Gratitude and Spirituality
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Review setting: Paul says they are doing well, but he exhorts them to excel still more. At the end of his letter, Paul zeroes in on certain hallmark features of Christian spirituality. We can conceive of these as HORIZONTALhaving to do with our relationships with other people (see 5:14), and VERTICALhaving to do with our relationship with God. Read 5:16-18. Here is a foundational aspect of VERTICAL Christian spirituality)gratitude toward God (rejoice and give thanks are synonyms here).
SIDEBAR: Gratitude is not a feature of spirituality in most other religions, because God is not personal or sovereign, or because God is capricious rather than good.
In fairness, we must acknowledge that Paul is engaging in hyperbole. He doesn't literally mean that we should do this absolutely every second, or we couldn't sleep, drive in heavy traffic, or do anything that demands our full attention.
But hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration to emphasize a point. And the point here is obviously that our personal communication with God should be characterized by gratitude in much the same way that we cough when we have a nagging cough: in every situation all through the day.
So here is a searching spiritual question: Are you becoming a more rejoicing, grateful, thankful person?
Would the people with whom you rub shoulders at work, etc. 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 laced with a rich theme of praise and gratitude? Or is it dominated by whining and complaining?
If you could record and replay the last month's thoughts of praise and gratitude versus envy, self-pity and complaining, what would the ratio be?
This is something that characterized Paul (in spite of his circumstances), and something he emphasized in all of his letters (Philippians 3:1; 4:4; Colossians 3:15-17).1 Why is it so important?
Not because God needs it. God is not like the parent who is insecure and needs to be constantly praised and thanked by his children so he can feel validated. God needs nothing; he is complete in himselves. God is not like the parent who needs to be praised and thanked before he will give us what we want. Unlike pagan deities who must be flattered or manipulated, God already delights to give his children good gifts, and he gives what he knows we need, not what we demand.
But because we need it to be spiritually healthy. God is pleased when we rejoice in him and thank himnot because it validates him, but because it shows that we are becoming more spiritually healthy and mature. This is why I'm glad when my children thank me . . .
The New Testament teaches that gratitude is related to spiritual health in two different ways. We'll use a medical model to explore this . . .
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 freezer 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, the presence or absence of gratitude in your dealings with God is one of the most reliable indicators of your spiritual health. This is because it (along with serving love) is the normal and natural result of personally understanding and receiving God's grace. Grace means charitya gift to the undeserving.
Imagine a convicted criminal (justly) imprisoned for life. The governor pardons him at great personal cost, adopts him, brings him to live in his home, and gives him an esteemed role in his administration. Even years later, this man would have gratitude in his heart for the governor.
If you think this story is unrealistic, the Bible says God has done something even more outrageous. This is only a faint picture of the grace God extends to each one of us. We have grievously rebelled against God and broken his law, the just penalty of which is death. Yet Christ came to freely stand in our place, to pay the penalty of death that he didn't deserveso he could give us what we didn't deserve: GRACE (God's Riches At Christ's Expense). God's grace is marvelously multi-faceted, including complete forgiveness, eternal life, adoption into his family, his Spirit to indwell us, insight into his plan for humanity and a significant role in that plan, sovereign involvement for good in every situation, etc.
When God's grace breaks in upon you, when you realize the contrast between what you deserve from God and what he is giving you, the only sane response is rejoicing gratitude. You see this theme all through the Bible: Luke 7:47; 1 Peter 1:3-6, 8; Romans 12:1; Colossians 1:6; 2:7.
What does it mean if you lack gratitude for God's grace? It depends.
If this is totally foreign to you, it probably means that you are not yet a child of God. You need to receive God's grace by acknowledging your revolt and guilt, thanking him for his gracious gift of the cross, and asking him for salvation through Christ (John 1:12). Why not receive Christ today?
If you know that you have received Christ and have experienced this gratitude in the past, but not lately, it may mean that you are living under the law (ACCEPTANCE BASED ON PERFORMANCE; SERVE BY OWN POWER). Paul says this will take away our sense of blessing (explain Gal. 4:15,21). If this is where you are at, read Galatians, Waking In Victory, Sit, Walk, Stand, Normal Christian Life, etc.
