Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hardest Spiritual Lesson #4: Thankfulness

4.  Being Truly, Humbly, Actively Thankful

            Luke 17:15-18:  “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

            Ten men were healed.  Only one came back to thank Jesus.

            Did the other nine say in their hearts, “Oh, I’m sure He knows I am thankful.  I don’t have to actually go find Him and say it out loud.  Besides, I’m too busy enjoying the blessing, the healing.  Isn’t that thanks enough?”
            Did they get so distracted by their joy of being healed that they simply forgot there was a Healer who made it possible?
            Did they feel a sense of entitlement to the healing, that God somehow owed it to them?  “It’s about time!”  And so they didn’t feel like they had to thank Him because they were just getting what they deserved all along? 
            Nine out of ten did not make the effort to thank Jesus or feel they should have to, for whatever reason.  Is it that much different with us?  Really?
            We thank Him for a dramatic answer to a desperate prayer, but do we thank Him for every uneventful day that goes by when He prevented anything tragic from happening?
            We thank Him for the “extra” blessings, but are we truly, humbly thankful for “our daily bread” - the roof over our heads and the food on our plates?  Or do we feel that we are entitled to those blessings because we work hard and earn the money ourselves?  Do we take those simple, basic blessings for granted, when so many other people around the world would fall at Jesus’ feet in extreme gratitude to simply have one full meal every day?  Clean drinking water?  Do we forget that even our job is a gift from God?    
            Do we feel entitled to “more” than the basic, everyday blessings, like God owes us something better?  Have we gotten bored with the “tired, old blessings” that He has given us, such as an adequate home or car, a menial job or role, all the toys and gadgets that we “had to have” that are now rotting in our garage or on our shelves, a perfectly good marriage and committed spouse?  Instead of cherishing what we have and considering them treasures and thanking Him for them, are we envying the blessings that someone else has?  Better home, better looks, more money, more success, more prestige, more friends, flashier job, more exciting opportunities, more attractive spouse?  Are we tossing aside the old blessings to run after newer, “better” blessings? 
            (Now, it’s not necessarily wrong to buy or do things that make us happy.  What is wrong is when we are pursuing happiness because we haven’t learned to be content with God’s providence and to glorify Him with the life He gave us, when we are seeking fulfillment in anything outside of His plan for us, and when we think we need “more or better” before we can be joyful and thankful.)
            Are we so focused on the gifts that we fail to see the Giver?
            Or do we not even notice the blessings because we are filled with so much fear, pain, and heartache that all we can think about are our concerns and needs and troubles?
            Oh, I have been there.  I’ve been through times when the trials were long and my pain was deep and my fears were so huge that I didn’t even notice the simple, hidden blessings that God put in my life.  I didn’t count them because I was so busy counting all the things that were “wrong.”  I was like an Israelite in the desert, totally forgetting God’s power, care, and faithfulness back in Egypt, totally freaking out when there was no water to drink instead of praying, trusting, and thanking Him for being the big God that He is.
            And I’ve been through times when I considered all of the basic blessings as essentials that God “owes” us or that I earned somehow.  “Of course, God will give us such-and-such because that’s the way it is.”  I expected these blessings to be there.  Not in a way that shows that I trust His providence and am thankful for it, but in a way that shows that I am entitled to it and take it for granted and expect more than just the basic. 
            There’s a fine line between thankfulness and entitlement, between faith and presumption.       
            Thankfulness shows that we know Who gives us what we have, that we have faith in and rely on God’s providence, that we are grateful for it and don’t take it for granted, that we are focused more on the Giver than the gifts, and that we desire to glorify and praise Him with however much or however little we have been given.
            Entitlement shows that we feel we have earned it or deserve it, that God somehow is here to serve us and give us what we want , that we presume that He will give us “good things” apart from our asking and from humble hearts and from our obedience, that we deserve more than the basics, and that all of our stuff is for our enjoyment of this life instead of for God’s glory. 
            Thankfulness is God-glorifying.  Entitlement is self-glorifying.   
            And it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are glorifying God with all of our stuff and that we are living in thankfulness when we are really glorifying ourselves and enjoying the gifts more than the Giver. 
            I would guess that we fail to thank God and to honor Him with whatever blessings He has given us nine times out of ten.  We fail to even notice nine blessings out of ten, because some of them are so basic and simple and ordinary.  We fail to thank Him nine times out of ten because we are so focused on the gifts we have or on the gifts that we don’t have and wish we did.  We fail to praise Him and trust Him and rely on Him nine times out of ten because of our many fears and doubts and concerns and wants.
