Teaching series from Hebrews

The New Worship & Gratitude

Hebrews 13:15

Teaching t10589


Briefly review the contrasts between Old Testament and New Testament worship.  Briefly review the first three horizontal elements of the New Testament worship lifestyle described in Heb.13 (loving all kinds of people; sexuality & love; generosity).  We come now to a vertical element of the new worship lifestyle, an element so important that the author “bookends” this passage with reminders to worship God this way.

Read 12:28—the heart of our worship is ongoing humble gratitude to God (“let us be thankful” is present-continuous).  Read 13:15—we should “continually” offer up a thank-offering, not of our flocks or fields (as in Old Testament worship), but of our lips speaking praise and thanks to God.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the New Testament places huge emphasis on this same theme.  The sheer frequency of these words and their synonyms is impressive.1

So cultivating a lifestyle/disposition of praising and thanking God is right at the heart of the new worship.  Here is a searching spiritual question as you consider the quality of your worship: Are you becoming a more rejoicing, grateful, thankful person? 

 Would your work associates say this?  What would your spouse, children, and close friends say?  Or would they say that you are generally negative, gloomy, complaining?

Would you say that your prayer life is increasingly characterized by praise and gratitude?  Or is it dominated by whining requests and demands?

If you could record the last month's thoughts of praise and gratitude vs. envy, self-pity and complaining, what would the replay ratio be?  Which direction is this headed?

Why is this so important?

Why would God want us to praise and thank him all the time?  What would you think if your spouse or best friend or supervisor told you: “You should spend time every day praising and thanking me.”  Why is this inappropriate for people, but not for God?

For one thing, people who want you to praise and thank them are usually insecure—they don’t believe they are competent or worthwhile, so they need others to constantly affirm about them what they doubt about themselves.  But God is completely secure—he is all-powerful, has no needs, etc.  Therefore, God’s desire that we praise and thank him is for our benefit, not his.  God is pleased when we thank him for the same reason that good parents are pleased when their child thanks them—not because it validates them as parents, but because it shows that their child is maturing.

What is it about being a grateful, thankful person that is so integrally related to spiritual health and maturity?  There are actually two answers to this question.  We can use a medical analogy to explain these two relationships...

Gratitude is a “thermometer” that indicates the state of your spiritual health.

A thermometer is a tool that tells you whether you have one of the symptoms of physical illness (fever).  It is not a medicine—you don't put the thermometer in the refrigerator and then stick it into your mouth to break your fever.  You put it in your mouth and it tells you if you have a fever.

In the same way, an attitude of thankfulness toward God is the most reliable indicator of your spiritual health.  More than anything else, it tells me whether or not I am thinking accurately about myself and God, and whether or not I am relating properly to God.  Conversely, an attitude of complaining entitlement, that I’m not getting what I deserve, that others have it better than me, etc. indicates that I am in a fundamentally unhealthy spiritual state.

Why?  Because gratitude is the normal and natural response to one who has received grace.  “Grace” means undeserved charity.  In fact, “gratitude” comes from the Latin word for grace (“gratio”).  A biblically grateful person is someone who appreciates both how undeserving he is before God and how charitable God has been to him.  An ungrateful person feels he is deserving, and therefore expects God to give him his due.

Imagine a man who has maliciously committed theft and property destruction against another man.  He is arrested and discovers to his horror that the judge officiating his trial is that very man!  He drops any pretense of a defense, admits his heinous guilt, agrees that he deserves the full legal penalty for his crime—and faces the judge to receive his sentence.  Now imagine that this judge forgives him of his crime, refuses restitution, and pays the court costs, and gives him a good job in his court.  What would the judge’s “grace” produce in this man?  To respond in any other way than profound gratitude is almost unthinkable!  Can you imagine this man grumbling about the verdict, or complaining about his pay or work conditions, or nursing any suspicion about the judge’s good will?

This is a ridiculous story—you might even say that it is an outrageous story.  But the central message of the Bible is that you and I are far more undeserving than this man, and that God is far more gracious than this judge.  Read Titus3:3-7.  If you truly personalize this, the discrepancy between your guilt and God’s grace produces gratitude.  What would it mean if you lack this gratitude?  It depends.

If you can’t relate to ever experiencing gratitude to God for his grace through Jesus, it probably means that you are unregenerate.  I don’t care religious you are (church attendance; baptism & communion; Bible doctrine; etc.)—if you have never been blown away by God’s grace, if your heart has never been pierced by how undeserving you are of God’s forgiveness, you have probably never truly met Jesus.  You can change that today...

