Marked By Thanksgiving
I am well aware of the fact that prayer, strictly defined, means to ask for something. And, in the context of the Christian life, prayer involves asking our Heavenly Father for something. But let me suggest to you that any prayer that is limited to the activity of asking is no prayer at all.
There is an abundance of Scripture that reminds us that prayer must be accompanied by thanksgiving. And while I recognize that asking and thanking are two different things, I submit to you that these two components are inseparable.
Similarly, when talking about our salvation, the Reformers would often say, "we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone". James tells us in his letter that "faith without works is dead"(2:17). In the same manner, prayer without thanksgiving is no prayer at all.
19th Century, Church of England minister, J.C. Ryle, has written, "I know well that asking God is one thing, and praising God is another. But I see so close a connection between prayer and praise in the Bible, that I dare not call true prayer that in which thankfulness has no part."
The apostle Paul, after the exhorting the Philippians to be "anxious for nothing", tells them, "By prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God." (Phil. 4:6). Paul qualifies here, how we are to make requests—it is with a spirit of thanksgiving that we come to God in prayer.
Paul encourages the Colossians likewise, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). And a bit further on, Paul implores the Colossians, “devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2).
Similarly, to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "always give thanks for all things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father"(Eph. 5:20).
The issue of thankfulness is not a peripheral one in Scripture. The apostle Paul, on many occasions, emphasizes the priority of a thankful spirit, presenting thankfulness as an essential Christian attribute.
As a nation, we have some understanding of the need for a thankful spirit. Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday. As parents, we understand the importance of gratitude, insisting that our children say ‘thank-you’ for every gift received. And, because we so greatly value thankfulness, we tend to react strongly against those who do not express gratitude.
We may even be inclined to agree with Shakespeare, who wrote in King Lear, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’
And yet, how much more repugnant is it when children of the living God express ingratitude! For who has given us more than the Lord? Who is more deserving of our thankfulness than Christ? In Him “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Christ, we are provided with the full supply of heavenly riches (Eph. 1:3).
For this reason, the disposition of thankfulness should be the constant companion of the child of God. When we serve Christ, when we sing, when we pray, we must do so with thanksgiving. "Whatever" we do, we must do it with grateful hearts.
This is not simply helpful advice that Paul is giving us here. Paul is telling us what appropriate prayer looks like. Paul is telling us about the correct way to serve Christ. And what is implied in this instruction is that there is a way to serve Christ, there is a way to pray to God, which is dishonouring to Him.
We may safely infer from Paul's instruction that to pray without thanksgiving is dishonouring to God. To serve God apart from a thankful disposition is sin.
This morning I stand before a crowd of Christian servants. If I were to ask you, ‘What motivates you to serve Christ?’—What would you say? If I asked you, ‘What motivates you to serve on a church committee? What motivates you to help with the nursery or with the Church School? What motivates you to be a choir member?’—What would your answer be?
What I hope you would not say is that ‘It's my duty.’ I hope that you would not point merely to some sense of obligation that you feel. Yes, we have a duty to serve Christ, but I sure hope that duty is not your primary motivation for serving Christ.
For example, I have a duty to be a kind and considerate husband, but my kindness had better be driven by something superior to duty! Imagine, for a minute, that I take my wife out for a special dinner; I present her with flowers and a gift of jewelry. My wife responds with delight and asks me why have I done this.
Would I be wise to say that I felt obligated to do this? Should I tell my wife that the dinner, flowers, and jewelry were inspired by a sense of duty?
No! The best response is to be able to say that I love her and that I am ever so grateful to be in a relationship with her.
Friends, I submit to you that this must also be our posture before God. Our service to Christ and to His Church should not be fueled by the mere notion that ‘this is the right thing to do’, but rather, our service should flow naturally from our love and gratitude for Jesus Christ.
Not only is this the best motivation for Christian service, but it is also the most enduring motivation for Christian service.
My experience thus far has led me to conclude that those who serve from a motivation other than loving gratitude towards Christ will not serve Christ or His Church for very long. And even if those who are fueled by a different motivation do persevere in the work, they usually do so devoid of any joy. Maybe you have come across such a person.
This is a danger for all of us. When I find myself dragging in my work, when I observe my joy in ministry waning, I inevitably discover that my motivation for serving Christ’s Church has gone awry.
By contrast, when my thoughts are heavenward, when my heart is enflamed with loving gratitude towards Christ, I find myself to have boundless energy for the work of His Church.
Having framed gratitude as the appropriate motivation for Christian service, let us now turn our attention to the object of our gratitude and the context for our gratitude.
It is common to hear people say, ‘Count your blessings’, but the apostle Paul is calling for so much more than this. Paul wants our gratitude directed, not simply towards the things themselves, but towards the One who has provided us with these blessings. Paul wants to make sure that we do not detach the goodness of the gift from the goodness of the Giver.
An interesting example comes from the ancient King of Macedonia, Alexander, who had two friends, Hephestion and Craterus. Of these two friends Alexander observed, ‘Hephestion loves me because I am Alexander; Craterus loves me because I am King Alexander.’ The one friend loved the person Alexander, the other loved the privileges that accompanied friendship with the King.
As Christians, there is a lesson for us: We must love God more for who He is, than for what He bestows. The chief object of our grateful affection must be God Himself. Now someone might say, ‘Should we not be chiefly thankful for our salvation in Christ?’ To that, I answer with another question: ‘What was the ultimate aim or purpose of our salvation?’ Was it not to bring us into a loving relationship with God? Our adoration and thankfulness for the cross comes from the fact that the cross reunites us and reconciles us with our Creator. We must love God for who He is above loving Him for what He can provide.
To some, this may seem simple and straightforward, but I reckon that this is more difficult than you might first imagine. To return thanks to God seems easy enough, but let us carefully consider the fact that Paul instructs us to "always" give thanks (Eph. 5:20).
It is much easier to thank God when our circumstances are favourable. It is easier to thank God when our body is healthy, when our bank accounts are growing, and when our relationships are strong. As the Puritan, Thomas Watson, has said, ‘Everyone, almost, can be thankful in prosperity, but a true saint can be thankful in adversity.’
Many will thank God when He gives, but Job thanked God even when much was taken away. This is what Paul is exhorting you and I to. And the only way we are going to be thankful in spite of our circumstances, the only way we are going to be thankful in spite of our context, is if our focus is on God.
The call here is not a call to be thankful for conflict, disease, or death. The call here is to always be thankful to God for His goodness in spite of conflict, disease, or death. Do you see how this approach to life sets the Christian apart from all others?
Augustine has written that the early Christians, when they met each other, would never separate without saying, "Deo gratias!", which means "thanks be to God". Frequently their conversation would be about the persecutions which raged against them, but they still finished their conversation with "Deo gratias!" Sometimes they had to tell of dear brethren devoured by the beasts in the amphitheatre, but even then they said "Deo gratias!" Frequently they mourned the uprise of heresy, and yet this did not keep them from exclaiming, "Deo gratias".
So should it be with us. The motto of the Christian should be "Deo gratias!", "Always giving thanks to God for all things".
Our Heavenly Father is the "fount of every blessing" and our continuing desire should be that He "tune our hearts to sing His praise".
We are called to be a people marked by gratitude. And this overflow of gratitude should fundamentally change us. This gratitude should compel you, and motivate you, to do everything in life for the sake of Jesus Christ and His kingdom. Deo Gratias! Amen.