At our Stated Annual Meeting held on Tuesday 19th March it was good to recall some of the many blessings bestowed on the congregation over the last year. This latest rehearsal of God’s provision encourages us to go forward in faith in what could be a defining year in the history of both our congregation, as we look for a minister, and of the Church of Scotland, whose agenda for the May Assembly will have substantive items which could have significant impact on the Church.
While we may say, as a church, ‘Hitherto has the LORD helped us’, (I Samuel 7: 12), and as individuals, ‘Hitherto has the LORD helped me’, the sin of ingratitude is nevertheless a besetting one. One of the problems concerns the faculty of memory, which can hold such a vast store of harsh criticism but be quite un-retentive of all the good things which happen to us day by day. How apt is the psalmist’s challenge with regard to our forgetfulness of God’s kindness to us (Psalm 103: 2).
Why give thanks?
The question need hardly be posed. Even in the pagan world thanksgiving was regarded as a priceless quality. As Cicero said, ‘A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues’. How much more so for the Christian! There is hardly a more frequent exhortation in the New Testament than that of the need to give thanks to God. As Paul suggests to what might be called a model church, thanksgiving is not an optional extra: ‘give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ’ (I Thessalonians 5: 18). However, we tend not to think of our ingratitude as an indication that we might be possibly out of the will of God.
One of the problems is that the term ‘thanksgiving’ has been devalued these days. Unlike the Americans, we do not have a ‘Thanksgiving Day’, which occurs on the fourth Thursday in November. However, though this holiday is arguably for many in the US more important than Christmas, there is little recall of the early settlers who, with Governor William Bradford, set aside a day of ‘feasting and prayer’ (initially on 13th December 1621) to express gratitude for God’s provision and protection. The Thanksgiving Holiday, as with Christmas in the UK, has become associated with secular festivity, and a time for reunion with friends and family. The turkey has become its major emblem. Each year, one of the national items of news on Thanksgiving Day in the US is the disclosure of the identity of the turkey pardoned by the president. (In 2012, the White House held a popular vote for the ‘official spot’ on Facebook between Cobbler and Gobbler, two 19-week-old turkeys. Cobbler received the honour!)
Thankfulness is one of the essential qualities in all Christians, particularly in leaders. Born of humility, a thankful heart recognises dependence on God, and that everything we possess is a gift from Him (I Corinthians 4: 7, James 1: 17).
Giving thanks can also deliver us from self-preoccupation, complaint and grumbling. As Martin Lloyd-Jones observed, ingratitude can lead to a wrong relationship with God:
We tend to take all the gifts and pleasures and happiness and the joy without saying much to God. We take our health and strength, our food and clothing and our loved ones, all for granted; but the moment anything goes wrong we start grumbling and complaining and we say ‘Why should God do this to me, why should this happen to me?’ How slow we are to thank and swift to grumble.
Gratitude to God gives perspective as we situate everything in terms of our relationship with Christ. The psalmist found himself developing a critical spirit and becoming discontented, envious of the prosperity of his enemies and their seeming freedom from the struggles he was facing. In fact, he became ‘embittered’, ‘senseless’, and ‘ignorant’ (Psalm 73: 21-22) – until he ‘entered the sanctuary of God’ (v. 17). The psalmist had to learn to give up self-trust and to re-focus his thoughts on God.
There is also a therapeutic bi-product of thanksgiving, if we accept the conclusions of the Hungarian scientist Hans Selye, who is regarded by some as the father of stress studies: ‘Gratitude produces more positive emotional energy than any other attitude in your life’.
When to give thanks?
The removal of any exemption clause in the exhortation to give thanks in all circumstances is challenging. In times of prosperity and comfort we can forget the source of our blessings. How many of us could identify with the nine lepers who failed to return to Christ to say thanks?
In times of illness, hardship, or trials, it is undoubtedly even more difficult to rise above our situation to remember God’s sovereign control. In this respect, so many in, or connected with, our fellowship, have recently been under attack. The sick list in Patrick Smith’s weekly prayer news bulletin has been growing. Some have been seriously unwell. Others have experienced uncertainty with regard to the future; others have known problems with regard to relationships. How difficult to give thanks in these circumstances and how important for those of us who have been spared much suffering to be supportive. Even from a prison cell, Paul could exhort the suffering Christians at Philippi to be thankful in whatever circumstances they found themselves:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians, 4: 6)
The history of the church is full of examples of the God-centred life which Paul was commending to the Philippians. The Pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts knew extreme hardship. During the first winter in 1620, 44 of the original 102 pilgrims had died. Yet they did not abandon their vision of God. President Abraham Lincoln, who instituted the modern version of the National Thanksgiving Day in the US, also experienced much suffering. In 1862, Lincoln lost a son, and in 1863 he was profoundly moved at the sight of the graves of 60,000 soldiers at Gettysburg. However, having professed faith in Christ, probably as a result of Gettysburg, he could acknowledge that the nation had been the ‘recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven’. Pastor Martin Rinkart, whose hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’ has become a universal song of thankfulness, had to conduct up to 50 funerals a day in Eilenburg in Germany during the Thirty Year’s War and a time of plague. Yet he was still able to thank God for the ‘wondrous things He had done’ and for His ‘countless gifts of love’.
How to give thanks?
The most obvious means of showing gratitude to God is in prayer. So many of the model prayers begin with thanksgiving or praise (which, focusing on the character of God rather than on benefits bestowed, is often the logical outworking of thanksgiving). There is hardly a psalm in which there is not an acknowledgement of God’s unmerited favour. From the perspective of Calvary the incentive to give thanks is all the greater. While we rightly thank God for personal benefits such as material provision (like homes, families and friends, health, employment) the emphasis in the New Testament is on the spiritual blessings, not least on God’s indescribable gift of Jesus (2 Corinthians 9: 15).
Thanking God in prayer gives Him pleasure. And, as with most earthly fathers, any request which is prefaced by acknowledgement from the child of past kindness is more likely to be heard.
Another means of showing gratitude is in ‘making music in our hearts’:
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5: 19)
Now we do not have to be able to sing like Luciano Pavarotti or Anna Netrebko, or like modern equivalents in popular culture, to be able to practise this form of thanksgiving. The items of praise when we meet together are an integral part of our worship. We are privileged to have such talented musicians leading us on Sundays from both the organ and piano and the praise band. It can sometimes take time, however, in the words of an ancient hymn, to ‘shake off dull sloth and joyful rise / to pay the morning sacrifice’!
Many of us probably do not at home draw on the rich treasury of spiritual songs. What better way to start the day than remind ourselves, for example, of the Getty/Townend song, ‘My heart is full of thankfulness’:
My heart is filled with thankfulness To him who reigns above, Whose wisdom is my perfect peace Whose ev’ry thought is love. For ev’ry day I have on earth Is given by the King; So I will give my life, my all, To love and follow him.
However, the temporal adverb ‘always’ in the exhortation to give thanks is perhaps best put into practice in the God-centred way in which we live. In this sense, true gratitude entails having the mind and affections of Jesus, who rose above the entitlement culture of his day and submitted himself to the Father for the purpose of our salvation. (See Philippians 2)
May we ourselves know more of this grace of gratitude, which will enhance the spiritual health and well-being both of our church and of ourselves, and give glory and honour to our God.
With very best wishes
Session ClerkView All Letters