Paul began most of his letters with profuse thanksgiving. Despite their many problems, Paul always saw the church as a glass half full. Even when his churches faced immense problems, Paul always saw them through the lense of gratefulness. Why?
Paul knew that neither he nor any of the churches he planted were getting what they deserve. If God were just there would be no Christian churches anywhere. We live in a fallen world, and if God were only just this planet would be living Hell, utterly devoid of hope, lacking any gospel light or Christian witness. When the angels sinned God offered them no hope of redemption, and he owes us the same justice.
But, the amazing reality is different. There is hope. Because God is merciful, gracious, and kind there is light in the midst of darkness. There is hope in a fallen world. This light—local churches centered in the gospel—came at infinite expense to God. Therefore, Paul overflows with gratitude.
In other words, humility is the ground of gratitude, and gratitude is the first sign of humility. Humble people are thankful. On the other hand, the opposite of thanksgiving—complaining, self-pity, pouting, fits of anger—are symptoms of pride. A proud heart thinks, “I deserve, I deserve, I deserve, and I am not getting what what God owes me.” By contrast, Paul was humble. We know this because he was incredibly thankful. Paul was humble and thankful because he understood what the cross said about what he deserved.
I remember the story of a Viet Nam vet who lost both legs to a claymore mine. As he lay recovering in a veterans’ hospital, self-pity oppressed him. One day his nurse wheeled him into an adjoining ward. There he saw a man whose face was burnt off, another who had lost all four limbs, a different man completely paralyzed, and one who had lost both sight and hearing. The contrast between his problems and theirs completely changed his perspective. He returned to his ward filled with gratitude for how good he had it.
What the cross tells us about what we deserve has the same affect. It wheels us into an adjoining ward. There I see Jesus suffering as my substitute. I see him taking what I deserve. I deserve crucifixion. I don’t deserve good things from God. In fact, such is the measure of my sin (in God’s eyes) that I deserve to be tortured to death slowly and then cast away as refuse.
Crucifixion was a barbaric form of capital punishment. Since blood loss was minimal, death usually came after two or three days. Spasms tore the wounds against the hard nails. Waves of excruciating pain surged through the victim. The thirst was unbearable. The person being crucified longed for a death that would not come. He longed for the moment when he would finally lapse into unconsciousness.
To the one who resists thanksgiving and yields to complaining the cross says, “You have it upside down. You don’t deserve good. You deserve death by slow torture. Anything short of crucifixion is infinite grace bestowed by a loving God on one utterly unworthy.”
Because of all this, the cross makes us joyful and thankful in even the worst of conditions. No matter how bad your circumstances, you are getting better than you deserve. And because of Christ’s cross, one day God will clothe you in glory and plant you on a New Earth.
Because of the cross Paul would not yield to self-pity, complaining, pouting, or grumbling. Bound in stocks in a Philippian jail, he sang God’s praises (Acts 16:25). Confined in a Roman prison, he wrote to the church at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4-7).
New Testament scholar, P.T. O’Brien, notes, “Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving in his letters more often, line for line, than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian.” Why? Paul knew what he deserved. At the end of his life, he wrote Timothy, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners of which I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). He saw both himself and his sins nailed to the cross. This insight banished all thoughts of self-pity.
Therefore, every circumstance in Paul’s life—beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, betrayal, persecution, imprisonment, sleeplessness, hard work, and more— was an occasion for joyous thanksgiving. Even in these circumstances, Paul was not getting what he deserved.
No matter how sour your circumstances, you and I are not getting what we deserve either, and that is why we also should be grateful. In summary, Paul overflows with thanksgiving because he is not getting what he deserves and neither are the Christians he serves.
It is no different for us today. If this is true, in the words of Paul, we should “Overflow with thanksgiving! (Col. 2:7).