The problem with our thanksgiving
“What were you thankful for in 2016?”
The instinctive answer for most of us would probably begin with, “I thank God for…” As easy as the phrase, “Oh my god,” roll off our tongues, our flippant expressions of “thank God” have similarly become clichéd — we may not always mean what we say.
I’m not a person who is known to throw tantrums or be overly fastidious, and thus thought of myself as someone who has mastered the art of thanksgiving. Like every “good” Christian, I would give thanks to God for the food before each meal and have always been sincerely thankful for His providence. Despite my presumption that I wasn’t a person who was unappreciative in life, God taught me the true meaning of gratitude in 2016.
One evening, I was spiritually awakened after leaving the dining table at a Cantonese restaurant. Despite having thanked God for the meal, I walked through the exit door complaining and ranting about the poor service and how terrible my dining experience was. I was upset.
This incident caused me to question myself: How did my thankful heart drown in a pool of ungratefulness within two hours? Did thankfulness simply dissipate and disappear, or did I allow ungratefulness to rob me of remaining thankful to God?
I came to realise that it is much easier to feel entitled rather than be thankful, and that our sinful human natures gravitate towards ingratitude.
I had never thought I needed to learn about thanksgiving until July 2016 came around. After earnestly seeking God for seven months, He answered my prayer when He opened a career door for me, enabling me to live out my life calling. Upon realising the faithful hand of God, I could barely contain my excitement and was filled with a surging and overwhelming sense of gratitude towards God for His perfect leadership and timing!
Yet, after a few months into work, my capacity was stretched in ways that were uncomfortable and the going began to get tough. The focus of my heart shifted from that grateful place (state of being) to trying to accomplish tasks or solve pressing problems (state of doing).
As my job is pastoral in nature, there came a point where I heavily relied on myself to do things on my own and only made time to be with God when I felt like I needed to. What made things worse: my stubborn refusal to return to the place of thankfulness until my work situation improved.
Through this, God revealed the problem with my thanksgiving to Him: I had failed to remain grateful because I was constantly thrown around — to and fro, there and back — by life’s circumstances. Utterly dissatisfied with how I was seemingly giving God half-hearted, slipshod gratitude, I took to the Bible to find out what He says regarding thanksgiving.
These are three lessons I have learnt in 2016:
1. Ingratitude will dull our hearts, allowing doubts and lies to distort our view of God.
In Romans 1:21 (NKJV), Paul described the dire spiritual condition of the Romans: “…because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
During the season where my heart was reluctant in thanking God, I was wrongly convinced that God was shutting me out due to my ingratitude. I started to think that He did not want to speak to me because I could not hear Him clearly, even though I was intentionally seeking Him.
I had to resist the doubts and lies with Jesus’ reminder in Matthew 7:7: “Seek, and you will find.” Slowly, I learnt that rather than fighting the doubts and lies, I should focus on becoming thankful again in order for my view of God to be restored! When gratitude came and went like a fleeting wind through my heart, I lost focus and my thoughts were left unguarded — I became easily swayed by the opinions of men.
2. Gratitude is more than a response to circumstances; it is a heart posture towards Christ.
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV) exhorts us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This verse baffled me for some time because it made me question, “Is gratefulness in every single situation the will of God for me? Is it even possible to be that grateful?”
I was met with answers to these questions in Philippians 4:6 (NLT) where it says, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.” My heart was moved reading this verse because of the extent of grace which flows from it. This verse encourages us to look to the Son and all He has done — His life surrendered to the Cross for you and I. While gratitude is a response, I also believe it is a heart posture we must intentionally adopt and resolve to have. Perhaps, we all need to pull pitstops for frequent heart checks.
As I took time to think about the things I have thanked God for, I came to realise that His loving handprints were a constant my life — having breath in my lungs, having all the provisions I need to live, having people to journey through life with, and having the Holy Spirit living in me. The fact that God is unchanging and that His character is matchless is sufficient for us to give thanks for who He is, despite of who we are! When we run to Him in times of desperate need, He has never once turned a cold shoulder towards us and He will never leave nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6,8). Take a moment to ask yourself: Is your heart postured towards Him with gratitude today?
3. Gratitude testifies of God’s grace and faithfulness in our lives, and gives Him glory.
This final lesson was inspired by that one leper out of ten healed who returned to thank and glorify God for healing him (Luke 17:11-19). Why did he return to thank God? I personally believe this leper encountered a love and grace so deep and compelling that it was senseless not to turn around to thank the Man who miraculously made him well!
What stood out most to me in this passage was Jesus’ response in verses 17 and 18: “Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’” God is looking for grateful people who will give glory and honour where it is due. Would you have been that one healed leper who turned around to run back in pure, undefiled gratefulness?
Dear friends, we were not made to splurge God’s love and grace like spoiled brats. It is easy to take His mercies for granted and even when we do, God remains holy and worthy of all of our lives and more.
For some of you, 2016 might have been challenging and being thankful to God might have been the last thing on your mind. Perhaps you might have lost a loved one, failed an important examination, fell short of expectations that others had for you, or fell back into habitual sin. Would you leave your inadequacies, grievances and dissatisfactions at the door and step into His presence to marvel at His magnificence again? When you are consumed with His glory, all ingratitude soon melts away in His grace and I can only imagine the sheer gratitude that will flow back into your heart when you see His arms open wide to you.
If you are struggling to thank God genuinely or have found yourself in places of ingratitude lately, would you return this day to give God thanks for who He is, and not necessarily what He hasn’t done or has yet to do for you? Thankfulness is less daunting and easier to do when we begin being grateful for the little things. May we all begin and end 2017 gratefully abiding in the True Vine — from whom everything we have and need comes from — and never look back nor give in to ungratefulness.