Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Overcoming Obstacles to Love Relationship: An Ungrateful Spirit

1 Corinthians 13

Teaching t22450


Our study of 1 Corinthians brought us to the subject of Christian community (chaps. 11-14). We learned that the heart of Christian community is Christians who are committed to build love relationships with one another—what we called Christ-centered friendships—in a home group context. We went into some detail on what casual and close CCF’s look like.

As we seek build these CCF’s, we will bump into obstacles—not them, but within ourselves! This is totally normal. In fact, if you are not bumping into these obstacles with yourself, you’re almost certainly not growing in love. The key is not to deny or avoid these obstacles, but to learn how to overcome them. This is why we’re spending the next few weeks studying how to overcome some of the most common ones.

Some of these obstacles are obviously connected to friendship-building (e.g., mishandling conflict; harboring unrighteous anger), but others are not so obviously connected. This morning, we will deal with one of these non-obvious obstacles—an ungrateful spirit. All of us are ungrateful at times, but many of us have an ungrateful spirit that is taking a terrible toll on our relational lives. Let’s begin by diagnosing an ungrateful spirit...

Diagnosing an ungrateful spirit

How would you know if you have an ungrateful spirit? The most obvious manifestation is our speech-habits—what we habitually say about our circumstances and the people in our lives. “Out of that which fills the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Of course, there is a place for verbalizing our sorrow and frustration (e.g., biblical lament). But chronic complaint about our circumstances and/or how people mistreat us (including sighs and martyr tone of voice) signals an ungrateful spirit. Similarly, there is a place for verbal realism—acknowledging and even pointing out specific evil around us. But when our speech focuses what is negative (“cup half empty;” “horriblizing;” cynically “seeing through” apparent blessings), this is also a sign of an ungrateful spirit.

The best way to discover if you have an ungrateful speech habit is to ask the people who regularly interact with you—your spouse, children, work-associates, friends. You might be surprised at what they say if you ask them to speak candidly!

But beneath our speech habits are our thought-habits—what we mentally focus on regarding our circumstances and relationships. Some of us fight hard to not say ungrateful things because we know this is wrong—yet still spend an enormous amount of our thought-life recalling, pondering and bemoaning the negative aspects of our situation (PERSONAL EXAMPLE). Once you have this mental focus, it seems utterly natural and overwhelmingly powerful—yet it is actually a mental habit that we have built, and that we can break and replace, as we will see.

But at the root of these ungrateful speech and thought-habits is an ungrateful attitude. An attitude is a point of view and an expectation from that point of view. An ungrateful attitude is essentially an entitlement point of view which says: “I deserve to have things go my way, to have people treat me well, to escape suffering, etc.” Where does this entitlement attitude come from?

It is powerfully promoted by our culture in two ways. “One of the... side-effects of all the effort and energy our society has invested in building our... self-esteem is that our culture is rife with this super-high level of deservedness. The more affluent we are, the higher our standard of living... the more demanding and discontented we become.”

But our culture only reinforces and justifies what is already deep in our fallen hearts—a prideful insistence that we should be the center of our world, that life should revolve around us and bow to our desires. When the universe, others, or even God don’t cooperate, we feel indignant, self-pitying, and justified in sinning to get what we want. Ingratitude is self-worship, the lust-producing seed-bed of all the major kinds of sin (Rom.1:21ff.). This is the original sin of Satan, and of Adam and Eve—and it has been passed down to each of us. This is why we don’t have to teach our children to be ungrateful (they have it naturally); we have to discipline their ingratitude and teach them to be grateful.

We will see that overcoming an ungrateful spirit requires cooperating with God to change in all three areas. But first let’s consider how an ungrateful spirit undermines love-relationships...

How an ungrateful spirit undermines love relationships

Ingratitude is connected to relational breakdown all over the place in the Bible. Adam and Eve became ungrateful to God for their place—and this resulted in the first marital fight. David became ungrateful for all God had given him—and this resulted in adultery and murder. Paul connects ingratitude to all kinds of relational breakdown in Rom.1 and 2Tim.3:1-4. Conversely, The Bible connects gratitude to healthy love relationships in many places (Col.3:14-16; Eph.5:1-4; etc.). Why is this?

An ungrateful spirit produces a prevailing mood of negativity which drains others and repels them (EXAMPLE). Conversely, a grateful spirit leads to increasing joy, which is super-attractive to others.

Ungrateful people tend to be self-focused/absorbed. They can’t even see, let alone be interested in other people or their needs (the precondition for serving love), because they are focused on what they don’t have. Conversely, grateful people more easily focus on others as they relate to them, which draws people to them.

An ungrateful spirit feeds unrealistic expectations on key people; it is difficult to please and easy to exasperate. Imperfect people know they can’t bear this weight, so most of them will keep their distance without saying why. Conversely, grateful people tend be less needy and demanding, so people feel more safe and free around them.

An ungrateful spirit fertilizes envy and jealousy. Ungrateful people can’t rejoice in others’ blessings (crucial in friendships) because this highlights their sense of being deprived. Conversely, grateful people more easily celebrate their friends’ strengths and blessings.

