Growing in Gratitude

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 

If you know anything about Israel’s history from the Old Testament, you know that they lived on a roller coaster. God would bless them with abundance and they would respond with pride and arrogance. God would send a foreign enemy who would defeat and enslave and oppress them. Then, they would cry out to God in repentance, God would send a deliverer, like Moses or Joshua or Gideon or Deborah, who would rally the people, defeat their oppressor and they would prosper once again. And the cycle would start all over. Pride, oppression, deliverance and abundance. But over and over throughout the OT, God would indict them for the sin that underlaid everything else they were guilty of: ingratitude. Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.” (Jer. 2:32)

When someone gives you a gift, what is your natural response? Appreciation and gratitude. If God blesses you, what should be your natural response? Appreciation and gratitude. But God would bless the people of Israel and their response would be complaining, rebellion and unfaithfulness. Let me give you an example:

When God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery – they have come to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army at their backs and they cry out, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex 14:11-12) God miraculously delivers them and they cross the Red Sea.

Three days into their journey to freedom they begin complaining about how thirsty they are – “What are we to drink?” And God gives them water in the desert. One month in the wilderness and the people start grumbling again, “If only we had died by the LORD'S hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex 16:3) How quickly they had forgotten their miserable existence as slaves in Egypt. But in spite of their ingratitude and complaining, God gave them manna in the morning and quail in the evening.

And I’m sure from then on, there wasn’t another word of complaint at all… You and I both know that it didn’t matter how much God did for them, it would never be enough. Their response to God’s gifts and blessings was always ingratitude.

And it is a danger for us as well. In fact, Paul wrote about those very experiences of the Israelites and warned the Christians in Corinth not to fall into that same pattern – “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10:11)

How do you avoid it? How do you not fall into the habit of complaining and criticizing, of taking things for granted and always demanding more?

The early church had a word for the Lord’s Supper – eucharist – from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” It is easy to see why they called it the thanksgiving:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matt. 26:26-29)

When Paul reflected on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)

Thankfulness is what characterized the supper for the early Christians. Yes, it was a memorial service. Yes, in the supper they remembered his body. Yes, the supper was about the suffering and death of Christ.

But woven throughout these simple elements of bread and wine is thankfulness: thankfulness for God’s indescribable gift of grace, thankfulness for the Savior who rescued us from sin and death and reunited us with the Father who loves us, thankfulness that we are loved so much by the Father that he calls us his children.

  • Thankfulness frames a state of mind that recognizes that all that we have and are is from the Father. And the Lord’s Supper or “Eucharist” is a good time to be reminded of all that God has done for us.
  • Thanksgiving is a growing process. It is as natural as breathing, but it has the potential to grow far beyond just the basic levels that most of us reach. As I read the scriptures that talk about and describe thanksgiving, they present a depth of gratitude that takes us from level to level as we mature in our relationship with God and in our understanding of his presence and his work in our lives.
  • Level 1 – Something good happens
  • The most basic level of thanksgiving is that ambiguous feeling that a person of the world experiences when someone does something nice for him, or something fortunate goes his way. He can’t explain it except to say there are nice people in the world or that he got lucky, or ascribe it to fate or karma – what goes around comes around. I think of a couple kinds of people who experience thankfulness this way. One is the person who feels that he is in charge of his destiny – if something good happens, he made it happen. And the other is the person who feels he is helpless to face life – if something good happens, it’s a fluke. One is a powerbroker, the other is a victim.
  • Level 2 – Something good happens because God allows it
  • In Matthew 5, Jesus described how many people view how things work. He says, that God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. This person explains a lot of things by naming fate as God. In fact, he might believe in God – a God who maybe was around a long time ago and maybe worked in some people’s lives. But this person is sophisticated enough to give a scientific explanation to most things. He’ll allow that God set up the world to work in a certain way, and we are all beneficiaries of some good things that God allows to happen. But blessings are accidental and arbitrary. And he feels uncomfortable with the idea that God is working in this world today, that he has any kind of personal concern for him and what goes on in his life.
  • Level 3 – Something good happens because God causes it
  • This kind of thankfulness arises from the belief that God is actively involved in my life, in my world. I see God working through good things and bad things. I see God providing for my needs and sustaining my life through his active care. The thankfulness this produces is the kind that recognizes God is personally concerned with my needs; that even in the struggles and crises of my life God is there caring for me. It embodies Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
  • Level 4 – Something good happens because God has enabled someone else to do it
  • Perhaps more than suggesting a deeper level of thankfulness here, I want to suggest that we redefine and refocus our thinking. You and I experience the wonderful gifts of other people loving us and caring for us and reaching into our lives with ministry and service. Have you ever found yourself explaining it by saying, “Aren’t they nice people?” And that may be a true statement, but it doesn’t begin to explain the depth of their motivation. It’s okay to be a nice person, but what gets you moving, what keeps you running?
  • When God uses people as instruments of his service, when God provides for the needs of others through the hands and energies of his people – it produces tremendous expressions of thanksgiving. I love serving people – not for the pat on the back, or that people will think what a great guy I am— but so that God will be glorified. That people will see, not me, but Jesus working through me. And people will be drawn to him. When I see brothers and sisters in this family reaching out and serving, bringing spiritual and emotional healing in people’s lives, providing for physical needs, for being where they are needed, when they are needed – I rejoice and thank God for his wonderful gifts he has blessed us with.

