November 20, 2021 - Gratitude

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With Thanksgiving coming in just a few days, today we’re going to talk about gratitude. To be grateful or thankful requires someone to be grateful or thankful to. To whom does the atheist give thanks for all that they have received? Yes, we can find other humans to thank for much of what we have, but where did they get what they gave us, and who put them in our lives? The best we can do without God is give credit to the blind god “Chance.” And that’s a pretty lame answer to the question to whom to give thanks.

All good gifts come from God. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights.” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The notion of a self-made person is largely false. We all got it from somewhere or someone else. Either we were in the right place at the right time (and we’re often powerless to make that happen), or God put the right person in our lives when we needed their help.

There is very little that we can claim credit for. Beauty, talent, health, opportunity, where and when we were born, or where we find ourselves right now, are almost totally gifts from God over which we have very little control (as long as we don’t throw them away), and those gifts don’t last forever. Whatever good we have at the moment, who knows how long until it’s gone?

We have been blessed to live in a land of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. How many people on this planet can say that? Who knows how long it will last? And how much did any one of us do to make that happen?

Today we enjoy blessings that would make the Rich Young Ruler and ancient Roman emperors green with envy, beyond their wildest dreams! What took the Oregon Trail pioneers months to travel by wagon, we can fly in less than 4 hours (St Louis to Portland). We can cross the Atlantic in 5 hours. Nero sent slaves to the Alps for snow to cool his drinks, while today, all but the poorest of us have a car and a refrigerator. An article called “Plugged-In Poverty” lists the blessings that those who live below the official poverty level still enjoy in America compared to the rest of the world (A/C to Xbox), and even in poorer nations, it’s amazing how many have cell phones, Internet, and abilities to travel that would have been unheard of in Biblical times.

I want to take some time to take a detailed look at what all we have to be thankful for. You probably don’t have every blessing that I will name. Wherever you don’t, that’s all the more reason to be thankful for each one you do, and if you have them all, you should be ecstatic.

Paul writes in 1 Timothy (6:6-8), “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, neither can we carry anything out. But if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” We’re not talking about Kobe beef or caviar. Do you have enough food to keep you alive? Do you have enough to wear? Paul says you should be content; you should be thankful. Think how many people in this world do not know where their next morsel of food is coming from, and have nothing more than rags to wear.

Paul doesn’t mention water, but while hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I found out that we are in deep trouble if we can’t count on finding water somewhere on the trail. You can’t carry enough water to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness! And you need a good filter to drink what you find. Many places on this planet still do not have clean water for the people who live there; they are ecstatic when someone helps them get access to clean water. Be thankful if you have it!

Paul doesn’t even include shelter or a place to live on his short list of what we need. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The Son of Man does not have a place to lay his head.” How thankful we should be to have a home (particularly if we own one), or to at least have a roof over our head! In much of the world (from Cairo to Hong Kong), living space is at a premium, and not everyone can afford to rent or to buy what is available. How thankful we should be to have heat and cooling, to have electric power, to have a phone, to have a working refrigerator and stove and bathroom facilities, to have a bed to sleep on. We feel the pinch when we don’t have them. The same is true when we don’t have transportation. How thankful we should be if we have a working car, or other way to get around – how handicapped we’d be if all we had was our feet!

Not everyone can walk. Let’s talk about our health. We need to be thankful we have arms and legs that work (if we do). We need to be thankful for eyes and ears that work (if we do). We need to be thankful for hearts and lungs and livers that work. We need to be thankful for a stomach and intestines that work right. Look out when they don’t – think what all can go wrong! We need to be thankful for kidneys and bladders and reproductive organs that work properly. We need to be thankful for teeth that are not causing us trouble.

We need to be thankful if we have a mind that works, if we have healthy blood and hormones, if we are reasonably free from pain. We need to give thanks if we are free from cancer or if we have not gotten or have survived the coronavirus. And if we have pain or illness, or even if we do not, we should be thankful for medical care. There is so much we can cure or treat today that was not possible to cure or treat in Jesus’ day. Many of us wouldn’t be here if not for those advances. Transplants that were once impossible are now considered necessities. We should be even more thankful if we have insurance or the means to pay for that medical care.

