Thankfulness to God, who is our Father, should be a defining characteristic of our lives. However, I fear we have a tendency of being practical atheists. I know I do. We may not say we don’t believe in God but we often act like we don’t.
What does this practical atheism look like? It looks thankless. Sometimes when everything is great we forget God. We’re actually really prone to do that as humans (Israel was prone to do that as well; cf. Deut. 6:10-12).
Why does God want us to have a thankful heart?
We are told to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Why? Why does God want us to have thankful hearts? Because we have a ton to be thankful for. We use to have our eyes closed tight. When we were unbelievers we didn’t give thanks to God (Rom. 1:21). But now we see things in a different light. We see all we have is a gift we don’t deserve.
God has given us new eyes! Life! We we’re dead. Now we’re alive.
Ephesians lists out some of the amazing things God has done in saving us and then says “to the praise of His glorious grace.” We are adopted by God through Jesus Christ “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5-6). We have an eternal glorious inheritance through Jesus Christ “to the praise of His glorious grace” (v. 11-12). We have been given the Holy Spirit “to the praise of His glory” (v. 13-14).
We should have a thankful heart because there are so many reasons to be thankful!
We were dead in our sin. Christ made us alive. We were aliens, cast out. Christ brought us close and made us friends. We were enemies of God. Christ brought us peace. We use to walk in the darkness of sin. Now we walk in the light of Christ.
So why does God want us to have a thankful heart? Why are we told to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father”? In part because He is our Father through Jesus! We have so many reasons to be thankful! Actually, how could we not be thankful?!
It says in Romans that if God gave us His Son how will He not also graciously give us all things? Wow! That is astounding. And think of all God already gives us. He gives us breath. We typically don’t really think of that being that amazing, right? We don’t really think about it. Breathing is so easy, so constant, so natural. Yet, it is God that gives to all man life and breath and everything. He gives it. It’s a gift. A gift we don’t deserve.
What gets in the way of having a thankful heart?
For me I think there’s quite a few things. I think sometimes I’m not even aware of things to be thankful for. Or I’m not aware that the good things I’m enjoying are from God. I often just think it’s just the way it just happened to turn out or it’s because of something I did. In short, when I’m not thankful I am acting like I don’t believe in God. I am acting like an atheist.
God created many good things that are to be received with thanksgiving. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4) (notice it is not saying everything without exception, it says everything created by God, so wicked things that displease God are not good). But there are many many good things that we can receive with thanksgiving. Medication, walks in the woods, food, sports, music, Pop Rocks, etc. Yet, how quick I am to take those things and so many others for granted!
There are so many good gifts that God has given us. Yet if we forget to praise Him when we’re enjoying them we are liable to think the gifts are our due. And thus we’ll get upset when the littlest thing doesn’t go our way even though God has heaped good upon good. When we cultivate a heart of thanksgiving it builds us into God and protects us from grumbling and complaining.
Often times when we’re cheerful, whether from God’s gorgeous creation, good food, or good test results, or something else, we don’t think about God. We might bask in the warm sun on the beach, we might celebrate our work on an exam, we might scream out or tell someone why we’re so happy but we often don’t purpose to praise God.
So what seems natural is a response maybe even praise. But not always praise to God. If we’re eating good food we might praise the chef or Taco Bell because it seems like we’re hardwired to act out like that. However, do we thank God? Obviously I’m not saying you can’t tell the guy at Taco Bell that rolled up the mystery meat thanks but ultimately we need to thank God for that crunchy burrito grande thing. It may seem kinda silly and obviously I’m joking a little but I’m also super serious. “Every good [perhaps Taco Bell?] and perfect gift [Chipotle?] comes from the Father” (James 1:17).
We often, myself included, get caught up in the gift and forget the Giver.
How can we grow in thankfulness?
We are to rely on God for all things and look to Him for all things. So when someone is sick or suffering they are exhorted to pray (James 5:13-15). Because sometimes in those situations we can be hopeless and forget that we have a God in heaven who cares and can help. Or we think we can be self-sufficient and handle it ourselves.
However, on the other side, we are also prone to forget our need for God when things are going well. Maybe more prone to forget. So, either way, good or bad, we should turn to the Lord (James 5:13). If I’m thankful because I don’t loss it when I get mad, feel like I had a productive day, or do something well my tendency is not to thank and praise God but to be proud of myself. And God knows that. God knows us and knows our struggles. He knows that we are quick to forget that He is the giver of all good gifts (Acts 17:24-25).
So, God says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” That is let him or her be happy but let them not forget who it is that brought that situation. God did! Paul reminds us to give thanks for everything God gives (Eph. 5:20). So God is reminding us not to forget Him in the midst of our good times. God is telling us to cultivate a heart of thanksgiving and praise.
It’s amazing how helpful and practical it is when we cultivate a heart of praise and thanksgiving. If we cultivate a heart of thanksgiving then we won’t be drawn away from the Lord when something good happens. And when something bad happens we’ll remember how good and gracious God is.
How do we cultivate a thankful heart? It says, “giving thanks” (Eph. 5:20) and in other places it says, “sing praise” (James 5:14). So there’s active intentionality. It’s not passive. It doesn’t just happen.
That’s typically why we pray before meals. Why? Because we’re giving thanks to God and acknowledging that it’s Him that provided it. This was Jesus’ practice. He gave thanks before meals (Matt. 15:36; 26:27; Jn. 6:11, 23 cf. Acts 27:35). In this way we infuse mundane activities with worship. In whatever we do we are to glorify and give thanks to God (1 Cor. 10:31).
How can we purpose to praise even with seemingly “run of the mill” things? I think it’s important that we look for things to be thankful for or realize what it is that we’re enjoying and then intentionally thanking the Lord for that. First of course is Jesus our Savior! But a few other big things are my family, outside, food, and being able to serve at my church.
It can be tempting to wonder why we’re thanking God for our meals. Why? Because after all, didn’t we buy the food? Didn’t we make the food? Didn’t we set the table? Yes we did. But all of that is a gift from God! We are so liable to forget that!
It’s sometimes strangely difficult to be thankful. So I think it’s also helpful to tell others about things that we’re thankful for. That’s part of what it means to sing (James 5:14), right?
What practical impact does having a thankful heart have?
Having a thankful heart changes the way we look at things. If I’m upset with my wife about something but I’ve been cultivating a heart of thanksgiving then I am in a much better place to handle disappointment. If I am cultivating a thankful heart and something happens to me, my car breaks down, someone offends me, I stub my toe, or whatever, I am in a much better place to handle the situation.
Thanksgiving is even an antidote to sin (cf. Eph. 5:4). Partly because sin is often a form of ingratitude. Actually, to neglect thanksgiving is sinful (cf. Lk. 17:16-18; Rom. 1:21). Ingratitude is one of the things that characterize wicked humanity in the last days (2 Tim. 3:2). Instead, we should give thanks continually (1 Cor. 1:4; Col. 2:6-7; 4:2), in all circumstances (Phil. 4:6), to God through Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17).
Thanksgiving should be more and more a characteristic of our lives and as it is we will be empowered to fight against our various nagging sins. We will see all God has given us and see sin for what it really is.
Questions to consider:
1. Do you struggle with being thankful?
2. Why does God want us to have a thankful heart?
3. What gets in the way of having a thankful heart?
4. How can we grow in thankfulness? How can we be intentionally thankful?
5. What practical impact does it make when we have a thankful heart?
6. What’s wrong with being unthankful?
7. What are some challenges you have to work through for you to be thankful?
8. How can cultivating a heart of thanksgiving have a positive impact on your life?