A Thanksgiving Sermon
By Loren Seibold | 18 November 2020 |
William Law was an English clergyman who wrote in the early 18th century. His most famous book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, is one of the classics of the Christian faith—a book you can put on the same shelf with Mere Christianity and Steps to Christ.
And what, according to William Law, is the most essential element of a devout and holy life? Listen:
Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is more eminent for temperance, chastity or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God…
Gratitude is the forgotten doctrine of the church.
Do you realize that every time that Jesus handles food, he gives thanks? When he breaks bread for the 5,000, he gives thanks. At the Lord’s Supper, in every telling of it, it says that Jesus “gave thanks.” Every time! There are almost as many instances of Jesus’ giving thanks as there are of him praying.
But of all the benefits to the spirit that faith can confer upon us, the one we make least use of is gratitude. We may well be living good lives: we may be practicing charity and generosity, and living by high moral standards and doing good to others, and practicing justice. Good things—all of them.
But should you try to find examples of genuine gratitude in most of our days, you’ll have a hard time of it.
Now, you must understand that there is a difference between polite gratitude and real gratitude. I’m not talking about sending thank-you notes, or the perfunctory “thanks” that you mutter to a store clerk.
No, I’m talking about the real thing: deep, lasting, heartfelt appreciation for your blessings. The English word “thank” comes from an old Germanic root word that meant to think. Originally, to thank derived from the idea of continuing to think about some good that was done for you; to ponder it and meditate upon it. To be thankful was not to forget your blessings quickly.
Gratitude, you see, prevents our taking blessings for granted.
I heard once of a couple who gave a sizable contribution to their church in honor of their son, who’d been killed serving in the military. When the announcement of this generous contribution was made in church, another woman turned to her husband and whispered, “Let’s give the same amount in honor of our son!”
The husband said, “What are you talking about? Our son wasn’t killed!”
She said, “That’s just the point, isn’t it?”
It is so easy to let the blessings slide by. To blithely move on to the next need, the next goal, the next problem. And completely forget the blessings!
I was talking to a school principal over lunch one day. He sighed, and said, “I’m tired.” “Why?” “Everyone has a complaint. Just this week I got a dozen letters and calls from complaining parents.” I said, “But surely some people are happy with the school.” He said, “Yes, almost everyone is. But those I rarely hear from. I only hear from folks when they think something is wrong.”
Anyone who works with people will tell you the same thing. Jesus got the proportion about right when he said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?” One in ten is as enthusiastic with gratitude as with complaints.
The blessings slide by. So regardless are we of blessings, that we fail to enjoy our own achievements! A friend of mine has written several books. I said, “That must be very satisfying.” He said, “I rarely think about it, except to feel critical of what I’ve done. So I just move forward and start the next project.”
What a tragic ingratitude!
Here is a parable from the great American preacher Henry Ward Beecher:
“If one should give me a dish of sand and tell me there were particles of iron in it, I might look for them with my eyes and search for them with my clumsy fingers, and be unable to detect them; but let me take a magnet and sweep through it and now would it draw to itself the almost invisible particles by the mere power of attraction.
“The unthankful heart, like my finger in the sand, discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.…”
Gratitude is the way God designed for us to check if our prayers have been answered.
Generally our prayers are about our needs. But how many people, when they have devoted hours, sometimes years, praying for help, actually sweep the magnet of gratitude through their lives to see if God has?
Suppose you walked into a shop one day—and there was almost nothing in it! You say, “I’m looking for a toaster-oven for my wife for Christmas.” The merchant says, “Well, I’d really like to have one to sell you. But as you can see, I don’t have any.” “Have you tried to get them?” “Oh, yes. I’ve put in orders for all kinds of goods. Enough to fill this shop. But as you see, they’re not here.” “And you have none in the warehouse?” He says, “I never checked the warehouse.” “Don’t you do an inventory?” “No, hardly ever. I’m too busy putting in orders.” “Well, then, how do you know you’ve never received anything you ordered?”
We’re constantly putting in orders to God; but how rarely we do an inventory! Gratitude is how we know that God has answered our prayers. The man who never practices gratitude in a serious way—and I mean, not just perfunctory mutterings, but genuine meditation on his blessings—never receives an answer to a prayer, because he never does an inventory. The reflection—the backward glance that measures progress—is missing. And as a consequence, he doesn’t even know what to ask for any longer, and he ends up, like a grumbling child, talking to God about whatever seems to be bothering him at the moment.
When I read you William Law’s line about gratitude a moment ago, I didn’t finish it. I want you to hear the end of it. “Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is more eminent for temperance, chastity or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.“
This is hard for us modern realists. We want to see things as they are, not through rose-colored glasses. But in fact, I’ve come to understand, as a Christian believer, that the hard, pessimistic, realistic view is not how things really are. If there is in fact a God working behind the scenes in our lives, then we’ve got to believe that the things that happen to us are ultimately blessings. Gratitude is the way we begin to see God working behind the scenes in our life. And that’s how things really are: behind the scenes, someone is interceding for us.
