The New Testament describes it in many ways and under a rich variety of figures. It is, for example, a race: a long and arduous contest, like an Olympic marathon, that demands all of our energies and requires great powers of endurance if we are to reach the goal and win the victor's crown.
It is a spiritual warfare: a fierce, unrelenting battle with the forces of evil that seek to destroy us. It is a crucifixion and resurrection, a death to sin and self and a supernatural rebirth to eternal life in God. It is a discipleship: a rigorous process of training and growth in Christlikeness of character. It is, again, a stewardship: a responsible management of all our powers and abilities, our time, our money, and our opportunities for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom on earth.But it is something else. The Christian life is a song of thanksgiving, a glad and joyous hymn of praise to God. "Be thankful," Paul admonished the believers at Colossae in our text. "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you," he counseled the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In his Letter to the Ephesians, he told his readers to "be filled with the (Holy) Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Then he proceeded at once to indicate that a prominent mark of the Spirit-filled life is thanksgiving "always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father" (Ephesians 5:20). A Christian should be thankful.
The Call to Thankfulness
We all like to be thanked. When we give a gift to someone, when we help another person, when we perform an act of kindness for a fellow human being, we expect some expression of appreciation. Our generosity or service may not be consciously motivated by any desire for recognition. Our action may be prompted primarily by our love, or our compassion, or our genuine concern for the other person's happiness. But if there is little or no evidence of gratitude, we are hurt and offended, and at times grow indignant.
Some years ago my wife and I received an unexpected gift of two hundred dollars a few days before Christmas. We decided to share our good fortune with a needy family. We contacted a social agency and got the name of a couple in their sixties, who, because of tragic circumstances, were raising four grandchildren. The couple was in poor health, burdened with heavy medical expenses, and the husband was unable to work. Even their kitchen stove had burned out on them. They had nothing for the children for Christmas.
We purchased a nice gift for each child, had them beautifully wrapped, then drove across the city to deliver them. Assured by the agency that the grandparents would manage wisely any money we might give them, I handed them a sealed envelope containing ninety dollars. Since they did not open the envelope in our presence, they had no idea how much money we had given them. Although as we left the family said, "Thank you," we thought that after Christmas we might receive a phone call or a brief note of appreciation. To our disappointment, we never heard a further word from them.
Our human desire for thanks is an echo from the heart of God. He, too, wants to be thanked. He expects us to show our gratitude for all His wonderful goodness to us. The Old Testament, as well as the New, rings with the summons to thanksgiving.
Listen to the psalmist, as he cries, "O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise!" (Psalms 95:1).
And again, "Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name!" (Psalms 120:4).
Psalms 150:1, the grand finale of the Psalter, is composed entirely of a chain of 13 commands to praise the Lord. It closes with a call to all living creatures to join together in a swelling chorus of praise to Him. "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" (Psalms 150:6).
"Where are the nine?" Jesus asked, when only one of 10 lepers He had healed, a despised Samaritan, returned to express his gratitude. "Was no one found to return and give thanks except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:17). That note of disappointment at human ingratitude is as much a revelation of the Father's heart as anything our Lord ever said or did.
God looks for and delights in the thanksgiving of His grateful people. Should not you and I, then, delight to give it to Him? Should we not assign to thanksgiving a much larger place in our prayers?
The Cause of Our Thankfulness
"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Psalms 103:2). What a mighty impulse to thankfulness lies in those three words of the psalmist: "all his benefits"! As the English poet Joseph Addison put it:
"Ten thousand thousand precious gifts
My daily thanks employ."
Let me suggest to you a Thanksgiving Day exercise that our family has found to be both helpful and revealing. After you have feasted on your sumptuous dinner of turkey with all the trimmings, ask each member of the family--be sure that you don't leave out any of the children, even the youngest--to take a sheet of paper and write down all the things he is thankful for.
When this is done, ask each one to read his list to the rest. Then ask the whole family to join together in prayer, as each, in turn, gives thanks to God for the blessings he has thought of. I know of no better way to stimulate the spirit of thankfulness in our hearts and in our homes.
