God’s Message to Us: Gratitude

Psalm 65:6-13 You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength,who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. 10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops.11 You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.13 The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus 

In a few days we will celebrate Thanksgiving. Many of us will have dinner at home. Some will go to friends and others may go to a restaurant. This is a time when we give thanks to God for the bounty that we have and that we share with others. It will be with gratitude that we offer up prayers of thanksgiving on Thursday.

Our first reading today from Psalm 65 is a Psalm of gratitude for the vastness of God’s creation and the bounty that is available to humans and all life. On Friday night, the temperature at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA was falling below freezing. The stars and planets were radiant and twinkling. I sat outside, in my heavy down parka just in awe. What an amazing creation that surpasses all definitions and understanding. As a young child, my sense of awe and gratitude for creation has always been with me. It has not diminished – even in my elder years.

This morning we will work with the subject of gratitude. Christian author John Ortberg writes, “Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It opens us up to wonder, delight, and humility. It makes our hearts generous. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.

Gratitude is the gift God gives to us which enables us to be blessed by all God’s other gifts, the way our taste buds enable us to enjoy the gift of food. Without gratitude our lives degenerate into envy, dissatisfaction, and complaints, taking for granted what we have and always wanting more. So, gratitude is a way of orienting our spirits to experience life as a gift, while the alternative is being chronically discontent. Someone said, “It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.

A recurring theme in understanding gratitude is that choosing to be a grateful person does not mean you become blind to the bad things in life, or the sad or angry feelings that you may have about them. However, it does mean that we choose not to let the bad things blind us to the things for which we are grateful.

An interesting metaphor about this is: There is always something for which to give thanks even on the darkest day there are blessings that count. We must remember that when we face the sun, the shadow falls behind us, but if we turn our backs to the sun, we face the darkness of the shadow.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the following gratitude story might be helpful to us. They all fall under the theme of 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (NIV). Of course, this verse doesn’t mean that everything that happens to us is God’s will. It’s not God’s will that we lose our jobs, or get diagnosed with cancer, or that our children make poor choices. What this verse does say is that it’s God’s will for us to be thankful people in all circumstances, even in hard times—especially in hard times!

When the late author John Claypool lost his ten-year-old daughter to leukemia, gratitude was the only way he survived. He tells about that experience in his profound book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief. [1] After his daughter’s death, John walked down three different paths. The first path was to say, “Well, it was just God’s will. I have to accept it.” But that was not helpful. He could not believe that God willed ten-year-old girls to die of leukemia. How often do we use the phrase “It’s God’s will! Unfortunately, this statement masks the pain associated with the event.

A second path was to try to find an intellectual answer as to why this happened. John Claypool tried to make sense of it. But that didn’t work either. His daughter’s death didn’t make any sense. Finally, John walked the path of gratitude. He realized that life is a gift. We need to savor life. That we have any life at all is pure gift and pure grace. Therefore, John chose to be thankful for the ten good years they had together rather than being consumed with resentment for the years he did not have with her. This path of gratitude wasn’t easy, but it was the only path which offered any help.

Let’s begin to look at each section of this morning’s Scripture.

In order to grasp the interconnections of the three phrases in 1 Thessalonian’s 5:16-18, I would like you to visualize a wheel – like an old wagon wheel. There are three spokes attached to the outer rim – the outer rim is labeled “gratitude”. The three spokes are labeled “Rejoice always”, pray continuously, and the third spoke is to Give thanks in all situations. All go together to support gratitude.

The first spoke of the gratitude wheel is Rejoice always. Does “rejoicing always” mean that you always go around with a smile on your face and an upbeat bounce in your steps? The answer is not really!

I have experienced people who have had some major problems in their lives. But whenever I asked, “How are you doing?” they would reply, “I’m just praising the Lord!” They seemed to think that it would be unspiritual to reply, “I’m really struggling with some things.” So, they always put on a happy face and said that they were praising the Lord. But they seemed to be denying reality.

If “rejoicing always” means always being upbeat and never feeling sadness, then we have a major problem, because neither Jesus nor Paul were always happy. It’s interesting that the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is (1 Thess. 5:16), “Rejoice always,” but the shortest verse in the English New Testament is (John 11:35), “Jesus wept.”

So “rejoice always” does not mean, “Deny your feelings, put on a happy face, and never feel sad.” So, what does Paul mean when he commands, “Rejoice always”? First, it’s important to remember that Paul wrote this to new Christians who were suffering persecution because of their faith (1 Thess. 3:3-4). And the command follows Paul’s urging that we should not “get even” when someone mistreats us.

Paul certainly remembered and used Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, given their difficult circumstances, this command to rejoice always has to be viewed not primarily as a matter of feelings, but rather of obedience. When we are in difficult trials or if people have mistreated us because of our faith, we have a choice: either we can focus on our trials and lapse into self-pity. Or we can set our minds on the things above, where Christ is at the right hand of God, where our life is hidden in Him (Col. 3:1-4) and rejoice.