Gratitude is the way we see God’s hand in our lives.
Of course, we don’t always see God’s involvement clearly. Some of life’s events simply don’t have a happy ending. As a believer I have to trust that if God doesn’t work it out now, God will work it out in the long run. Even if I have to wait until heaven. Gratitude, you see, plants our flag on heaven’s shore. When you practice gratitude, you are expressing your assurance that all things will in the end work together for the good of those who love God—even if it doesn’t look like it in the short run.
Gratitude in tragedy
Jesus really had, in many ways, a tragic life. He is born in poverty, conceived, some thought, out of wedlock. His family become refugees; when they do return to their own land, they settle in the unpromising village of Nazareth. He works as a carpenter until he is around 30 years old. He spends the rest of his life being opposed and threatened, and is executed by the age of 33.
So why was Jesus so grateful? Even at the moment that his enemies are coming down on him, and one of his friends is betraying him; even as he’s feeling the cold hand of death; even then, he’s taking the food in his hands and thanking God for it!
That’s because in the midst of tragedy, Jesus viewed the ultimate goal of a Christian life with optimism. He didn’t always feel optimistic. But still he thanks God. Jesus acts as though the universe were in good hands, even though he knows he himself faces eminent tragedy.
In the end all things work together for our good, and that is what we’re thankful for. Gratitude makes us focus on the good, when we’d probably focus on the bad; it makes us focus on the blessings, more than our disappointments; it helps us focus on possibility and ability, rather than on failure and weakness.
In the little town of Enterprise, Alabama, there’s a rather odd monument. It is dedicated to (of all things) the Mexican boll weevil. In the last decade of the last century, that insect invaded the county and virtually destroyed the cotton crop. The community thought all was lost. But because of the weevil, farmers were forced to diversify into other crops, and by 1920 the county was wealthy from peanuts. The inscription says, “In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity.
In appreciation for a tragedy? And yet it is true. Gratitude helps us see that sometimes life’s worst moments were preparation for a new victory. There will never be any shortage of tragedies in life. But grateful people know that blessings will follow. God is more powerful than evil. There is a heaven for those who have been thankful to God through life.
And, when you think about it, what else could heaven be but an eternity of gratitude?
Gratitude to the giver
The gratitude toward God that works on our spirits also works on the lives of others when we practice it.
I always tell couples who are marrying what probably every married couples learns from experience: you can’t effectively nag the people you love into doing or being what you want them to do or be. And of course, the same is true for your children and the people you work with.
People respond far better to gratitude, and to its twin sibling, praise. Praise, you see, is just another form of gratitude. Praise and gratitude are transforming. I’m talking about the sincere variety, now; only very dull people don’t see through the kind of fake gratitude or phony praise you hear from Hollywood people gushing about one another. The kind of gratitude that motivates must be sincere, for in the end gratitude and praise are the only tools you have to change people with a net gain rather than a loss.
Gratitude for the receiver
A few years ago I accompanied a missionary into an impoverished third-world country, just to watch her working. I’d always thought that helping poor people would be marvelously rewarding—and it is. But I learned something else about helping the poor: I learned how difficult it is to give things to people, and how difficult it is for people to receive them, even when they really need them. It is difficult to give things to people that they must have, because it takes away a little of their pride.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm.”
Imagine how hard it is when you, like people in many poor countries, have to beg for food from the aid workers from richer countries. Receiving, for one used to doing for himself, is hard on the pride; and like Nietzsche said, it may produce bitterness as easily as gratitude.
But you know what? Sooner or later, every single one of us becomes a recipient. Every person will at some time be helpless and in need of help. For some of us, that’s hard. When my father was in the hospital in his last days, one of the things that most bothered him was that everyone did things for him, and he couldn’t do anything for them. He couldn’t help himself, or others; and I think it was one of the things that most gnawed on him. I’ve encountered that over and over again from people in convalescent homes or nursing homes.
Practicing gratitude is the antidote to the bitterness of having to be the object of others’ charity.
I wish we could understand the power of gratitude. There is more power to change your life in practicing intentional, purposeful, specific gratitude than there is in any number of hours of beseeching God to step in and change things. We need both, of course, but I am absolutely convinced that Christians are losing happiness, and perhaps even losing salvation, for want of practicing the discipline of gratitude. Gratitude for everyday blessings, rather than begging for everyday blessings. Gratitude for spiritual blessings. Gratitude for power over sin, as demonstrated in the life of Jesus. Gratitude for forgiveness of sin, as demonstrated on the cross of Jesus. Gratitude for power over death, as demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus.
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
Do not be discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.
So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be disheartened, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.