This was at the heart of the Macedonian Christians, and Paul points to their incredible generosity as an expression of their gratitude to God – Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” (2 Cor. 8:2-5)

  • Level 5 – Something good happens because God has enabled me to do it.
  • Level 5 takes what we have just said about the source from which others draw their motivation to serve and internalizes it. I love to see people thanking God for things that brothers and sisters in Christ have done. It’s an even greater feeling of thanksgiving when people get to thank God when it’s something that I have been a part of. But let’s take that thanksgiving one step further. When God uses you or me as his instruments of service and people thank God for it, that’s great. But who is the greatest recipient? All of a sudden it dawns on us, that we – our weak, sinful, stubborn selves – have been used by God. He counts us worthy, he deems us holy, he has molded us and prepared us, and now he has used us. It don’t believe there is any greater feeling of thanksgiving than the thanks I experience when I realize that God has prepared me, enabled me, and given me the opportunity to serve for him in someone’s life.

Paul communicated this kind of experience in 2 Corinthians 9: “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” (2 Cor 9:10-12)

I can’t think of a more thankful person in the Bible than Paul. Pound for pound, Paul not only has more to say about thanksgiving, but expresses his personal thanksgiving and gratitude to God more than any other writer. Why? Because God was working in his life? No question about it. Because people were always doing nice things for him? He is glad to receive it. But Paul’s deepest expressions of thanksgiving are because God counted him worthy to be used in his service. Listen to what he writes: For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor. 15:9-10)

  • Thanksgiving does not come most deeply from receiving, but from giving; not from being served, but from serving. Only when we begin to see our abundance as the opportunity to expand our own giving and our ability to bless others can we begin to scratch the surface of true thanksgiving.
  • When I think of what true thanksgiving does in the life of a Christian, not to mention what it can do in the life of a congregation full of men and women whose lives are transformed by gratitude, it is a force beyond reckoning.
  • And so much of it has to do with perspective. What do we look for, where are we focused? Does each day come and go without the awareness of God’s working in your life? Do you see his work and care, or do you just casually take it for granted? One step further – do you seek to be God’s instrument of service to others, not for your glory or praise, but for his? Can you serve others anonymously, so that no one ever finds out, and God alone is praised, and honestly give thanksgiving without feeling like you have been ignored or slighted? That’s the true mark of maturity in serving and giving.

Garrison Keillor, author of the nostalgic Lake Wobegon books, recalls his childhood Thanksgiving dinners, as the family gathered around the table and remembered the blessings of the past year. Uncle John usually gave the prayer, which caused everyone to squirm. As Keillor said, "Everybody in the family knew that Uncle John couldn't pray without talking about the cross and crying.... Sure enough, Uncle John prayed, talked about the cross, and cried. Meanwhile, the rest of us shifted nervously from one foot to the other and longed for the prayer to end."  Then Keillor adds this powerful observation: "All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it."

  • Let’s be honest – there are times when I don’t feel thankful. I get caught up in my own pity party, I envy what others have, I don’t appreciate what God has given me. I feel flat and lifeless. When you experience a spiritual flatness, a discontentment, a loss of appetite for spiritual things, if you start investigating I’m pretty certain you will find thanksgiving in short supply. It is a critical spirit rather than a thankful spirit which prevails. And it’s then that we need to remind ourselves to focus on the blessings, rekindle that flame of thankfulness, and return to the foot of the cross.