Any such inventory of God's goodness will certainly include the common blessings of life most of us are privileged to enjoy: health and home, family and friends, food and clothing, work and play, laughter and happiness, and all the wonder and beauty of nature that God has created for our pleasure.
As citizens of this great land, we should remember how highly favored we are. While not all of us are rich and some--an alarmingly increasing number--are poor, we know nothing of the appalling poverty, hunger, and disease that are a triple scourge to millions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Every minute 24 people, mostly children, starve to death or die of extreme malnutrition. By the time this service is over, 1500 of our fellow human beings will have died since we gathered here just because they didn't have enough food to keep them alive and well. Each and every day, 35,000 men, women and children--13 million a year--vanish from our planet, devoured by the dragon of hunger.
We Americans enjoy an affluence never matched by any other nation or generation in history. Our material resources are incalculable. Our forbears have bequeathed to us an unsurpassed heritage of political and religious freedom. Educational benefits and opportunities for cultural enrichment are available to almost everyone. In this century of unprecedented global warfare, we have been spared the horrors of devastation. Our national blessings are the envy of the whole world.
Beyond these and a host of other things, each of us has his own special reasons to give thanks. But as Christians we should be grateful most of all for God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ and the wealth of spiritual benefits that are ours.
Paul was a master of the art of language. Whether he was preaching a sermon, developing a theological argument, debating with opponents of the gospel, rebuking men for their sins, settling disputes among Christians, appealing for mercy on behalf of a runaway slave, or defending himself against bitter accusers before a Roman tribunal, he was never at a loss for words. But when he reflected on the meaning of Jesus Christ and all he owed to Him, Paul found human language hopelessly bankrupt, and could only exclaim, "Thanks be to God for His gift beyond words" (2 Corinthians 9:15).
If by faith we know Jesus Christ as our Saviour, then we have forgiveness of all our sins through His blood. In Him we are reconciled to God and may come boldly to His throne of grace and power. We are heirs of His kingdom. He is our Father and we are His children. He is with us always, and will provide for all our needs, will protect us, and guide us through all our earthly journey, and at last will welcome us to glory in His presence forever.
Whatever else we may or may not have, with blessings like these, our life, indeed, should be one unbroken hymn of thanks.
"Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who, like me, His praise should sing?"
The Characteristics of Christian Thankfulness
How do we express our gratitude to God? How can you and I tell if we are really thankful?
Obviously, we praise God with our lips. The author of Hebrews says that through Christ we should "continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name" (Hebrews 13:15). Words, nevertheless, are notoriously cheap, and the gratitude that contents itself with "Thank You's" to God, however piously and eloquently phrased, is cheap and insincere.
Real Christian thankfulness is a life-transforming dynamic. What, then, are its marks? Let us look at several of the most important ones.
If we are thankful to God, we shall obey Him. In nothing does Christian gratitude reveal itself more clearly than in obedience.
We tend to forget that God's great purpose for us is not merely to rescue us from hell. His ultimate goal is to mold us into the image of His Son, to make us altogether Christlike.
If you were to sum up the character of Jesus in a single word, what word would you choose? Love? Trust? Humility? Purity? Self-sacrifice? He, of course, embodied them all, and in perfect measure. But the word that best sums up the character of our Lord is the word obedience.
"My food," He said to His disciples, "is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work" (John 4:34). That was His life-motto. With absolute truthfulness he could claim, "I always do what is pleasing to Him" (John 8:29).
In everything He ever did, our Lord perfectly and completely fulfilled His Father's will. He obeyed to the letter all the demands of God's law, so that no fault or blemish could be found in Him. Then, in that same spirit of obedience to His Father's will, He offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
God has redeemed us in order to make us like Jesus. If we are grateful for all that He has done for us, especially for our redemption through Christ's death on the cross, we shall express that gratitude by our obedience to His will. Out of our gratitude will be born the determination to live a yielded life, the desire to please God in all things. A thankful Christian is an obedient Christian.
A second, and closely related, mark of Christian thankfulness is service.
To be a disciple of Christ is to be a servant of Christ. If we live under the Lordship of Christ, you and I will devote our whole lives to Him and will labor steadily for His glory by ministering to the needs of others in His name. The supreme motive for this service will be our gratitude to God for His undeserved favor and goodness to us in Christ.
