“What shall I render to the Lord, For all His benefits toward me?” Psalm 116:12
I have come to realise that one of the hardest forms of prayers for a Christian is to give thanks in prayer. It’s so easy to come to God with a shopping list or to ask for things that we need. I found this in my own experience when once my church pastor announced a month of thanksgiving prayers. Yes, thanking God for a whole month without asking for a single need. I found my mind constantly wrestling with my attempt to focus on giving thanks to God and desperately attempting not to revert to making all kinds of requests to God. It seemed as though it was a struggle to focus on the goodness of God in my own life.
This experience revealed to me how much we are prone to give attention to the things we do not have rather than what we already have and indeed should enjoy: the roof over our heads, the clothes we wear, the career, the husband or wife or the children and even the sheer privilege to wake up alive in the morning to these blessings.
Sometimes we can get so drawn into this self-centred way of thinking that we even end up complaining, whether verbally or in our hearts. In its September 2015 edition, the Testify Newspaper, had an article on the importance of practicing gratitude. The research conducted by Dr Robert A. Emmons, found that out of three experimental groups studied over 10 weeks, people who were in the ‘gratitude’ condition felt 25% happier and felt better about their lives than those in the other two groups. But why should this surprise a Christian? – that your mood improves as you become more grateful in life. A Christian should know this truth in their own experience if they are living according to the Scriptures.
In a previous article, I reminded us that the reason why many Christians do not enjoy the many blessings of God listed in Psalm 103:1-5:
• the forgiveness of sins;
• the healing of diseases;
• redeeming our life from destruction;
• crowning us with His loving kindness and tender mercies;
• satisfying our mouth with good things;
• renewing our youth;
is because they fail to do exactly what the Word of God commands in verse 2 of that Psalm i.e. TO REMEMBER all these benefits or good things.
You see, giving thanks or practicing gratitude is a conscious activity that comes by making a deliberate decision to engage the faculty of our memory continually in worship, as we acknowledge God and His workings in our lives. It does not just happen! We ought to make it an aim in our worship to often recall the goodness of God.
In the Scriptures, God often reminds His people of where He brought them from. Why? Not to humiliate them or put them down but He did this for their own good: God knows that too often, as humans living in the present, we have a short memory and therefore prone to forget, as His goodness in the present times recedes into the past. This is the wisdom behind the different festivals that God commanded Israel to celebrate. For example the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Harvest, lest they forget (see Deuteronomy 23:14-19). In our own time we mark the memorial of historic events like the Battle of Britain or the Second World War with yearly celebrations, lest we forget.
We are not naturally given to be grateful. You only need to get out on a rainy day in the UK and hear people’s negative remarks about the weather to know this. This is especially so when our present circumstances prove to be difficult or uncomfortable. The nation of Israel is our example. In the desert of Sinai where circumstances proved most challenging to them, their conversations soon slipped into complaints, murmurings and eventually resentfulness. They failed to remember the goodness of God that they had just experienced as He brought them out of the bonds of slavery in Egypt with an outstretched arm. In our time also God has given us two distinct ordinances – water baptism and the communion table as memorials symbolising the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross lest we forget and to help us remain grateful as we live in this grace of His.
In my local church, a brief but very important part of the service is the time for giving testimonies. It serves as a time to witness to God’s on-going dealings in the lives of His children, lest they forget and take for granted His kindness and benefits in their lives. Being thankful is an attitude and like any other it must be cultivated and developed.
It is not by accident then, that in setting out a protocol for coming before the presence of God, the Psalmist commands us in Psalm 100:4 to:
“Enter His gates with thanksgiving…”
In fact the Psalmist stressing the importance of thanking God by repeating the same instruction again in verse 4 saying, “Be thankful to Him and bless His name.” Therefore anytime we approach God’s presence, our prayers must be preceded with thanksgiving to Him. This practice sets our hearts aright before Him and prepares us well for the further communion that ensues in our prayers.
The world has recently gone into a search for ways that improve happiness in the lives of people. As I write, the BBC news reports that the Dalai lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader has launched classes across the country to teach people how to become happy. Practicing gratitude as in the research quoted earlier is being discovered by science to be one of the ingredients in achieving happiness.
Yet for the Christian, a life of gratitude is born at the very moment he/she comes into contact with the message of the Cross: this amazing love of God which He showed man by offering His only Son on the Cross, as sacrifice for sins and giving man eternal life in return. To the Christian, practicing gratitude is not just another ingredient to pursue for his own selfish end of becoming happy but rather a natural response of appreciation, thanksgiving and worship each time he/she takes a look back to the finished work of the cross, lifestyle and looks forward to the living hope of lifetime of eternity with God. This becomes the prime motivation for Christian service, mission and charity – our indebtedness to the work of Christ on our behalf on the cross.
Indeed the summation of Christian worship can be said to be a lifestyle of thanksgiving expressed in the form of Christian witness, service and charity. The only conceivable response to any genuine encounter with God’s love is that of appreciation. This appreciation is meant to evolve into a sense of indebtedness that lasts a lifetime.
This is the more reason why a Christian cannot afford to let go of their first love. But even here again God in His infinite mercy has provided us with the means by which the flames of this first love is kept alive. Just as God gave Israel the festivals for the remembrance of their salvation/deliverance from Egypt, the house of bondage, so also in the new covenant, He has made provision for the memorial of His great salvation of man from sin and all its consequences by two ordinances – the Holy Communion and Water Baptism.
By means of regularly observing these ordinances, God has provided us with opportunity to remind ourselves of His great and deep love toward us. By observing these ordinances, we are made to reflect on how indebted we are to Him, thus rekindling and evoking our first love afresh. The Scriptures state: “We love Him because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19. This is the love that compels us to all forms of worship.
How can we not remain grateful? If we are to ponder often and consider the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.