On Being Thankful

Nov 21, 2019 by David Fowler

fall decorations with picture that reads thankful and blessed
Next Thursday is Thanksgiving. All of us have something for which we can be thankful, even if it’s only being thankful that things aren’t worse. But is it possible to cultivate a thankful heart that continues to beat even when things are very dark, foreboding, and seem hopeless? The older I have gotten, the more pressing that question has become, because, as my 88-year-old dad says, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”

Whether it is the effect of aging or declining health, negative changes in employment, or economic disruption, life can take the thankfulness right out of us. So, what, if anything, can lead to a thankful heart that is not dependent on circumstances?

The Psalm that Challenged My Perspective on What Makes for Thankfulness

Last week I re-read Psalm 73. In it the psalmist, Asaph, confesses that he was looking around him at those whom the Hebrew Scriptures would call wicked, and it seemed to him that they lived at the corner of Easy Street and Pleasant View Drive compared to him.

And then he says this: “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (Psalm 73:16–17).

I had always understood these verses to mean that my end is heaven and the end of the wicked is hell, so suck it up and be thankful. That perspective fit with much of the sermonizing I’d heard in my formative years.

And I can be thankful for heaven as my final destination and that, in the end, God meets out what justice is rightly due. But I’ll be honest, that can seem like a far-off consolation when hell seems to be occupying your little part of earth. That is why verses 23 to 26 jumped out to me this time like never before:

Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

The psalmist is saying his end, his purpose is God Himself, to be in relationship with the God who made him, both now—“upon earth”—and in eternity—“in heaven.” God will lead him now by His right hand and by His counsel to that place in which glory—God—dwells.

Tying the Purpose of My Existence to Thankfulness

Then I thought of how the Apostle Paul describes “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” in Romans 1:21, where it says, “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (emphasis supplied).

Being unthankful for having been made so that we can know God and be in relationship with Him when, as he said in the preceding verses, we know deep down there is a God is ungodliness and unrighteousness.

On the flip side, everything else we can turn to for our end or purpose in life can be lost or destroyed and, along with it, our thankfulness.

I read this week in Valley of Vision, “Thou aren’t the end of all means, for if they lead me not to thee, I go away empty.” This is why Paul told the Romans that turning away from God as our end and purpose is futile.

Applications of This Perspective

So what does this look like?

In the Book of Acts, we are told that Paul and Silas were in prison and were most likely to be executed the next day. Was that where they wanted to be? How could they be thankful in that situation?

May I suggest that being in or out of prison was of no real difference to them; they were living before the face of God, in His presence, so that night they “were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). Where they were physically or what was supposed to happen to them physically the next morning did not change where they were actually living or how they would live.

The Apostle Paul drives this home in Philippians. In Chapter 3, verses 7–8, we read this:

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

His contentment and thankfulness did not rest in those things he’d told the Romans were futile. How he could say such a thing and be content and thankful is found in Philippians 1:21–23:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

This is the kind of now-and-later relationship with God that the psalmist described and the Gospel holds out to us. It is the offer of a lifetime by which we find thankfulness transcending our circumstances because it is rooted in Him who is transcendent.

When we understand the Gospel and let the Gospel change us, it makes Thanksgiving not just a day on the calendar, but a way of life.

All Bible references are from the New King James Version.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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