So much could be said about being thankful. We know it is important. We hear our parents tell us to be thankful, we hear our teachers and leaders tell us it is mandatory to give thanks, and we know as Christians that the Lord expects us to be thankful. But how do we “be thankful”? What are the implications of faking it? How do we actually achieve a thankful heart? Sometimes we can say we are thankful, but in our heart we really aren’t there!
One problem we all have is a big one: we think, “I should be thankful because look at what I have or what the Lord has done in my life compared to so-and-so.” Your mother has said, “Be thankful for that food on your plate, because there are children all over the world going without food!” We hang our head in shame and succumb to the order to finish off our beef stroganoff! This much I know: real gratitude is not achieved by comparing ourselves to another! But it comes so natural, doesn’t it? Here is a list of comparisons that we all are guilty of:
- I’m thankful I live in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave vs. those poor people living under a communist regime or dictator.
- I’m thankful I have a family that loves me vs. those unfortunate people whose parents have passed on or who have a highly dysfunctional family (here we are tempted to compare levels of dysfunction)
- I’m thankful I have a nice dinner on the table vs. there are those out there that have next to nothing to eat
- I’m thankful for my health vs. poor folks that are laid up worse than I
- I’m thankful for my children vs. those who are childless
This list could go on ad infinitum. Why do we do this? Why do we admittedly or in secret set up this standard of comparison in order to find a thankful mind or heart? And if we don’t feel thankful, then we are riddled with guilt over it! This, my friends, is a fool’s game, and this is evidence of a heart and mind that has not yet had the opportunity to say to God, “I get it!” Sadly, we don’t get it…well, most of us anyway.
Then there is the other side of the coin. There are people who think themselves so holy and profess with their mouths how thankful they are and how you too should be thankful because the Bible tells us to. Nice! Thanks for that Mr. Holy Man. I should be thankful. That doesn’t help. I need to be thankful. That doesn’t help. I am commanded to be thankful. Again, I am inept at following orders to begin with. And anyway, how can people “muster up” thankfulness to begin with? Here comes the comparison game again. Let us get to the bottom of this issue, for the Scriptures are very clear at the need of, the power of, and the mandate of thankfulness. We all know we need to be thankful, but just how this is accomplished is where the problem lies. My request to God from all of us is, “Lord, teach us to be thankful. We are but mere flawed humans that lack even a shred of wisdom without Your Spirit to teach us.”
Let us briefly touch on what we shouldn’t do. Don’t ever qualify your thankfulness based on comparison to another! Just don’t do it…it is number one, wrong, and number two, “stinking thinking.” It never ceases to amaze me sometimes when I see a child in a wheelchair whose circumstances look quite awful and yet this child always has a smile painted across their face. It’s almost like they know something that you and I don’t! On the other hand, there are people who seem to have everything their heart could desire like a happy, healthy family, a stash of cash in the bank, and a lovely life as far as we can see. But this same person can be absolutely miserable! Now I do understand this phenomenon but cannot chase that rabbit today. But suffice it to say, circumstances do not truly affect your level of gratitude. This just flies in the face of our comparison construct, doesn’t it?
Outward conditions and circumstances have spiritual significance, but many of us are so shallow and immature spiritually speaking, that we still live under the illusion that if we earn God’s good graces, that He will bless us circumstantially or conditionally. For instance, if I am “good enough” then God will bless me with prosperity or even, if I “name it and claim it” in Jesus’ name, then God will bless me with circumstantial blessings. Poppycock! Who came up with this horse rubbish?
We must understand that like everything else spiritual, thanksgiving is a state of the heart independent of circumstances.
In a construct built by circumstance and situational conditions, our “level” of thanksgiving could be affected by the ups and downs of life. One could be more thankful in this condition and less thankful in that condition. Life is a rain storm, God may give you an umbrella, but God won’t make it stop raining! You catch my drift here? Otherwise people would continue to judge and compare themselves to one another.
