By / May 14

When things are difficult, one of the first things that Christians are prone to forget is how we are called to be a thankful people. Thankfulness is an active disposition of praise and gratefulness to God for who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do in our lives and in the world. Admittedly, with our present circumstances and the grim forecasts that we have been hearing and seeing over the last few months, it can be hard to be thankful. Yet, the difficulty of our situation does not exempt us from our need to be thankful. 

In Colossians 3:15-16, we are told, “be thankful” and “sing with gratitude.” In Philippians 4:6, we are told to “present our requests to God with thanksgiving.” In Ephesians 5:19, we are called to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As the people of God, we are called to be thankful, even in hard times. So, how do we cultivate a thankful heart in hard times? What steps can we take toward thankfulness and gratitude?

Learning from Psalm 138

To help us, I want to turn our attention to Psalm 138. David wrote Psalm 138 to stir the people of Israel to give thanks to the LORD in difficult times and circumstances. His intention was to engender hope through the giving of thanks. This morning, my desire is the same. As we study Psalm 138, my prayer is that we will see the relationship between the giving of thanks for previous mercies and how they contribute to strengthening our present hope. 

Psalm 138 teaches us at least three truths about cultivating a thankful heart in hard times. 

First, we cultivate thankful hearts during hard times by remembering the steadfastness of God. In Psalm 138:1, David declares his resolve to “praise the LORD with all of his heart,” which indicates at once that David’s mind and emotions are not divided. He tells his audience, I will not be swayed to praise lesser beings, or “gods,” but I will “sing your praise.” With boldness, David praises the true God in the presence of idols. In fact, you could even translate the language of “praise” as “giving thanks to God.” David is not worried about how others will view his devotion and thankfulness to God. Yet, even while he demonstrates boldness before others, he also reveals humility before God, “bowing before” the presence of the Lord.

As he bows in reverence before the Lord, David “gives thanks to the LORD’s name.” In other words, he is giving thanks for who God is and what he is doing in that time and space. David ties the “name of the LORD” to the Lord’s “unfailing love” and “faithfulness.” The Hebrew words used here are hesed for “unfailing love” and emet for “faithfulness,” which we find paired together throughout the Old Testament. In one of the more well-known occurrences of these words, we see the Lord himself revealing his glory to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, proclaiming, 

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

The idea of “unfailing love and faithfulness” is rooted in the Lord’s covenantal commitment to his people. It is rooted in God’s grace. As one commentator puts it, “David had learned that God does not lie and that all God’s thoughts and actions toward us flow from love and persist in faithfulness. God is good, and he is always good. Therefore, David wanted to thank God for his goodness and praise him for his covenant love and faithfulness before everyone.” 

God, thus, reveals himself to be the God of “abounding unfailing love and faithfulness” to his people—a steadfast, sure, and unshakeable love. The Lord demonstrates his faithfulness, as David notes in verse 3 with the LORD “answering” him in the day that He cried out, giving David courage and strengthening him in his “inmost being.” When we, like David, take the time to remember the steadfastness of God toward us, we too will be provoked to thankfulness.

Secondly, we cultivate thankful hearts during hard times by reflecting on the splendor of God. In verses 4-6, David moves from his personal remembrance of the steadfastness of God to calling upon others to reflect on the splendor of God. Verse 4 makes a bold claim: “All the kings of the earth will give thanks” to David’s Lord. According to David, because the kings of the earth have heard what God has promised to do for his people, they will sing in the “paths of the LORD.” In other words, they will turn away from their false gods, from their idols, and turn their attention on the living, true God. For, “great is the glory of the LORD.”

When David speaks of the greatness of the glory of the Lord (the “splendor of the LORD”), he is referring to the going public of his uniquely powerful, holy character. Or, as one theologian has put, “The glory of God is the infinite beauty and greatness of God’s manifold perfections.” When David says, “great is the glory of the LORD,” he is saying, “Behold, look upon, reflect on what God has done, is doing, and will do.” See the greatness of God for yourself! See how marvelous, how majestic are his works toward us.

Our hope for cultivating a thankful heart in hard times rests in Jesus, who makes the steadfastness, splendor, and security of God known to us in the depths of our souls. 