What a wealth of opportunities for service our Lord gives us! It may be teaching a church school class, or conducting a children's Bible club or youth group. It may be working in a church day-care center. It may be delivering meals to the homebound elderly, or running errands for them, or visiting in hospitals and nursing homes. It may be helping with the physically handicapped or the mentally retarded. It may be ministering to alcoholics or drug addicts, or befriending prostitutes or prisoners.
The forms of service will vary according to our individual gifts and calling. But if we are grateful to God, we shall be busy in His service, ministering to others in the name of our Saviour, and always seeking as we minister to share with them the Gospel of His redeeming love.
After years of bondage, a slave was purchased by a stranger and set free. Falling down at the man's feet, he sobbed, "I will be your slave till death."
Thankfulness is the spring of the noblest service. That is why Christian service is the finest service in the world.
Our thankfulness to God will also express itself in giving. Wherever you find a grateful heart, you are sure to find a generous hand.
A fine Christian layman called me one afternoon. "God has been especially good to me this year," he explained, "and I want to share that goodness with others." He then asked me to recommend several Christian ministries which I considered worthy of his support.
"Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name," said the psalmist; "bring an offering, and come into his courts!" (Psalms 96:8). How comfortable would you feel to think that God measures your gratitude to Him by the gifts you place on the offering plate each week? He does exactly that.
The key to balanced church budgets, increased missionary support, and larger benevolences does not lie in bingo, bazaars, and bake sales; nor in high-pressure financial campaigns; nor in a legalistic emphasis upon the duty of tithing. It lies rather in the cultivation of the Christian grace of thankfulness.
Her gratitude for all that Jesus meant to her prompted Mary of Bethany to anoint Him with her jar of ointment, a gift that cost the equivalent of a laborer's yearly wages. Paul boasted of the Gentile Christians of Macedonia who, though desperately poor themselves, out of gratitude for their spiritual blessings, eagerly gave beyond their means to help the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Poor and affluent alike give joyously and generously when their hearts are filled with gratitude to God.
Still another characteristic of the thankful spirit is contentment.
We are inclined to think that contentment depends on things and circumstances. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If that were the case, those who have the greatest abundance and suffer the least misfortune would be the happiest. But often these very people are miserable and are some of the worst grumblers and complainers.
In his classic Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, a devout Christian, put these words into the mouth of his hero, "All our discontents spring from the want to thankfulness for what we have."
Fanny Crosby, writer of many popular gospel songs, was stricken with blindness at six weeks of age. When she was just a child of 8, she wrote these lines:
"Oh what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be;
How many blessings I enjoy
That others people don't!
To weep and sigh because I'm blind,
I cannot, and I won't."
"Bless the Lord,' O my soul, and forget not all His benefits" (Psalms 103:2). Grateful Christians don't grumble. They find a happy contentment in their experiences of God's goodness and love.
The crowning feature of Christian thankfulness is the desire for deeper fellowship with God.
It is natural when a friend has done a great kindness to us, that we should draw still closer to him with greater affection and devotion. The love he has shown to us stimulates and intensifies our love for him, so that our friendship becomes richer, more intimate, more precious than ever.
God created us for fellowship with Himself. Nothing in the Genesis story is so beautiful as the immediacy and intimacy of Adam's original relationship with God. And nothing is so dark and tragic as the disruption of that relationship through sin. The rest of the Bible records the gradual unfolding of God's amazing plan to restore that relationship through Christ.
When we think of all the goodness and mercy God has shown to us who deserve nothing but His wrath and condemnation, the faithfulness of His providential care, the gifts without number He has lavished upon us, and above all, the salvation He has purchased for us through the death of His own dear Son, how can we fail, if we are truly grateful Christians, to place Him at the center of our hearts and lives?
Surely, more than anything else, we shall long to know Him better and to live in glad and loving fellowship with Him forever.
"Would you know," asked William Law the mystic, "who is the greatest saint? He is not the man who does most, or even prays most. He is the man who is most thankful."
Judged by that test, what kind of Christian are you?