The New Testament has many examples of prideful humans making ridiculous attempts at thankfulness. The book of Luke records a lovely little bit of “smack-down” theology:
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are…’”
I could continue this verse and wax brilliant about the implications, but let’s just stop here and point out the obvious. First of all, who is the Pharisee praying to and with? He is praying with himself! He is not praying with the Spirit, and he is not praying with the people. What a jack-wagon. Second, he is not praying to God, but rather praying to people! His prayer in essence is a public declaration of his standing, mainly, his standing above others. Again, what a jack-wagon! But I dare say we all do this in our own hearts! Ouch…painful, I know. We know that men see the outside, and God sees the heart; so it only follows that if we pray like this in our heart, then God sees it. The pride, even without effort or intent, comes to the surface when we make comparisons. There is no way to convince ourselves otherwise. I mean, you could convince yourself otherwise but it would be decisively unbiblical…
Thus far we have learned some error of false thankfulness. We realize now that comparison and contrast methods are flawed to say the least, thankfulness is not conditional or circumstantial, and that we are unable to “muster up” true thankfulness on our own. So what gives? How on earth can we actually be thankful? Glad you asked!
I will briefly discuss the foundations we will be building upon and then give you the proofs thereof.
Thankfulness is a state of being; thankfulness is a gift from God; thankfulness is a product of faith, hope and love, and thankfulness is a state of anticipation. Thankfulness is the natural response of a soul to God’s goodness.
Notice in every context concerning thankfulness, thanksgiving, and thanks, there is an implied possession of thankfulness. For instance, one “gives” thanks, but how can one give what they don’t already posses? One “offers up” thanksgiving, but again, how can one offer what one does not possess? And finally, we are commanded to “be” thankful, but as we have already discussed, it is impossible to muster up this “being” by ourselves. Bear with me; this will make a lot of sense shortly!
The model of what we seek is found throughout Scripture. Notice in Psalm 100, it says, “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.” In a Biblical nutshell: be thankful to God and then bless Him. Notice the second sentence in the verse restates the first sentence…this is important. If you seek and understand the principles found in the Bible, you will notice a religious construct in the Old Testament and a spiritual construct in the New Testament that echoes the same truth.
In ancient Israel, there was a progression in the temple: as an Israelite, you entered the temple through gates, then you gathered in the courtyard, then the high priest would make the offering to God in the sanctuary. There were three levels: the outer walls, the walls that separate the courtyard from the sanctuary, and the veil that separates the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant and God’s Shekinah glory (or presence) resided. Notice the diagram provided. Without going into a dissertation on the implications of the Old Testament temple, I will keep this simple and offer a modern example.
Let us place ourselves momentarily in the mind of an ancient. The people were ecstatic as they entered through the gates of the temple; they were entering into a time of restoration and anticipated joy. They were thankful to be part of this holy convocation and thankful to be present. As they entered the courtyard, full of praise and shouts and the trumpets announcing the imminent favor of God, the mood must have been one of unbridled joy! Just think about it for a minute: you have been going about the tough business of life, dealing with all the problems that life has thrown at you, you have been less than perfect and have made many mistakes along the way, but now all will be made well; you, in essence, get a do-over! You get to start over, you get to make a sacrifice to the God of all creation, you get to praise Him with all your people, and you are allowed audience with the Spirit of worship! Of course you were thankful; you get the opportunity to be part of something magnificent. Of course you blessed God and sang praises; the atmosphere was charged with broken hearts yearning for justification and blessing. The thankfulness was natural! You have anticipated this occasion with a thirsty heart, and now your soul is yearning for release.
A really bad but effective comparison would be to compare this to you being able to see your favorite band or performer in concert. Think for a minute about someone (besides Jesus) you admire and have always wanted to meet. Now imagine that person was going to make an appearance, and you were invited to the event. As you wait outside in the line to enter the venue, you engage in discussions and fellowship with people just as excited as you are about being invited. Statements like, “Man, I am so thankful that I have this opportunity.” or “We are so lucky to have been invited to this event; I can hardly wait to see what is in store.” or “I have waited so long for this moment!” So as you wait in line, you are thankful to be there. As you get closer and closer to the front entrance, the enthusiasm and anticipation builds. The humming of the crowd is electric. You begin to hear the shouts on the inside of the building and people laughing and cheering. You are about to burst in excitement! As you enter the building from the outside, you notice that the entire atmosphere has changed in an instant. It is amazing, all the people laughing and cheering and milling around. It is a glorious cloud of anticipation and your heart leaps in your chest as you find a place to stand or sit. As the time gets closer, your emotions are just out of control! Then the lights dim, the crowd begins to hush, and the time is almost here. Over a loudspeaker, the host announces and introduces the performer. The curtain is pulled back, the crowd goes wild, and the spotlight is turned to the source of all the anticipation. Now the show begins!
