Since this is Thanksgiving week, I trust that the thoughts of all of us are turning towards thanking God for the many ways he has blessed us. More than forty years ago, shortly after my wife Tillie and I moved our family to a new community, we attended a Thanksgiving Day worship service that was a joint effort by the churches of the community. It was the Baptist pastor’s turn to preach the service; and although I don’t remember what he said, I do remember the gist of his message. It was encapsulated in the title, “The Attitude of Gratitude.”
I don’t have a great memory, so when I remember something for more than forty years, it must have gotten my attention. I believe my response was, I would like to have an “Attitude of Gratitude.” And I believe I have had such an attitude through the years. At any rate, that’s the subject I would like to share with you in this brief essay.
The Scripture focus is Colossians 3:12-17. The larger context (3:1-17) is a passage in the letter where the Apostle Paul is exhorting the Colossians about several things at the center of the Christian life. In the immediately preceding paragraph (vv. 5-11), Paul encourages them to strip away their old selves, by which he meant the worldly, sinful aspects of their lives, and to put on their new selves by which he meant their new nature in Christ. And then comes 3:12-17. Please read these verses before continuing.
As you have just read, Paul laid out a long list of characteristics that should be part of our Christian new self: compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, and last of all, gratitude. “Be thankful,” he says (vv. 12-15). And then in verse 16 he declares that we should study God’s Word and worship “with thankfulness.” Or as the NRSV translates it, “with gratitude.” And finally in verse 17, Paul exhorts, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God.” That is “The Attitude of Gratitude.” The Apostle Paul certainly believed in it. And so do I.
I should point out that the Colossians would not have been living what we here in America normally think of as the “good life.” Many of the church members would have been poor, and some probably were slaves. Even apart from that, it was not easy to be a Christian in the cities of the first-century Roman world. So if you seem to have little for which to be thankful, remember they didn’t either. But three times in these few verses Paul exhorts them to be thankful.
Paul himself was a thankful person. You may remember that when he and Silas were in prison in Phillipi, a very difficult and stressful situation, they demonstrated thankfulness. The book of Acts tells us that, although the men were in prison with no idea what was going to happen, Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God (Acts 16:25). That’s an “Attitude of Gratitude.” Now such an attitude doesn’t always lead to the miraculous opening of prison doors, as occurred in that case, or a miraculous healing, or the meeting of our desperate need; but many Christians have found that it does always make life’s problems bearable.
Unfortunately we find in the Bible some instances where an “Attitude of Gratitude” was called for, but not found. You probably remember that Jesus once healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). One returned to Jesus praising God and thanking him. But the other nine didn’t have an “Attitude of Gratitude.”
I’m fairly confident that all ten lepers fantasized being healed. And when they prayed for healing, or dreamed of a deliverer coming to heal them, they would not have thought of themselves as unthankful. But when their dream came true, somehow they were unthankful. They didn’t have an “Attitude of Gratitude.”
Now I trust that none of us would be like those nine ungrateful lepers. Indeed I believe most of us have, perhaps many times, expressed grateful praise and thanksgiving for deliverances of one kind or another: for the rescue of a child from a fire, for coming out of a terrible car crash alive, for a successful heart surgery, and on and on. That is good. We should be thankful when delivered from crisis situations.
But biblical gratitude goes far beyond being thankful for deliverance from crisis situations. Biblical gratitude praises God for everything. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul exhorted that church to give thanks “always” and “for everything” (Eph. 5:20). That’s the key.
We all share the routine burdens and common sorrows of life. And the biblical “Attitude of Gratitude” enables us to make it through each day without complaining or whining. It enables us somehow to feel the hand of God even in the bad or difficult things and times. It is a grace given by God that brings joy and power into our lives. I remind you once again of Paul’s experience in the Philippian jail. The author of Acts did not show Paul and Silas praising God after the earthquake opened up the prison, though they may have done that. No, he showed them praising God before the earthquake, when they had no idea that the jail doors would be opened.
Now a word of caution. An “Attitude of Gratitude” is not the same thing as a stoic fortitude and resignation. Fortitude and resignation amount to surrendering to the vicissitudes of life. It is accepting whatever comes our way as the ancient Stoics did. It is the attitude that since I can’t control everything in my life, I will grit my teeth and let fate have her way with me.
An “Attitude of Gratitude” is not that. On the contrary it is joyful thanksgiving for all of life, because we know the God of all of life. This God of life also is the God of love, whose love for us is so great that he came to earth and to the cross to save us from our sins and bring us into his family. His love so captivates us that it brings a loving purpose to our darkest hours. And it brings a genuine “Attitude of Gratitude” to our hearts.
We already have talked about Paul’s “Attitude of Gratitude.” Now I would like to turn to the attitude of Jesus. Jesus also demonstrated “An Attitude of Gratitude.” When her fed the multitudes he showed thanksgiving for the common things of life by thanking the Father when breaking the bread (Mt. 15:36). Likewise at the last supper when he instituted the sacrament of communion, he thanked the Father before distributing the bread and wine (26:27). Once during his public ministry Jesus stopped to thank the Father for the deeds of power that God was working in the world (Mt. 11:25). And in the garden of Gethsemane, although Jesus never used the word “thanks,” he nevertheless poured out his thankful heart. On that night when he was betrayed, when Jesus knew the terrible suffering and death that awaited him, he submitted his will to the will of his Father in a great prayer with an attitude of gratitude.
Well, what are we to take away from this? It is a simple message that each of us can understand. I believe most of us would agree that it isn’t the person who takes an occasional shower or bath that is a clean person. Likewise it isn’t the person who is occasionally grateful that is a thankful person. On the contrary, the more we thank God for our everyday blessings and mercies, the more we enjoy life. The more we follow Paul’s exhortation to give thanks always and for everything, even the difficult things, the more likely we are to be full of gladness. I challenge all of us today to ask God to help us grow an “Attitude of Gratitude.”