And yet, here is one of the most glorious realities about this great God, according to Psalm 138:6, “Though the LORD is exalted, He watches over the lowly and sees the haughty from a distance.” While he is great, he is also near to us. 

Finally, we cultivate thankful hearts during hard times by resting in the security of God. In verse 7, David speaks insightfully into our own situation. While we do not battle against flesh and blood, we do battle against the Enemy of our soul who seeks to oppress and trouble us. While Satan longs to shipwreck our faith in the LORD, David reminds us that while we “walk in the midst of trouble,” our lives will be preserved because of the faithfulness of God. David rests in the deliverance of God, not his own strength or resources.

It is interesting to see how David is comforted in the nearness of his great God. Three times in this passage, David refers to the “hand of God” that was “sent forth, delivering, and working” on behalf of God’s people. David rests in the hands of the God who has delivered him countless times in the past. He knows that God can be trusted. He knows that the one who watches over his people neither sleeps nor slumbers (Psa. 127:1). 

To “rest in the security of God” means to trust in him. As Psalm 56:3-4 tells us, “When I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid.” As you find yourself unsettled, worried, and afraid, David calls us into the rest that he knows as one held in God’s hands. David is certain that God will not abandon his work in his people. And because of that, he can and should be praised and thanked by his people. Even when we feel like the work has been paused for the moment, even when we are struggling to see what God is doing, we can be certain that the Lord’s love endures forever.

The greatest revelation and demonstration that we possess in terms of God’s faithfulness to David, which is point of Psalm 138, is the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Davidic descendant that fulfills the expectations that David voiced in Psalm 138, which for us, means that when we are seeking to cultivate thankful hearts in hard times, we do so by turning our attention to Jesus. For, it is in Jesus Christ that we see the steadfastness of God who completes the work that he began in us (Phil. 1:6); the splendor of God, as Paul speaks of “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6); and the security of God, as Jesus prays for us in John 17. Our hope for cultivating a thankful heart in hard times rests in Jesus, who makes the steadfastness, splendor, and security of God known to us in the depths of our souls. 

By / Nov 23

Today, Americans celebrate a national holiday set aside to give thanks for the blessings of the preceding year. But there is more to Thanksgiving than you may realize. Here are five facts you should know about the holiday:

1. The Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower and landed on Cape Cod were not the first Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving. The “Feast of the First Thanksgiving” was held near El Paso, Texas in 1598 — twenty-three years before the Pilgrims' festival. And at the Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia, settlers celebrated Thanksgiving on December 4th, 1619 — two years before the Pilgrims' festival. As historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, author of The First Thanksgiving, notes, the early Plymouth settlers celebrated in 1621 could more accurately be called the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine.”

2. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth was a secular event that was not repeated. (A Calvinist Thanksgiving occurred in 1623 and did not involve sharing food with the Native Americans.) 52 Pilgrims and approximately 50 Native Americans attended that celebration. According to participant Edward Winslow, the feast consisted of corn, barley, fowl (including wild turkeys), and venison.

3. George Washington was the first to issue a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. On October 3, 1789 in New York City, Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The Continental Congress supported similar thanksgiving proclamations through 1784. President Jefferson, however, opposed this type of proclamation, saying, “"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. …But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer.”

4. Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor and the author of the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, is the person most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Prior to 1863, the holiday was largely a celebration held in New England and unknown in the Southern states. Hale proposed that it be a national holiday in 1846 and advocated it for 17 years before convincing Abraham Lincoln to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863.

5. For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939 the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and convinced him to move Thanksgiving up one week earlier. Since it was believed most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving, retailers thought having an extra week of shopping would encourage Americans to spend more.    

By / Dec 23

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday centered on giving thanks for all that we have. Since then, we’ve moved right into the Christmas season. Our neighbors are decking their halls and home with their Christmas best. The streets are lit with twinkling lights, and the stores are crowded with shoppers. The smell of baked goods is in the air, and the sounds of carols are coming from every speaker.

In the midst of all the Christmas cheer, many of us function as if the season for thanksgiving has passed. We shop without giving one thought toward the one who has given us the ability to work and earn money. We bake without seeking the one who is our daily bread. Others of us just don’t feel like being thankful and cheery. Life can be hard,  and it can seem like there just isn’t anything to be “merry” about. But, especially at Christmas, we are reminded that, as Christians, we have unending reasons to give thanks.