If you have experienced gratitude for this in the past, but your heart presently has no gratitude for God’s grace, what does this mean?  It probably means that you are God’s child, but you (like me so often) have allowed yourself to buy into lies that collapse the tension between your sin and debt and God’s amazing grace.  These lies emerge spontaneously from our own fallen hearts, and they are constantly reinforced by our culture—the lies of narcissism (I am the most important person—not God), the lies of therapeutic positive self-esteem (I am fundamentally good—not a wretched rebel against God), the lies of entitlement (I have the right to material abundance, comfort, good health, etc. rather than the responsibility to trust God’s goodness and wisdom and serve wherever he places me).  To the extent that I listen to these lies rather than to God, I become more deserving in my eyes and God’s grace becomes less amazing in my estimation—and my gratitude gets replaced by pride and envy.  This is one good reason to stay in the Word—it helps me stay aware of the depth of my sin and the height of God’s grace.

Gratitude is a “medicine” that promotes your spiritual health.

The wonderful thing is that gratitude is not only the “thermometer”—it is also the “medicine.”  If my lack of gratitude indicates that I am spiritually unhealthy, I can improve my spiritual health by cultivating a grateful attitude.

And you will find that cultivating a grateful attitude will result in experiencing more true happiness.  The Bible promises this (cf. Phil.4:6,7; PSALMS).  And even secular psychological research confirms this.2

What is involved in cultivating a grateful attitude?  Let’s break this into two general areas.

First, you need to reject two common misconceptions that stop you before you start.

The first misconception is: “I can’t be grateful unless my circumstances are good.”  The amazing truth is that circumstances have nothing ultimately to do with gratitude.  Some of the most grateful people I know have (or had) horrible circumstances, and some of the most ungrateful people I have ever met have great circumstances.  Gratitude is rooted in two great promises from God—he has forgiven me even though I deserve his judgment, and he is at work for good in all of my circumstances (Rom.8:28 >> Eph.5:20).

The second misconception is: “It’s fake to give thanks when I don’t feel thankful.”  Actually, it is faith to give thanks on the basis of what is true (above), even if you don’t feel thankful.  And it is choosing to give thanks (even and especially when you don’t feel it) that will lead to feeling thankful.

Second, you need to practice gratitude in several ways.  Consider these examples, and take action on the ones God draws your attention to:

Prioritize thanksgiving in your prayer life (Col.4:2) vs. letting it get crowded out by petition.  Always include it, and sometimes focus on it alone.

Focus on all aspects of your salvation and personalize it: adoption & sovereign care, forgiveness, revelation & role, inheritance, Holy Spirit, freedom from sin's and Satan's authority, Body-life, etc.

Take note of “small” blessings (existence; nature; health; beauty; etc.) and actually express thanks to God for them vs. taking them for granted, acknowledging without expressing thanks

Utilize spiritual songs (Col.3:16).  They often have power lift my eyes and heart when nothing else does.

Ask God to sensitize you to internal negativity and complaint (ME WITH AUDIBLE GRUMBLING ABOUT BILLS, MISTREATMENT, etc.).  When he does this, promptly turn away from these thoughts and replace them with thanks in the related areas. 

Give others (SPOUSE; KIDS; FRIENDS) the “green light” to let you know when you’re being ungrateful.

Keep a regular, ongoing journal of what you are thankful for day by day, week by week. 

Set aside time to reflect on how God has worked through past negative situations for good in your life.  This will help you believe that he is doing so in present negative situations—and thereby help you to thank him now.

Warmly thank people who bless you in daily, “small.”  This will complete your enjoyment of the blessing, and it will increase your capacity to see other blessings.

This is a documented key to a good marriage, and absent in almost all failed marriages.  This is also a key part of being a good witness in this cold, ungrateful world!

Hang around grateful people &/or people who are committed to becoming more grateful.  They will convict you of your ingratitude and inspire you to become like them!  This is one of the greatest benefits of being in fellowship with other growing Christians...

1 In the New Testament epistles, note the frequency of the related terms used in this sense: "thanks" (50), "blessed" (84), "praise" (28), "rejoice" (25).

2 “Existing research suggests that gratitude is typically... linked to contentment, happiness, and hope.” (558)  “Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, and optimism and lower levels of depression.... Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods... they are less likely to be envious of wealthy persons and they are more likely to share their possessions with others... Grateful people are more open to experience, more conscientious... more agreeable, and less neurotic than their less grateful counterparts.” (562)  The authors also cite research that links better health and longer life-span with gratitude.   See Christopher Peterson & Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues (Oxford University Press, 2004)