By Bob Russell
Gratitude may be the most important virtue. The Living Bible paraphrases Hebrews 12:28, “Since we have a Kingdom nothing can destroy, let us please God by serving him with thankful hearts and with holy fear and awe.” The Bible teaches that gratitude pleases God. Our heavenly Father takes delight in the praise of his people.
When we parents and grandparents give our children an expensive Christmas gift, nothing pleases us more than to hear, “Wow! Thanks, Mom! This is great!” Or, “Thanks, Pop! This is exactly what I wanted!” We are thrilled with their expression of genuine gratitude. When God’s people have joyful, thankful spirits, it pleases our heavenly Father.
A Posture of Praise
Gratitude contributes to personal happiness more than any other virtue. We erroneously think happiness is determined by what is happening to us in the moment. And admittedly, circumstances do occasionally contribute to our fluctuating moods. But Paul wrote that he learned to be content whatever his circumstances. Consistent contentment is determined more by developing a spirit of appreciation than by external events.
Romans 1 documents the downward spiral of a godless culture. The result is sexual perversion and spiritual defiance. Romans 1:21 describes the reason for the decline: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The Bible teaches that spiritual apostasy begins with ingratitude.
If I begin to slip into a dark mood, I usually can recover a joyful spirit by doing two things. First, I analyze why I am down. What has contributed to my gloom? Usually when I list the factors that have made me somewhat depressed, I realize how shallow they are or what I should do to correct the situation. If it’s obvious there is nothing I can do, I repeat some of the Good Shepherd’s promises to care for me and restore my soul.
Second, I take time to list as many of God’s good and perfect gifts as I can. Colossians 4:2 commands us, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Usually, the reason we are not grateful is we are not “watchful”—our eyes are closed to God’s blessings. So, I begin my morning prayer by expressing thanks for the people and the experiences that have blessed my life from childhood to the present day. Soon the words of a popular praise song come to mind, “All my life You have been faithful; all my life You have been so, so good! With every breath that I am able, Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God.” I discover a grateful heart soon overrides a melancholy spirit.
Promises and Prayers
The Bible teaches us to give thanks regardless of our circumstances. One of the most difficult commands in Scripture is this: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We are not commanded to give thanks for all circumstances, since there are some things for which we are not grateful. But even in those circumstances we can thank the Lord for his promise that all things work together for good to those who love him.
Last fall when my grandson Charlie spent 77 days in the intensive care unit of a Nashville hospital, I thought a lot about the biblical instruction to give thanks in all circumstances. Charlie was battling COVID-19 and was under sedation for well over two months. He was on a ventilator, undergoing kidney dialysis, and on an ECMO machine (cleansing his blood) all at the same time. At one point a doctor told me, “We are down to divine intervention.”
Those were extremely dark days for our family, but we were so grateful that thousands of Christians across the nation joined with us in praying for Charlie. Central Christian College of the Bible president David Fincher said, “Bob, I’ve been traveling all over the country, and I’ve never seen our brotherhood so united in prayer for one person.”
While I was encouraged by the many prayers, it was still a difficult period for me. I didn’t know whether Satan was attacking us or God was testing us. Either way, I didn’t like it. But I remembered how often I had preached to my congregation to be grateful in all circumstances and to “rejoice always.” So, I tried to remain joyful even though I wasn’t happy. I had to fake it at times, but the Bible says, “When you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18, New Living Translation).
In the middle of Charlie’s struggles, my daughter-in-law sent me a text that really lifted me up.
Happy 78th birthday to my most favorite father-in-law of all time!! I’m incredibly thankful for you! One thing I’ve always loved about you is how your mood and personality are so steady and temperate. I can say that has been even more appreciated over the last (almost) 8 weeks! I know you’ve said Charlie’s hospitalization has been one of the most challenging experiences you’ve ever had, but you haven’t behaved like that . . . and for that, I am thankful! I really appreciate that you don’t punish everyone else around you because of the pain you are experiencing! (I know some people like that! It’s pure torture!) But I will say that I am so sorry that you are experiencing this level of heartache and pain.
