(The first blog in this series discussed the importance of gratitude. This blogs moves on to define gratitude).
To think hard about biblical thanksgiving let’s start with what it is not. It is not politeness. It is not a something that all nice people do. Although thankful people are socially agreeable, biblical gratitude is more than good manners. You can practice good etiquette by continually saying “thank you,” and not get near the biblical idea of gratitude. In her book The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser observes that “polite people” may say “thank you” up to 100 times per day and yet experience “little or no grateful emotion.” In other words, you can go through the outward show of politeness but not even sniff heart-felt gratitude.
Not only is it more than politeness, it is also unnatural. We must be trained to be grateful. The social sciences confirm what we, who believe in Original Sin, already know. Children must be taught to be grateful, and they often push back. One experiment set out to measure children’s propensity for gratitude. The children studied spontaneously said hello and goodbye 27% of the time, but they only thanked their benefactors 7% of the time, and then often only after great pressure from their parents. There is a reason for this. Gratitude is the language of a humble heart, and our hearts are not naturally humble. They are naturally proud.
Last, biblical thanksgiving is not something we do to manipulate others. Dad gives the car keys to his teenage daughter. She says “thank you” because she knows if she does her father is apt to let her use the car more frequently. To the uninitiated this looks like gratitude, but in reality it is the exact opposite. True thanksgiving is not outward. It is not just a matter of words. It is not an external formality.
True gratitude is a matter of the heart that expresses itself with words of thanksgiving. Gratitude is the language of humility, and humility matters greatly to God. It should also matter to us because God makes amazing promises to those who pursue humility. For example, he
“God exalts the humble” (Jam. 4:10).
He “dwells with the lowly” (Isa. 57:15).
He exalts those that humble themselves (Phil 2:5-11).
He “lifts up the humble” (Ps. 147:6).
God “gives grace to the humble” (Jam. 4:6).
God looks to and is intimate with the humble (Isa 66:2).
God also honors the humble (Pr. 15:33).
In other words, thanksgiving is the language of the humble, and humility always attracts God’s attention
It is equally true that God aggressively
“Humbles the proud (Ezek. 17:24).
He opposes the proud (James 4:6).
He withdraws from the proud (Ps. 138:6).
He repeatedly promises to bring down the proud (Pr. 18:12, 29:23).
Anyone who really believes God’s promise to bless the humble, as well as his threats to judge the proud, will joyfully and single-mindedly pursue humility.
Again, here is our important point. Gratitude is the language of the humble. Jesus said, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” Therefore, a humble heart increasingly gushes gratitude and thanksgiving. True heart-felt gratitude is a neon sign pointing to humility.
We can say it this way: thanksgiving amplifies humility, and humility amplifies thanksgiving.
What is the connection between gratitude and humility? Why do we say that thanksgiving is the language of humility? Thanksgiving implies need. It assumes that I don’t deserve the favor bestowed. Most people don’t thank the waitress who delivers their food. Why? They paid for it. They deserve it. In Luke 17 Jesus described a servant whom his master commanded to prepare dinner. “Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded” (Luke 17:9) Jesus asks? It is a rhetorical question. It has an obvious answer. No! He doesn’t thank the servant. Why? Because the servant is a slave. He owes his master this service.
By contrast, we thank the person who gives us an expensive birthday gift. Why? We have done nothing to deserve it. We are humbled. The giver was gracious and we were needy. It was a matter of grace. It was an expression of unmerited favor. (Anecdote: Ruths Coffee Cup).
In the same way, we deserve nothing from God’s hand but judgment. We deserve judgment, but he gives us eternal life at his Son’s expense. In addition, this gift is infinitely expensive. Therefore, we are duty bound to live life in constant thanksgiving to God.
Gratitude is the language of humility. Why? It also assumes that I am the creature and God is the Creator. Gratitude is the heart-felt confession that God is God, and I am not. Gratitude humbles me. It forces me to face reality. Creature hood means we have no rights. God created us. Therefore, everything we possess is God’s gift. For this reason, the object of true gratitude is always ultimately God. A grateful heart assumes that God is his Creator. It assumes that he is a creature. Since everything—talents, I.Q., height, appearance, parents—are gifts, the proper response of the creature is unceasing thanksgiving.
Therefore, true heart-felt gratitude confesses that I have no rights. It says,
“I did not create myself, God did. I am not responsible for my I.Q. or its lack. I did not choose my DNA. I did not pick my hair color, my height or my facial features. I did not choose my gifts or their lack. I did not choose my parents, nor did I pick the generation into which I was born. I did not even pick my race, or the country of my birth. All of these, and infinitely more, are God’s gracious gifts.”
They were given to me by a gracious God. If this is true, the appropriate response to everything is heart-felt, overflowing gratitude. This is why we say that thanksgiving is the language of humility. Every word of thanks confesses that all or some of these facts are true.
When a professional athlete boasts that “I am the best. I am the greatest” all of this is denied. He might be the most talented athlete, he might be the one with “game,” but if so, it is God’s gift. His speed, his size, or his athletic ability are ultimately gifts. His attitude should repulse us. His boasting says, “I am my own god. I made myself. I am responsible for myself.”
Boasting is the speech of naked arrogance. It is a claim to deity. It is the opposite of gratitude. In summary, thanksgiving is a confession of our ever-dependent creature hood. It is the language of the humble.
When I ask one of my friends how he is doing, he always responds with joy, “Better than I deserve.” This is the speech of the humble. It says “I have been redeemed by Christ’s death on the cross.” It looks at the cross and assumes,
“I deserve crucifixion, and I am not getting it. In fact, I will never get it, and the reason is God’s amazing grace and love. I will never get the judgment I deserve. Christ went to the cross and took it in my place. That is why, for eternity, I will never cease to “abound with thanksgiving.”
Do you have cancer? Like all disease, it is an affect of the fall. However, there is cause for great hope. Because God is sovereign, your suffering is no accident. In fact, God is now using it to channel his love into your experience, to prepare you for eternal glory (Rom. 8:18). Besides, as bad as your experience with cancer feels, you are not getting what you deserve. And you never will. So be thankful.
Did your business just fail? God is sovereign. It is no accident. God is working through it to express his love for you. Besides, you are not getting what you deserve, so be thankful.
Are you anxious and depressed? Be thankful. You are not getting what you deserve.
Thanksgiving is the confession that I am God’s debtor. I owe him everything. He owes me only judgment. Words of gratitude from humble lips confess that I really believe these truths. They confess their ongoing dependence upon God. I need him. He does not need me.
In summary, humble people attract Gods’ attention. They attract God’s favor. We are not saved by being humble. We are saved by faith plus nothing. What I am saying, however, is that God gives special favor to Christians that pursue humility. True heart-felt