that new dress or purse, or that new fishing pole or bicycle. You bring it home, wear it a couple of times or go out and have fun with your new toy. Then it ends up in the closet or in the garage. The new wears off, the good feeling goes away – you need another fix to get the good feeling back.
Instead of going out and spending money on yourself, go give some of it away to someone who needs it. If you want the ultimate high, do it anonymously so nobody knows it was you who gave it. That feeling lasts a lot longer and goes a lot further. And when that wears off, go give some more away. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to thank God for the opportunity to do something in his name and for his glory. And make sure you do it for his glory.
Illust. – Truett Cathy “Money is nice to have – as long as you’ve got it in your hand and not in your heart.”
Listen to one of Jesus’ best admonitions:
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)
I want to know the joy of generosity, of experiencing just a little bit of what God must experience when he gives to us. And in the process, let God’s Spirit develop within me that thankfulness that overflows in praise, honor and glory to him who gave it all.
Illust. – He’d never gotten over it
Garrison Keillor, author of the nostalgic Lake Wobegon books, recalls his childhood Thanksgiving dinners, as the family gathered around the table and remembered the blessings of the past year.
Uncle John usually gave the prayer, which caused everyone to squirm. As Keillor said, "Everybody in the family knew that Uncle John couldn't pray without talking about the cross and crying.... Sure enough, Uncle John prayed, talked about the cross, and cried. Meanwhile, the rest of us shifted nervously from one foot to the other and longed for the prayer to end."
Then Garrison Keillor adds this powerful observation: "All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it."