We need to be thankful if we have a job, or income. When I was growing up, there were too many of us, and not enough jobs. I don’t take the ability to find a job for granted. I used to fear being unemployed, so I am thankful for jobs and income. Today, a lot of people my age are retiring early because they can no longer compete in the job market. But not everyone can afford to retire. Not everyone has a dependable source of income. If you do, you had better give thanks. If you are self-employed, you are ultimately dependent on God for customers and contracts and opportunities, and for the resources and abilities to produce income. Without God as the One from whom all blessings flow, you are helpless. If you are not in debt, think how many wish they could say they are not in debt!

Many of us should be thankful we have a spouse. Proverbs 18:22 says, “Whoever finds a wife [or a husband] finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” Now, not everyone has a happy or healthy marriage – all the more reason to give thanks if you do! God says in Genesis 2, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” We need companionship, even if we are not the right person for the complete sharing involved in marriage. Do you have real friends? If so, that’s one more reason for gratitude to God – not everyone has real friends.

Do you have children? Not everyone who wants children has them. Not everyone who wants grandchildren has them. If our children have turned out OK (if their lives are not a disaster), then we have all the more reason to give thanks, and if they do have problems, we can hopefully give thanks for every problem they do not have: problem lifestyles, problem health, problem households, problem finances. Not everyone has grown up in a happy home. Not everyone has had 2 parents, nor has everyone had a happy relationship with their parents. If you have had 2 parents and grew up in a happy home, you can be truly thankful. If you have never been a victim of serious crime, or a fire, or a natural disaster, you can be truly thankful.

Gratitude depends a lot on our expectations. A great way to kill gratitude is thinking that we deserve more money or a bigger house or a nicer car or more electronic toys or more beauty or popularity. We expect too much. We think that life owes us a minimum of happiness, and if God doesn’t give it to us, we think we’ve been deprived. The truth is that life owes us: nothing. If we can lower our expectations, if we truly believe that life owes us nothing, then everything we do have, we can look at as an undeserved gift from God for which we can give thanks.

We must not take God’s gifts for granted. In Deuteronomy 8, just before Israel crosses the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses warns them, “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…, a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey, a land where you shall eat bread without scarceness.” Soon, Israel will live in houses that they did not build, and eat from orchards and vineyards they did not plant.

Watch out, says Moses, “Lest when you have eaten and are full…and when your flocks and herds are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God.” Watch out, says Moses, “lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for he is the one who gives you power to get wealth.” We must never forget: all that we have (if we have not stolen it) comes as a gift from God.

Satan asks, “Does Job fear God for naught?” Look how easy you’ve made life for him! Look how many goodies he has! Satan asks a logical question in the book of Job: is God only worthy of praise because of all the goodies God gives us? The answer is, No! We should be thankful to God for who God is, regardless of what we get from God. Why should God love us?

God has given us the gift of life. We owe our very existence to God. There is no one and nothing in this universe that does not owe its existence to God. It all comes from God, not from any previously existing power (there was none!). And if life has been miserable for us (and for some it has been miserable), we can choose to believe that we suffer under an empty sky that doesn’t give a hoot over what happens to us, or we can choose to believe in a God who cares about us and grieves over our pain, a God who loves us much more than we can see. You say life isn’t fair. For many people it’s not. But if you take away God, we have no standard to measure what is fair or just in a universe that doesn’t give a hoot about what we may want.

God loves us more than we can possibly understand. You can’t see it? You want to know: What has God done for me? The answer is that God came to this earth to become one of us, in order to personally pay the price of an eternity of hell to save us from our sin and restore our broken relationship with God. God came down from the ultimate joy of heaven to experience the misery of Planet Earth, to endure all the pain we suffer, to experience every temptation we struggle with. He came to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we should have died.