Do you feel the emotions at least in part of what the ancient Israelites must have felt? This was a glorious honor and birthright! The example above just pales in comparison to the magnitude of being in the presence of God. And using the crude example above, what if you had a backstage pass? What if you could meet the performer in person and have time with them? Well, here is the unbelievable truth of the matter: because of Christ’s sacrifice, we can enter the holy of holies; because of His blood on the mercy seat of the ark, we have an all-access pass to be with the God of creation; because of the ultimate sacrifice, you are the high priest that gets to go behind the veil. This is so incredible, words simply escape me!
Before Christ’s sacrifice, average people like you and me weren’t even allowed in the sanctuary, let alone behind the veil; but now, we are invited to go directly to God Himself and enjoy His mighty presence! In His presence is healing, peace, and joy. In His presence we learn how to love because He loves us! In His presence, mysteries are revealed, communication is shared, and God treats you like a long, lost friend. It is too much to digest, isn’t it? You may be saying to yourself, “Well that is all fine and dandy, and I would love for that to be the case, but I have never experienced this presence of God…sounds like a bunch of poetic, romantic, ravings of a mad-man!” O.K., I’ll give you that.
But I tell you this in love: you CAN have this experience! We must understand a principle here though. We must understand that it takes an effort and a process. Just like the ancient Israelites, we have to enter the gate with thanksgiving, enter His courts with praise, and then allow God to make an appearance. This cannot happen in a 5 minute prayer before coffee!
How does this ancient account concerning the temple and this awful comparison to a concert apply to us today? How does this translate to a spiritual life? At this point I will build on a foundation that needs to be a pre-existing condition. I invite you to explore this awesome mystery if you doubt its validity, but I will go ahead hoping you will at least glean the enlightenment of its existence. Jesus tells us within the discourse with “the woman at the well” that God is seeking people who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Jesus tells her that the time is now that people will not worship here or there but rather spiritually within themselves!
The New Testament lays out the new covenant concerning this by stating abundantly and clearly that we are the Temple. The presence of God in the form of the Holy Spirit resides in us. This is in contrast and comparison to the inner chambers of the ancient temple. The model of the temple is a model of you and me! The outer wall is your body, the courtyard is your soul, and the inner sanctum is your spirit. We progress into His presence by first moving past our senses, we move closer by praising God in our soul, and we ultimately enter His presence in the spirit. I give a more detailed teaching on this in the post, “The Difference Between Your Soul and Spirit”. We anticipate with thanksgiving the opportunity to be with our God, we offer praise to Him in our souls for His majesty and invitation to be in His presence, and eventually we enter into His presence in our innermost being. Beautiful, don’t you think?
What escapes almost all the world and what escapes a majority of Christians is the glaring truth that very few understand the effort required to enter God’s rest. You see, ironic as it might initially sound, one must work to enter His rest! There is a point in everything spiritual where our efforts stop and God’s work begins.
An example that most Christians can relate to is this: in a congregation of believers, we can operate in a corporate, organic fashion. We can enter into the gathering anticipating the presence of God. We start by praising Him; we start by magnifying Him and singing of His awesomeness; and we hope in anticipation that God will make an appearance. We make the sacrifice of being somewhere gathered together, we build a spiritual house by praising Him, and oftentimes God will enter the house we have built in the form of true worship. Many if not most of us, have had the experience of God’s presence. Is there anything more awesome and fulfilling than this precious time where God takes over and overwhelms us? I’ll answer that for us: No! When our efforts begin with thanksgiving and end with praising Him, God enters into the atmosphere and takes over. We now are having intimate communion with God Himself. We are effectively now experiencing God’s rest! What do we really do when we truly worship? We really don’t do anything; we experience and respond to His presence! Our efforts have stopped and His work has begun.
