So the story goes that there was a rumor floating around Oxford University that Rudyard Kipling was such a great author he was paid one schilling per word (about 8 cents US currency). As a prank, some of the students wrote a letter to Kipling enclosing a schilling with a note reading "send us one of your words". Kipling promptly replied with a hand-written note. When the students opened the envelope, on a single piece of paper was the word "thanks."
Thanks, thanksgiving, gratitude, appreciation. These words have long been the province of religion and philosophy but now are even commonplace in psychology and self-help circles as the value of gratitude is seen to have a beneficial effect on mood and well-being. In the context of Christianity, gratitude of the heart is actually a commandment because thankfulness to our Creator and Lord is a rich component of worship. In this article I would like to share 4 things the Bible teaches about being thankful and how a gracious spirit of gratitude can be cultivated even is a season of depression or difficult circumstance.
First of all, know that God wants our eyes upon Him because He is the chief reason we should be grateful. The Lord is the giver of all good gifts in our lives. We should be grateful for the blessings we receive but we should never separate the gift from the giver. In his excellent audio series on heaven, author and teacher Randy Alcorn reminds us that God desires us to be excited about being in heaven with all its delights, but not the exclusion of being excited about being with Him. All parents love giving things to their children they know will be appreciated and enjoyed, but would never want their child to only appreciate the gift. They want to be appreciated and loved as well.
In a rather chilling prophecy given by Moses, we read that Israel, whom God was giving a land of milk and honey (great prosperity in agricultural terms), would eventually have to be chastened by having their prosperity removed because the gift became more important than the giver: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, lacking everything ( Deut. 28:47-48).” It’s important to appreciate the good things in our lives, but the things should never be appreciated above the One who supplies them.
Secondly, the Lord would have us remember Him and be grateful even in the hard places. As Paul wrote the Thessalonian church: “… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess 5:18).” This has echoes from Job who said to his wife that God is to be praised not only when good comes our way but also adversity (2:10). Choosing to give thanks to God on a dark day is what one author calls looking towards the sun. One can choose to turn their face to the shadows of hard circumstance, but that is all they will see. When you turn towards the light of God, the shadows will diminish because they are behind you.
Matthew Henry, the beloved 18th century preacher and Bible commentator, was once accosted by thieves and robbed of his purse. Following this harrowing event he wrote in his diary: Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed. Sometimes we just need to be grateful that what happened to us wasn’t as bad as it could have been! The true reason we continue to be grateful even in trials is that we know God is who orders every one of our days and therefore even our suffering is part of His good plan of growing us up and making us more fruitful as His servants.
Thirdly, the spirit of gratitude in our lives can be cultivated by what we let captivate our hearts and minds. In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul instructs “ Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (3:16).” The early church was a singing church as well as being dedicated to the study of the apostles. What is striking my heart here is the powerful synergy that exists between singing and memory. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t remember the “ABC” song they were taught in kindergarten. Some people I know, now in advanced age, continue to refer to this childhood song when they are trying to alphabetize files. Singing praise and worship songs, especially ones that are based entirely on scripture, enable you to memorize the truth about God’s love and glorious person and also the hope we should take in our relationship with him.
Having recently experienced a great trauma in my personal life, I have found my mind wandering into some very dark and unhealthy places especially when I am alone such as my commute to work or now that I am in middle age, most every night when I lay in bed awake after having gotten up to go to the bathroom. It has been surprising to find what often consoles me and bubbles up are praise and worship songs. Some of these songs I have been singing for years but they were not necessarily that meaningful to me. Now they have become quite poignant and comforting.
Psychologists and self-help experts have long practiced the use of ‘positive affirmations’ to heal the mind and body of negative thinking and to spur on personal growth. Although the practice has some naysayers, for the most part it is a respected tool because of its overall effectiveness. In a way, the singing of hymns and spiritual songs by a Christian is an affirmation process on steroids. The focus is turned towards the real source of any hope or strength we can have in this life: God himself. Which brings me to my final point.
The ability to have a heart of gratitude is resourced in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is what Paul speaks of in Philippians 4:12-13: “ I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” A very important point is made here. It is not a denial of desire or need that the Christian strives to attain. The secret of contentment then is not having fewer needs, although this can be an honest by-product of a lean period, but rather that Christ shall give the strength necessary to live joyfully even if one is wanting for something. Of course we would do well to not exaggerate our neediness, for too often we mistake our personal greed for a need and this is not something that is gracious in the sight of God. But the main point is God shall supply the strength we need to live in the day of blessing and the day of adversity. We need not worry about conjuring up an attitude of gratitude but rather trust and lean into the strength the Lord has graciously provided. Remember, the Lord may require you to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or doubt, or depression, or deprivation, but He will never ask you to do it apart from the grace of His Spirit. That, in itself, is something for which to be grateful.
One author has made the piercing observation that the only difference between a monastery and a prison is the spirit of griping or gratitude. Imprisoned criminals tend to spend every waking moment griping about their condition; while self-imprisoned saints (in a monastery) spend most of their day giving thanks to God. However, if a criminal becomes a saint and begins offering thanks all the time, his prison becomes for him a monastery; and a saint who gives up thanksgiving, his monastery becomes its own form of a prison. As Victor Frankl wrote, our ultimate freedom as human beings is to choose our attitude about our present circumstances. God would have you to choose the freedom and well-being that accompanies a heart of thanksgiving.