God did that for an incalculable number of human souls, for you and for me. God did not perform this incredible act of love for people who are worthy. God did that for souls who did not deserve it and never will deserve it, and all we can do is receive this mercy as an act of faith.

Why was this necessary? Because: all of us have been a part of a huge rebellion against the One to whom we owe our very existence, the One who has given us all we have, the One who loves us more than anyone else can possibly love us, a rebellion that stretches back to the very beginning of time. To reject this God who deserves every fiber of our devotion and say “I wish to be my own god,” to shove this God aside and grab for his throne, calls for the ultimate penalty: to be cut off from God forever, to be cut off from the source of all life and happiness!

God had every right to leave us in our eternal misery. God didn’t have to lift one finger for us. God owes us nothing. That’s what makes the cross of Jesus Christ so amazing! Romans 5:8 says, “But God shows his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners (in other words, while we were still God’s enemies), Christ died for us.” Where in the entire world, or in all human history, can we find such love, on such a monumental scale, toward anyone who hates them? In Christ, the God against whom we have so grievously rebelled (in thought, word, and deed) has taken the penalty of sin that we deserved by suffering an eternity of hell for every one of us. Why should God show us such undeserved love? If that’s not love above and beyond human love, I don’t know what is!

We have a great and wonderful God, the only One in all the universe who is worthy of worship. God’s love is beyond compare. God’s blessings to us are beyond what we can count. How can we not respond in gratitude for who this God is, and all that this God has done for us?

We owe God our life and our eternal future. And there is no way we can pay God back, or bribe God, or add one penny to the price that God has already paid for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. And no, Christ doesn’t repackage our debt and spread out the payments for us. As the Protestant hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all! All to him I owe.”

We cannot earn what Christ has done for us. Paul says in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So why live a life that pleases God? Gratitude! Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ constrains us.” He says that Christ “died for all, so that those who live should henceforth live not for themselves, but for him who died for them and rose again.” And Paul writes in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” What Christ has done for us calls for us to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, not dead sacrifices that are offered only once, but sacrifices that keep on giving, which means we need to stay on the altar. We are driven by gratitude to live entirely for Christ.

Gratitude is a very different motive to live a holy life than trying to be worthy enough to earn God’s favor. It gives us a very different reason to pour our lives out in love for God.

I used to hate having to leave a tip at a restaurant or at a motel. I used to think, charge me up front what it costs for the meal or the room. Don’t make me have to pay twice for the same service. I also used to complain how much I was expected to tip: why 18 or 20%? But recently I’ve come around to a very different attitude. Instead of feeling like I “have to,” now I’ve begun to look at tipping as a chance to be generous, a chance to send a message about my faith.

A lot of folks see giving to the Lord the way I used to see tipping. They see it as a grudging obligation (or even an entrance requirement) rather than a channel for gratitude to God. Gratitude is why I give. I am so thankful for God’s gracious, undeserved mercy shown to us at the cross that I want to give God all I have. God is happy to let us keep some of what we have for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17), and God know we need our daily bread and necessities. The rest, I want to offer back to God, to be used to make a difference in God’s world.

In this Thanksgiving season, as we count our blessings, let’s think about how we can give thanks to God, not only through our words, but also through our deeds. As we offer our year-end gifts to the Lord, or as we plan our systematic giving for next year, let’s let gratitude for what Christ has done for us drive us to give so that the Good News of Christ can be proclaimed to others, in word and in deed. Let’s begin with our local church. Let’s also find additional ministries that help the local church do its job. We’d be thrilled if you include this radio ministry. Whatever you give through our websites, none of it goes to me. I’m a volunteer. What you give all goes to radio airtime.

My giving is one more response of gratitude for what God has given me, and what God has done for me in Christ. As I give to the Lord, I’m thrilled for the chance to participate in what God is doing to change the world.

God has given us so much! But one of God’s prophets lived on such a small shoestring that hardly any of us could live like him (we certainly all couldn’t). I’m talking about John the Baptist, who happens to be my favorite Biblical character. We’ll take a comprehensive look at John the Baptist next time on Biblical Words and World.