How might a practice of giving thanks change your life?
An old friend of mine used to complain about everything. Even with perfect weather — sunny with a high of 75 — and he would gripe, “Well, it won’t last forever.”
I used to see this negativity as a harmless quirk of a friend, but now see it as a major spiritual issue.
God calls us to be thankful (Colossians 3:15).
What happens when you don’t give thanks
Something usually fills the void in our souls when thankfulness is absent.
It could be discontent. That was Israel’s problem. God miraculously saved them from Egypt, and instead of hearts overflowing with gratitude, they grumbled. “Where’s the food, Moses? Did you take us out here to die?” “I wish we were back in Egypt?!” They focused became what they didn’t have — food for a few hours — instead of what they did have, freedom from oppressive slavery and the love of God. Not only does discontent break the tenth commandment to be content (Exodus 20:17), it provides an unrealistic picture of life because it fails to acknowledge the good we have received from God.
Anxiety might fill the thankfulness void. Instead of keeping a proper perspective on good gifts from God, the circumstances and pressures of life begin to dominate our thinking. We run ourselves ragged stressing. We lose true perspective of our situation, forgetting that God’s peace is available to His children regardless of the circumstances. It is worth noting that Paul doesn’t merely mention prayer as the antidote to anxiety; it is a certain type of prayer, prayer with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6–7). Fight your anxiety with thankfulness.
Self-sufficiency prevents giving thanks. This is especially tempting when you’re comfortable, taken care of, and have a nice life. We must “take care” lest we forget the Lord our God (Deuteronomy 8:11; 1 Timothy 6:17).
If discontent, anxiety, and self-sufficiency aren’t bad enough, thanklessness is also a sign of unbelief. Romans 1 describes those who reject God (and face His judgment as a result) as people who do not give thanks to God (Romans 1:21). Lacking gratefulness is no peccadillo; it is a dangerous — and potentially deadly — red flag.
Thankfulness grounded in the gospel
No matter how hopeless your situation seems, the scales always tip in favor of the Christian. Temporary pain, suffering, and sorrow cannot compare to the unsearchable — and eternal — riches God lavishes upon us in Christ. We are forgiven of our sins (Ephesians 1:7). We are adopted sons of God (Ephesians 1:5). We have an eternal inheritance that can’t be taken from us (Ephesians 1:11).
Our suffering has an expiration date. The glory we will enjoy in Christ will never fade but will only grow in richness and satisfaction over time. Our situation in life may seem like a slow march toward death, “but thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
Thankfulness as spiritual warfare
It’s hard to be thankful when you’re in what can only be described as a “living hell.”
There’s no other way to describe living at Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp, where sisters Corrie and Betsie ten Boom found themselves toward the end of World War II.
When the sisters entered the new barracks assigned to them months into their captivity, they quickly noticed their new home smelled of sewage and boasted of soiled bedding. When Corrie laid down for the night, a sharp pinch on her leg caused her to bolt up in bed. Corrie ten Boom records her story in The Hiding Place:
“Fleas!” I cried. “Betsie, the place is swarming with them!”…
“Here! And here another one!” I wailed. “Betsie, how can we live in such a place!”
The Lord quickly brought to mind a verse they read that morning: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
“That’s it, Corrie! That’s His answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!” I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room.
“‘Such as?” I said.
“Such as being assigned here together.”
I bit my lip. “Oh yes, Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.” I looked down at the Bible. [Earlier, the Lord miraculously provided a Bible.]
“Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all these women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie, “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly. “Corrie!” she prodded.
“Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed suffocating crowds.”
“Thank You,” Betsie went on serenely, “for the fleas and for–”
The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” she quoted. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
“You know, we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,” she [Betsie] said. “Well–I’ve found out.”
That afternoon, she said, there’d been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they’d asked the supervisor to come and settle it. “But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?”
Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: “Because of the fleas! That’s what she said, ‘That place is crawling with fleas!'”
My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.
In the paradoxical and glorious wisdom of our great Father, we can truly give thanks in every circumstance—even during a flea infestation in Ravensbruck. Without the fleas, the guards surely would have stormed in, broke up the group of women huddled around the Bible, and inflicted strict punishment. But in His majestic sovereignty, He used the two sisters to minister His life-giving gospel to many desperate women who would not make it out of Ravensbruck alive.
God’s promises are unshakable. His eternal purposes to redeem are unstoppable. He blesses us with His presence as a sweet foretaste of our heavenly home. “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:35). For these reasons, we can always — ALWAYS — give thanks.
Growing in Thankfulness
If you’re feeling like the most ungrateful person in the world after reading the ten Boom story —don’t worry — it has that effect on us all. 🙂
Thankfulness is a spiritual discipline to develop in good times and bad. A redwood tree never grows overnight; it grows slowly: day by day, year by year. I want to “work out” my thankfulness muscles each day, not only for strength during difficult times but also to offer God a small sacrifice of thanksgiving for all He’s done for me.
Here are some practices for cultivating a thankful heart. Pray through this list and as you think through various aspects of your life. The Lord will help you grow in thankfulness.
1. Think through your life and what you have to be thankful for. You could journal like my mother did on her cancer journey. Reflect on what you write and think about the millions or even billions throughout human history who haven’t been able to enjoy what you take for granted each day. And give thanks.
2. Think through your grumbles and anxieties, asking God to reveal to you the idols that lie behind them. Consider how thankfulness can be a weapon in your spiritual arsenal against these things. Give thanks that God has given you everything you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
3. Think through what truths of Scriptures you need to cling to for various situations in which it’s hard to give thanks. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)
4. Think through how a more thankful life might benefit your relationships at work, with your family, or with your spouse. Thankfulness—and ungratefulness—rubs off on others and can set the tone for the house or workplace. Ask God for grace to live a thankful life.
5. Think through the greatest challenges in your life, and give thanks that God can use them for your good (Romans 8:28; Romans 5:3–5).
6. Make a regular habit of sing songs of thanksgiving to the Lord (Psalm 95:2–3; Ephesians 5:18–20; Hebrews 12:28–29).