Are you convinced that an ungrateful spirit will undermine your love relationships? Are you convicted that you have a problem with ingratitude? Good! Then you are motivated to seek God’s antidote, which is to cultivate a grateful spirit...

Cultivating a grateful spirit

We can gain some deliverance from applying our will-power to use certain techniques (e.g., positive thinking), but only the God of the Bible can transform us into deeply grateful people. He can do this for you, regardless of how deeply entrenched your ungrateful spirit is (CLEARY), and/or regardless of how bad your circumstances are (PAUL’S PRISON LETTERS)! But we must cooperate with Him in all three areas—attitude, mental-focus, and speech.

Repent from your attitude of entitlement. Since our attitude is the root out of which our thoughts and words grow, we have to start here. What I’m about to say may be difficult—even offensive—to you, but it is the medicine that will begin to affect healing if you will swallow it. An entitlement attitude (“I’m not getting what I deserve”) is the height of insanity, because we deserve nothing good from God. The fact that we exist is an undeserved gift from God. The fact that God allows us to go on living after our first sin against Him is pure mercy. The fact that God sent His Son to bear the judgment we deserve so that He could give us what I don’t deserve (adoption as His child) is utterly amazing beyond all we could ask or think!

Salvation begins with this foundational repentance, when you cry out like the tax-collector: “God, be merciful to me the sinner!” (Lk.18:13,14). Salvation begins by humbly bowing before your Creator as His creature, by humbly admitting that you deserve His judgment, by humbly holding up empty hands to receive His forgiveness through Jesus, and by humbly thanking Him for this forgiveness. Have you repented in this foundational sense? This is what opens you to the Spirit’s transforming influence!

Just as this attitudinal repentance begins our Christian lives, it is also the ground-floor for growth in gratitude. This is a daily conscious attitude that we choose (“Everyday that I wake up and I’m not in hell is a good day.” “How are you doing?” “Better than I deserve.”). This entitlement attitude creeps back in (especially during times of sustained suffering), so I have to repent from it and cry out to God to help me regain a humble attitude.

Build a mental focus on your blessings. Ingratitude is a deep mental habit, like a groove that we have dug over many years. It can’t be merely resisted; it must be replaced by a digging a new “gratitude groove”— by regularly choosing to notice and appreciate the many blessings that God pours into your life (read Phil.4:8 and explain logizomai).

Do this with your temporal blessings (e.g., good weather; food and shelter; job; health to exercise; family and friends; etc.). During a typical day, what proportion of your mental focus is on these blessings compared to the negatives?

This is important—but don’t stop here, because temporal blessings, though they are tangible, are not permanent, nor are they nearly as precious as spiritual blessings. By spiritual blessings, I mean all that God has given you through Christ: complete forgiveness, adoption as His child, deliverance from Satan’s and sin’s authority, the Holy Spirit, membership in His Body, a significant role in His purpose, eternal life in His kingdom; etc. These are the blessings that are most precious, and that can never be taken away. These blessings are the healthy food that feeds a grateful spirit. You have to recall them daily, ponder them daily, remember daily how they have changed your life daily, consider daily what your life would be like without them. I find that memorizing and reciting key passages that describe these blessings (e.g., Eph.1; Rom.8; Rom. 5; Col.2) is absolutely crucial in cultivating a grateful spirit.

Are you digging these new grooves? Work on this more than simply trying to turn away from ungrateful thoughts, because God’s Spirit is unleashed to transform us as we do this (Rom.8:5-7)!

Practice speaking words of thanksgiving. There is something about actually saying “Thank You” that reinforces a humble, grateful attitude, that deepens the gratitude groove of your mental focus, and that leads to feeling grateful more often.

Do this when grateful thoughts and feelings well up within you instead of letting them go by. Say “Thank you” to the person who did a kind service to you. Say “Thank You” when God answers a prayer, or when you remember one of His spiritual blessings.

Prioritize this in private prayer, even when you don’t feel thankful. In general, start with this before asking God for your needs, interceding for others, etc. I have to walk my dog at least a mile every day. I might as well talk to God during that time. I spend the first half only thanking God, then I spend the second half praying for my own needs and for others. Other people keep a regular thanksgiving journal. Others utilize scriptural songs (Col.3:16). Find some way to do this! It will increase your ability to notice other blessings, and it will shape your petitions to be less anxious and self-focused and more confident and others-focused.

Be a gratitude champion!

“Champion” here does not mean a victorious expert in gratitude, but one who promotes gratitude to others, including your Christian friends, spouse, children, etc.

You can model gratitude by emphasizing it in corporate prayer, by expressing thanks to them and to others in their presence, and by giving them the “green light” to reprove you when you become chronically ungrateful.

You can exhort your friends toward gratitude by affirming them for their expressions of and growth in gratitude, by playing the “thanks” game when you/they are down, and by gently reproving them for chronic ingratitude.

This is a super-significant ministry, because it helps to cultivate a grateful spirit in others and in your home group. What would our friendships, marriages, etc. be like if we really went after this? What would our home groups, church be like if they were filled with grateful people?

Recommend DeMoss, Choosing Gratitude for solid biblical and practical help on this subject.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Choosing Gratitude (Moody Publishers, 2009), p.55.