I’ve always believed that God gave you to me as a really sweet and special gift. And I’m realizing that you are the same gift to our three (almost grown) kids. I’m grateful you have been one of the most influential people in their lives . . . for their whole lives! Please continue to do what you’ve been doing! (It is working!) God was so good to give you to all of us! I love you! Happy Birthday!
That’s about the nicest birthday present I have ever received.
I was taught in preaching class to “seldom make yourself the hero of an illustration.” I realize this story makes me look better than I am, but that experience makes such an important point: You are more likely to have others boost you up if you are joyful than if you mope around and beg for sympathy. And you are more likely to be joyful if you continue to give thanks even though it doesn’t seem to be paying off at the moment.
The Pilgrims’ Perspective
The importance of giving thanks in all circumstances was demonstrated by the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. Consider what our forefathers had endured the previous year. From our pampered perspective, they didn’t have much for which to be thankful.
In the late summer of 1620, about 130 Pilgrims and crew dared to embark on a hazardous, 3,000-mile journey from England to America. They craved a new beginning in a land where they would be free to worship God without government interference.
These courageous souls were confident they were following God’s guidance, but their trip to America was beset with numerous complications. They initially set sail on two small, 100-foot vessels. The Mayflower accommodated more than 100 passengers and the Speedwell carried most of their supplies. They weren’t even out of the English Channel when the Speedwell began taking on water. Both ships returned to port for repairs.
A week later, the two ships departed again and were more than 200 miles out to sea when they had to turn around a second time because the Speedwell was taking on water again. Though it was dangerously late in the season, the hearty religious separatists were determined to proceed. Twenty people volunteered to stay behind while 102 brave souls boarded the Mayflower with as many of their supplies as they could cram on board and headed out to sea a third time.
Much to their dismay, about halfway to their destination, the Mayflower encountered a tropical storm with 50 mph winds that produced enormous waves that threatened to capsize them. Even the experienced sailors feared for their lives. They could do nothing but plead with God to spare them.
The seas became so rough the passengers were confined to the hold and got very little fresh air. Rats and insects ravaged their food. Everyone got seasick. Passengers vomited into pails; the stench was unbearable.
Finally, after 65 agonizing days, they spotted land. However, they were 500 miles north of their target, the Virginia Colony. Keep in mind there were no hotels on Cape Cod, no one to greet them, no one to advise them about best practices. Hostile natives lurked in the woods. Winter was coming.
A terrible flu epidemic hit during that first brutal winter, and half of them died. The Pilgrims buried their dead at night so the spying Indians would not know of their depleted ranks.
When spring arrived, those that survived prayed, planted seed, erected more stable shelters, and labored for a good harvest to sustain them through the approaching winter. It was then that they paused to have a service of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.
Is that what we would have done? Rather, might we have had a gripe session and given God a piece of our mind?
Not the Pilgrims. Instead, during that first Thanksgiving, they quoted Psalm 100:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Could you give thanks if you had prayed for a smooth journey yet barely survived? Could you praise God for his goodness if half of your loved ones had died? Could you shout for joy if you were one of 50 people scraping to survive in a terrifying territory with no guarantee you would live through the next winter? They did!
What made the Pilgrims so spiritually strong and mentally tough? They considered themselves stepping-stones. The Pilgrims knew it was not about them; it was about God’s will, and it was about the welfare of their descendants.
Contrast the Pilgrims’ attitude with our consumer mentality. The Pilgrims considered themselves stepping-stones, but we consider ourselves keystones. We assume we are the center of the universe. It’s all about us . . . our needs, our comfort, our desires.
The Bible teaches us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
That’s why the Pilgrims were thankful. Their sacrifice had paid off. Their children, grandchildren, and future generations had hope. Their descendants were going to be free to worship God and free to reach their fullest potential. That’s what made them thankful, and that’s what eventually made America exceptional.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Bob Russell retired as senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006.