The one who gave thanks

And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well. (Luke 17:12-19)

In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews. It was a hatred that went all the way back to the time when Israel split into two kingdoms and Assyria conquered the northern kingdom. John 4 described this animosity when the woman at the well said to Jesus, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)” (4:9).

Because of this history, the Jews did not talk to or associate with Samaritans. In the case of the ten lepers, it is not only striking that Jesus healed the Samaritan leper, but also that the leper returned to give Jesus thanks. The Samaritan's gratitude is all the more compelling given the fact that none of the other lepers returned in gratitude. Perhaps he knew more than the other nine that he did not deserve Jesus’ healing. He knew well his standing before the Jews and that Jesus could have just healed the nine and left him out of it.

In humility, the healed leper returned to give Jesus praise and thanksgiving. Jesus responded, “Your faith has made you well.” Not only was he healed and saved on the outside, but his soul found healing and salvation as well.

A reason to give thanks

When a non-believer give thanks or makes a gratitude list, it’s not about the things they are thankful that God has done for them. Rather, it’s more like “these are the things I am happy about in my life” kind of list. In thinking about all the good things they have in their life, they feel a boost of happiness. That's because experts say that having a grateful attitude is good for us. Looking at all the blessings we have in our life makes us realize that things aren't as bad as we think. It changes our perspective, reduces stress and transforms our mood. For many in our society, such gratitude is simply a feel-good exercise to greater self-fulfillment and has nothing to do with God at all.

For believers in Christ, our gratitude looks very different from that of non-believers. Our gratitude is based on something other than feel-good sentiment, and it’s not about self-fulfillment. Our thanksgiving is directed to someone, to the God who made us. And it is in response to who he is and what he has done.

In fact, a believer's gratitude comes from a humble heart that acknowledges we are but dust. God created us and breathed in us the breath of life. He sustains us each day. We are completely dependent upon him and can do nothing apart from him (John 15:5). Everything we have is a gift of his grace. As Peter said in Acts, “nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (17:25).

A humble heart knows its position before the God of the universe and bows in reverence, awe, wonder and gratitude. Such a heart knows that it is unworthy and undeserving of God’s grace. In reference to this story of the ten lepers, the Gospel Transformation Bible says, “Our worshipful response—or lack thereof—reflects the depth of our understanding of God’s mercy and goodness. The first and greatest response to the gospel of grace is thankful worship” (p.1387). When we know the holiness of God, the wisdom of God, the power of God, and the rich grace of God, we realize how amazing it is that we are able to stand in his presence and receive his gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

It is in this fertile soil of humility where thanksgiving and gratitude grows and thrives. Any soil that denies God’s holiness, wisdom power, and sovereignty will speak words of thanksgiving, but without deep roots, it will not thrive or last. Like the nine other lepers, it will gladly take the good gifts God bestows but won't truly honor and thank him for who he is and what he has done.

In the soil of humility, thanksgiving grows even in the darkest of nights and in the fiercest climates where suffering and trials bear down hard. This is why Paul could say that we are to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18). This is where much of the world’s efforts at thanksgiving and gratitude break down. It’s easy to be grateful when our blessings are many. But to continue to give thanks in the midst of trial reveals the type of soil in which thanksgiving resides. The soil of humility will produce thanksgiving in all seasons—in sunshine and rain, in plenty or in want.

The soil itself is something for which we must give thanks for it is not a soil we can produce on our own. It too is a gift of God's generous grace. From beginning to end, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

That is why no matter our circumstances, there is reason for joy and thanksgiving this Christmas. We can be grateful because we know that, like the Samaritan leper, we are not worthy of God’s grace. And we can sing carols with a grateful heart because God has given us the greatest gift of his grace: his only Son.

By / Nov 25

Some of us may not feel like entering into a season of thanksgiving and celebration, where all the happy people feel at home. Terrorist attacks, the in-your-face horrors of Planned Parenthood’s gruesomeness, plane crashes—all cause our stomachs to churn. Or, maybe you know suffering that won’t be televised, gaining the empathy of an entire nation—the loved one that struggles with relentless addiction, a terminal illness, a broken relationship, a good desire unfulfilled.