As Paul commanded the Philippians (4:4), “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” That little phrase, “in the Lord” is the key. Our joy cannot be totally oblivious to circumstances, but neither should it be governed by them. So “rejoicing always” is a conscious attitude of contentment, hope, and happiness that comes from deliberately focusing on Christ and the eternal treasures that we have received freely from Him.

Many times, people ask me – How are you doing? Being honest in my answer is the best way to address grief. It’s also healing.

How can we develop a habit of rejoicing always? First, a daily focus on the riches that God has freely given us in Christ. God has freely bestowed His grace on us through Christ. Second, to recognize that the fruit of being in Christ is an attitude of joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). To walk with the Holy Spirit means to rely on the Holy Spirit to help us with decisions. It doesn’t happen instantly; however, it is a result of seeking the Spirit as the Comforter. But if we walk consistently by the Spirit, eventually the fruit of joy will be ours. Third, sing! If you’re feeling down, get out a hymnbook or put on some familiar Christian music and sing of God’s goodness, grace, and love. Singing is one way of implementing the first strategy—focusing on the riches that God has freely given to you in Christ (BTW – I ask Alexa – play —!!! and it works.)

The second spoke of the wheel of gratitude is to Pray continually. We ask ourselves: What does this mean? Does this mean that you must pray every waking moment? Obviously, not, because neither Paul nor Jesus did that. It is helpful to know that the word translated “without ceasing” was used as a description of a hacking cough. A person with a bad cough doesn’t cough continuously, but often and repeatedly. Even so, our prayers should be frequent and persistent. Like the friend who came at midnight to ask for a loaf of bread (Luke 11:5-13), we keep knocking until we get what we’re after.

Rejoicing always and praying without ceasing are related, because it is through prayer that we lay hold of the riches that we have in Christ, which are the source of true joy. Prayer claims the promises of God in our trials. Laying hold of God’s promises brings joy, because we know that God is for us.

How can we develop a habit of praying without ceasing? It’s a lifelong process where we recognize our need to depend on the Lord in every situation. Prayer is the language of trusting in the Lord.

Second, send up short prayers whenever you can. When you think of a loved one or friend, send up a short prayer for him or her. When someone asks you to pray for some need, don’t promise to pray later and then forget. Pray right there with the person.

Third, spend time in God’s word and prayer each morning. I find that the quietness of the early morning with hot strong coffee and Ann’s pictures in view – gives me the certitude of thanksgiving and causes me to begin the day with peace.

The third spoke of the gratitude wheel is to Give thanks in all circumstances.

Here is a corny story: As a pastor was about to begin his meal in a crowded restaurant, a man approached and asked if he could join him. The pastor invited him to sit and as was his custom, he bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache?” the pastor replied, “No, I don’t.” The other man asked, “Well, is there something wrong with your food?” the pastor replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.” The man said, “Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow, and I don’t have to give thanks to anybody when I eat. I just start right in!” The pastor smiled and replied, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does too!”

The Apostle Paul writes that as people of faith, we should give thanks in every situation. In every situation? That seems like a tall order. We could say that Paul might not have been thinking clearly, or that he had lived an easy life. The truth is that Paul was one of the most respected scholars of his day. In his life of following Christ, he had suffered hunger, poverty, shipwreck, trial, beatings and prison. Yet he still encourages us to give thanks in every situation.

Why would he encourage us in that direction? Does it make sense to give thanks when we’re struggling financially? Is giving thanks an appropriate response when things in the family are dysfunctional 

What if this is your first Thanksgiving without a wife or mom, or a dad or a child? What then? Why does Paul say in every situation we are to give thanks?

Quite simply, gratitude opens our hearts. Ingratitude closes the heart. Have you ever met a person who was ungrateful for what they had? They are hard to get to know. No matter what happens to them, life falls short. They feel cheated, angry and then they pull away. Sometimes, such people require a lot of grace on our part. On the other hand, thankful people are most often open-hearted people. No matter what is happening around them, there is calm and a peace that sustains them. There is a graciousness to them, and they connect well. Gratitude opens the heart!

This is why God calls us to give thanks in all things. God has a specific purpose for thankfulness. When we are thankful, we become more aware of His presence and more motivated to seek His purpose. Thankfulness teaches us to trust God, to build our faith, and to recognize our dependence upon God. So, giving thanks in all situations is about choosing gratitude.

So, we must be intentional in choosing gratitude. We must practice giving thanks. And if we keep building the muscle of gratitude, we find the strength to give thanks in every situation, like Paul said (and did). The more we practice gratitude, the easier it will be to be thankful in every situation. We also create an environment — a world— that not only makes it easier for others to be grateful but encourages them to see the blessings around all of us. Remember the wheel metaphor: The rim is gratitude, and the spokes are “rejoice always, pray continuously and give thanks in all situations,”

Thanks be to God!


[1] Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief: John R. Claypool: 9781640653115 – Christianbook.com