But this may not be enough; there may be something else you need to do. You may need to begin choosing by faith to rejoice and express thanks to God. This is because gratitude is not only a thermometer that indicates the state of your spiritual health; it is also a medicine that promotes your spiritual health.
Gratitude is a medicine that promotes your spiritual health
Gratitude is not a feeling that dictates your choices; it is a choice that affects your feelings. This is what Paul is emphasizing in this passage. Most of the New Testament passages on gratitude are imperatives, addressed to our volition rather than to our emotions. He is not prescribing for us how we must feel; he is calling on us to choose to rejoice and thank God on the basis of what is true--regardless of how happy or thankful we may feel.
This is a key insight into biblical spirituality. It involves our feelings and experiences, but it is not rooted in them, because they are fallen and broken and unreliable. It is rooted in God's truth and our choice to express faith in the truth, often in spite of what we feel.
This is why the notion that it is unspiritual to thank God unless you feel grateful is false. Choosing by faith to thank God in spite of intense feelings of depression, disappointment, anxiety, etc. is deeply spiritual. This is why if you wait until you feel grateful to thank God, you will feel less and less grateful. But if you choose to thank God regardless of how you feel, you will feel more grateful more often.
It is in this sense that gratitude is a key step of faith (along with serving love) that unleashes God's blessing into your experience. (Grateful servants are happy people.) The New Testament teaches this in many places:
It is the step of faith that unleashes God's peace to guard your heart and mind (see Philippians 4:6-7 & EXPLAIN WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE).
It is the step of faith that unleashes God's power to deliver you and impact others through you (narrate Acts 16:25ff.).
It is the step of faith that increases your capacity to experience the love that God is always pouring into your life. In his talk "Transformational Wholeness," Erwin McManus describes a situation I have seen often. He is listening to a young man complain about how miserable he is because no one loves him. Next to him stand his parents, whose anguished faces express how much they have loved their son. What is his problemthat he is not loved? No, it is that he is so ungrateful that he can't experience the love that his parents are constantly giving him. And he will stay unable to experience it until he begins to express gratitude in his present situation. So it is for us in our relationships with God . . .
I think this is what God has his finger on with many of us (I KNOW HE HAS WITH ME!). We understand about grace, but we're in a state of spiritual stagnancy because we aren't cultivating a grateful posture toward God . . .
Cultivating a grateful attitude
It is in this sense that gratitude is a discipline, a habit that must be consciously developed and deliberately cultivatedwhich is what Paul is calling for in this passage. This is an area God has been pounding away on in my life for the last couple of years. How can we do this? There is no mechanistic formula, but neither is it merely asking God to do this for you and then sitting back passively. There are practical steps we can take in cooperation with God's work in this area. May the Holy Spirit arrest your attention on the ones he wants you to work on . . .
Prioritize thanksgiving in your prayer life (Colossians 4:2) vs. letting it get crowded out by petition, let alone whining and complaining. Always include it, and sometimes focus on it alone. What should I thank God for? I suggest two areas:
- 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 (nature; health; acts of kindness) and actually express thanks to God for them vs. taking them for granted, acknowledging without expressing thanks (material affluence promotes ingratitude!).
Ask God to sensitize you to internal complaint (ME WITH AUDIBLE GRUMBLING ABOUT BILLS, MISTREATMENT, etc.). When you realize it, promptly turn away from it and replace it with thanks in the related areas.
Utilize spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:18, 20). They often have power lift my eyes and heart when nothing else does.
Thank people who bless you in even the smallest ways. It will complete your enjoyment of the blessing, and it will increase your capacity to thank God.
Reflect on and serve those less fortunate than you. This will remind you of how gracious God has been to you, how far he has brought you, and how much he has blessed youwhich will in turn motivate you to be grateful to God.
Hang around grateful people. They will convict you of your ingratitude and inspire you to become like them. Let's listen to K. J. Swearingen for an example of what I'm talking about (VIDEO) . . .
1 In the New Testament epistles, note the frequency of the related terms used in this sense: "thanks" (50), "blessed" (84), "praise" (28).
Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt