Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Context of Genuine Thankfulness

An Attitude of Gratitude
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Ephesians 5:4, 18-21; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:17  (all Scriptures ESV)

Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:21).
You’ve seen it, heard it, been there. Mr. A finishes something for Mr. B, who nonchalantly says, "Yeah, thanx," and walks off. Or a child dutifully thanks her aunt for the gift, but later tells her sister, "This is not what I wanted!" Or some other scenario of thankless thanks.

What constitutes the context of genuine thanksgiving? Is it the giver? Is it the circumstance, the occasion, time or place? Is it the gift? These things may be part of the context, but the key ingredient is the heart and mind of the recipient. Genuine thanks comes from genuine thankfulness, which comes from an attitude of gratitude.

For example, God rescued the Israelites from oppressive slavery and genocide in Egypt. Their thankfulness was short-lived, even after crossing the Red Sea on dry land. They mumbled and grumbled their way through the wilderness, even as God miraculously led them and fed them along the way. For forty years they dined and whined. Psalm 78 recalls this account; here is a portion:

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying, "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?"
Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.
         Psalm 78: 17-22
In the Old Testament God’s people are urged several times to "give thanks" to God (1 Chron. 16; 2 Chron 20 & 31; Neh. 12; and many of the Psalms). The Law does not command thanksgiving, but makes provision for the person who wants to make an offering of thanksgiving (Lev. 7:11-18; 22:29-30). This offering was to come from the heart, not from duty.

In the New Testament thanksgiving flows from thankful hearts. In Luke 17:11-19, thankfulness is linked with thoughtfulness. Ten lepers ask Jesus to heal them. He told them to show themselves to the priests. On the way they are healed, but only one turns back and thanks him. Only one out of ten was thankful enough to think about thanking the healer.

Paul expresses his thanks many times in his letters, mostly for the salvation and spiritual growth of his readers (for example, Eph. 1:15-16). There are times when the apostle interrupts his message with an outburst of joy and praise:

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Eph. 4:20-21).

If we find it hard to be genuinely thankful, how do we get this attitude of gratitude? First of all, we need a change of heart. The original heart transplant was planned, promised and provided by God: "And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 11:19). Many, if not most, of the readers of this paper already have this new heart, which comes through the new birth. If you do not yet have this new heart, ask God to change your heart. Ask him to forgive your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior and you will become a child of God with a new heart and a new nature. "But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12). "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17).

Even when we have the new heart, the attitude of gratitude has to be cultivated. It is there, but we need to feed it and exercise it. One way is by considering and following the example of others. In the Gospels, Jesus expressed thanks when he fed the crowds (Matt. 15:36; Mark 8:6; John 6:11) and at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22: 17,19). Paul thanked God on a ship during a long, terrible storm (Acts 27:35) and when he met other Christians in Italy (Acts 28:15).

Then there are Paul’s admonitions and advice:

Thankfulness ought to be characteristic of our speech. "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving" (Eph. 5:4). Certainly, thankful speech rules out grumbling and complaining. This is not to say we cannot be truthful about things as they really are, but if we speak of difficulties, temper it with thankfulness to God, because he is in charge and in the end will right all wrongs.

Thanksgiving is in contrast with anxiety: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." (Phil. 4:6). God already knows what we need. He causes all things to work for our ultimate good by shaping our character (Rom. 8:28-29). Jesus said that if we put God’s righteousness first, then he will take care of the real needs (Matt. 6:33).

We are to be thankful in all situations, whether our skies are blue or gray. "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). I admit it, this is not always easy. How many times do we have to catch ourselves and say, "There has to be something to be thankful for in this"? This calls for feeding our minds with God’s goodness, then exercising our attitude of gratitude when in God’s weight room. Habakkuk learned to be thankful because of God’s righteousness, even when facing a national disaster. "Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength" (Hab. 3:17-19a).

Thankfulness characterizes a Spirit-filled life. "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:18-21). Uh oh! There it is: being thankful for everything!" Thankfully we have the Holy Spirit to help us with this.

Finally, our attitude of gratitude is to be part of every activity. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17).

The fourth Thursday of this month is Thanksgiving Day. The harvests are in, so we thank God for his provision. This is the anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing, so we are thankful for national independence and our freedoms. There are many other reasons to be thankful. One of our songs says, "Count your many blessings, see what God has done." Our country is known to the world as the land of freedom and plenty. It is easy for us who have much to lose sight of our blessings and begin complaining and grumbling about what we don’t have or don’t like. It is also easy for our thankfulness to become casual, offhanded, insincere, meaningless. In the spirit of this holiday, let’s thank God in the context of genuine thankfulness with an attitude of gratitude.

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