A friend of mine recently shared an article by Arthur C. Brooks, where Brooks recalls a question his wife’s family posed during one of their first Thanksgivings: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”

It’s a question that many of us grapple with. It feels insincere to slap a smile on our faces, laugh with friends, and stuff our bellies with good food while feeling sad, empty and disappointed in our spirits. As Christians, we may especially wrestle with it, knowing that gratitude is demanded of us—and rightly so (Heb. 12:28-29). So, how do we deal with this?

Brooks has an interesting answer, even if solely from a psychological perspective: “Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.”

The wisdom of God on display

Rebelling against the negative impulses? Acting right even when we don’t feel like it? This advice, though without any biblical reference, makes me realize just how wise our God is.

Scripture often commands us to act differently than we feel and links it with being changed. We are to be transformed in our thinking (Rom. 12:1-2) and find joy in the midst of seemingly upside down things. For example, we’re called to rejoice in trials (Jam. 1:2; Rom. 5:3) and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18). Really, Lord? All? Sometimes it seems like too heavy of a load to bear.

Brooks goes on to explore a purely physiological reason some of us may have an easier time with this. You know, those friends who see the glass half full. All. The. Time.

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

Again, the wisdom of God is on display. I know some of those “mutants,” and even though I sometimes roll my eyes, I wish I could be more like them. God knows how we are knit together—where we excel and where the fall has severely affected us (Ps. 103:14; 139:13). He is acquainted with our sorrows and our suffering (Isa. 53:3; Heb. 4:15).

So God, in his mercy and wisdom, has given us the means by which we can actually be changed on the inside and express genuine gratitude. He puts a new spirit within us (Ezk. 36:26) so that we become obedient from the heart (Rom. 6:17). And he does this through his precious Son (Gal. 4:4-6).

Our earthly circumstances may not be much to look at or give thanks for. In fact, they may make us want to look away. On the other hand, our circumstances may be great. We will experience a constant flux of one or the other throughout our lives. So, ultimately, it’s not our circumstances that ought to motivate our sincere thanksgiving. The Lord, who is sovereign over each ebb and flow, should.

What “holds you back from your bliss?”

We’re called to rejoice in him—the one who takes our good, bad, happy, sad and everything-in-between circumstances and uses them for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Phil. 4:4; Rom. 8:28). He is the unshakable ground for our thanksgiving and gratitude. He is the one who is thoroughly good and always does right, even when we cannot see or comprehend (Ps. 119:68). And his Spirit is the one who enables us to be grateful toward our Creator even when Satan schemes against us, the world is falling apart, and our flesh fights back.

As Brooks quotes, Stoic philosopher Epictetus is onto something, though he may not have realized just how right he was. “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.” We Christians have so much. We have Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). We have a share in Jesus’s inheritance—one that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1 Pet. 1:4). We have a hundred-fold gain of whatever we’ve lost for his sake (Matt. 19:27-30). Ultimately, we have the very opposite of anything we ever deserved. We actually get what Jesus deserves. And, on top of that, we get him—the only one who can satisfy us with his steadfast love (Ps. 90:14).

So, choosing gratitude this holiday season will be a conscious belief issue for many of us—myself chief among them. Does the reality of what the Father has given us in Christ meet us in the day to day? Do we believe in his goodness? Do we grumble about what we don’t have, instead of giving thanks for what we do have? Are we choosing ingratitude (Rom. 1:21)? Do we want him, even if we have nothing else?

I need help to apply Brooks’ advice. “This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional ‘authenticity’ that holds you back from your bliss.” As a Christian, how much more should I seek to put this into practice?

I’m not sure what “rebellion” looks like for you this holiday season. Maybe there’s no rebellion involved because you’re enjoying a season on cloud nine. But, some of you may stare at your gratitude list for a good 10 minutes before writing anything down. Or, maybe your thanksgiving is a true sacrifice offered through bottles and bottles of tears (Heb. 13:15). As a friend commented just the other afternoon, “Sometimes, all you can muster is, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief’” (Mark 9:24).

Let’s ask the Lord to help us rebel against unbelief—not just during the holidays but all throughout the year. It is right to give thanks to our God (Ps. 92:1). He is so worthy. And though we may not see it now, our perfect, eternal holiday of celebration is just around the corner.