This same model exists within each of us as well. God’s truth operates on many levels, and the primary level is within our own spiritual existence. We must move through the progression as often as we can to live a victorious and magnificent life. But we cannot expect God to take over if we are unwilling or unable to follow the progression.
Notice that Christ teaches us to “take up your cross daily”, He teaches us to ask for our “daily bread”, and He implores us to “die to self” on a daily basis. It is not a “one time shot”, it is not a once-a-month occurrence, it is not a weekly event…it is DAILY! To begin the process, one must be willing to die to self, and this is the moving past the first wall. As a new Christian, this is a very tough and mysterious concept, but as we mature, it becomes easier to understand.
Just a quick note here: learning this requires time in His Word, learning this takes the practice of prayer, and understanding this concept spiritually requires meditation. I know many of us have been taught that Jesus does all this for us, but that is false teaching! Examples: God delivered the Israelites from bondage, but they weren’t able to enter the promised land; God eventually allowed entrance into the promised land, gave them the land, but they still had to occupy the land and take ownership of it; and similarly, Jesus has purchased the spiritual life for us to enjoy in freedom and victory, but we still have to make the effort to claim and explore the kingdom of God! Am I making any sense here? God gives generously, but our response is crucial.
Let me give you a crude but effective analogy. Let’s compare salvation to a new Ferrari (many know of my propensity for this analogy…sorry, but it works!). Jesus purchased the Ferrari and hand delivered it to your home. All you have to do is accept the gift; He will not deliver it to you if you don’t want it. Awesome! Thanks for the Ferrari Jesus! What do you do next? Do you talk about the Ferrari to your friends, do you admire the new car sitting in your driveway, or do you go out every now and again to polish it and sit in the leather seats? The Ferrari is meant to drive! But you can’t drive a car if you don’t know how to drive. The first thing one must do is read the directions or owner’s manual. Then you must have someone sit in the car with you and walk you through the ins and outs of actually driving, and eventually you will drive with “hands-on” assistance. Then you begin to gain some confidence and can drive short distances on your own. As you become more familiar with the Ferrari, you begin to really enjoy it! You have now effectively learned to enjoy the gift. If you never take the time to go through this process, two things can happen: either the Ferrari will sit in the driveway and never get used, or you will get a wild hair one day, drive it without proper preparation and wreck the Ferrari by wrapping it around the Oak tree on the outside of a curve in the road. Some abandon the car in the wreckage and think, “Oh well, I tried.” Do you begin to see that a gift that is never opened and/or explored is not really a gift to begin with? It takes the cooperative effort of the Giver and the recipient to enter the joy of the gift. So is the spiritual life.
So here is the bottom line of thanksgiving: it is the spiritual state of one anticipating the presence of God. It is NOT in anticipation for God’s blessing, for God’s favor, for God’s creating circumstances that please us, but rather of God’s presence! We anticipate Him and Him alone; all the rest is gravy so to speak. We don’t seek healing, but there is healing in His wings; we don’t seek blessing, but blessing comes as a direct result of being with Him; we don’t seek the gift itself, we want to know the heart of the One who is so generous.
The sheer and unbridled power of thanksgiving is that it ushers us into a pathway of hope. When we understand that God is awaiting our arrival, we can’t help but to be thankful. When we know that God is patiently yearning for our special time together, it makes us weak in the knees. And when we truly grasp the immensity of the occasion, we are humbled and changed simply by the invitation. As we humbly seek God in His Word, in prayer, and in meditating on His beauty, He will gently guide us in this process and grow our understanding. The more time we spend with the Lord, the more our love for Him grows. The more in love we are with the Lord, the more thankful our hearts become.
So we are thankful for the invitation. We are thankful for God’s sacrifice of love for us. We are thankful for restoration. We are thankful that God loves us more than we will ever know. Everything else is worthless compared to resting in God’s loving embrace!