            And if we fail to live in thankfulness . . . if we fail to focus on the Giver instead of the gifts . . . if we fail to remember the awesome power and faithfulness of our Father . . . and if we fail to fall at Jesus’ feet in daily submission, humility, and gratefulness, then we will not know the kind of contentment and peace and joy that we are meant to know and our lives will not bring God the kind of glory He deserves.
            The thing is, remembering God’s faithfulness and blessings and practicing thankfulness make it easier to leave current fears and concerns in His hands.  
            One of the reasons that the Israelites’ time in the desert was so hard and long is because they grumbled and they forgot who God is and what He can do.  Two things that are so easy to do when times are tough and fears loom large.  But the opposite of grumbling and forgetting is being thankful and praising God (even in the pain) and remembering all that He has done before. 
            Thankfulness is about learning to find God in everything, looking for the blessings in each day and for the good that has come (or can come) out of any situation.  It means remembering all of His goodness to us in the past and letting that carry us through the current hard times.  And sometimes, when we can’t see any obvious and exciting blessings, it’s just thanking God for the most basic gifts: His presence, our lives, a flower, the sunshine, or the rain.
            We can get so down in the dumps sometimes - in those darkest nights of our lives - that all we see is the garbage and blackness around us.  But even if we can’t change the dump we are in, we can choose to look up at the stars.  Our minds can go back to the times that God has shown His power, goodness, faithfulness, and love before.  When we don’t remember what He has done for us in the past, we forget what He is capable of doing.  And then our current concerns or fears seem so big and ominous.
            (If you want to be more content and thankful, and have your priorities more in line, and be more aware of the needs of others, and curb your spending on "stuff," try this:  Never compare your circumstances against those who have it "better" than you but only against those who have it harder than you.  Focusing on someone who has a "better life" than you only makes you bitter, envious, thankless, self-centered, and causes you to pursue "stuff" to make yourself "happier."  But there's almost no quicker way to thankfulness and to gaining a softer heart for those who hurt than to remember all of those who have it harder than you do.) 
            I think one of the best practices to start – especially when times are tough – is to keep a running list of all the things that you are thankful for.  Past things.  Current things.  Exciting things.  Basic things.  Good things that came out of bad times.  And things about God’s character that you are thankful for.  When nothing else can sustain your hope and strength during the trials, this will.      
            I’ll be honest.  I am still struggling with learning to be thankful in the midst of heartache, with learning to be content with life as it is.  With having very little contact with my family.  With having only one or two friends I barely get to see.  With the possibility that one of those friends may soon find out that she has a life-altering illness.  (Lord, please.  Not her!  Let her be healthy.  Let her be here for many more years.  Let her raise her children to adulthood.  Please let her be healthy.)   With learning to cope with feeling lonely, overlooked, and like a failure in so many areas.  With waking up every day and pouring myself into work that the world does not notice, highly regard, or appreciate: making meals, doing dishes and laundry, putting away papers, doing schoolwork with the boys, etc.
            I struggle daily with thankfulness and contentment.  Some days I feel more light and hopeful.  And other days I just want to pray that God comes back now.  All the heartache in the world.  All the sin and suffering and striving.  All the tears and strife and bloodshed.  All the people who don’t seem to care that they are on the road to hell.  Please come back, Lord, and put an end to all of this fallenness.  Restore it to wholeness. 
            Oftentimes, it seems as though there is more to discourage me than to encourage me.  Which is why it is so important to remain connected to Him, to faithfully do whatever little bit God asks me to do, and to find everything there is to be thankful for.  I need to talk with God all day (even though I rarely hear anything back) about things I am concerned about, things I am struggling through, and things that I am thankful for, even if they are bittersweet blessings.  I need to absorb God’s Word daily.  I need to remind myself that I am so tiny compared to God, yet so loved, and that I am the clay and He is the Potter.  I need to recall God’s blessings, and the ways He has worked in my life in the past, and how He has brought good out of bad.  I need to remember that my purpose and goal is to live Christ to others and to build up eternity, not to seek fulfillment in this life.  And I need to praise Him, even when it hurts.  Sometimes, the greatest act of humility is simply praising God when we are hurting.     
            (And yet “being thankful” does not mean that we hide any thoughts or feelings that might be “displeasing” to the Lord.  Oftentimes, to get to the point of being truly content and thankful, we need to bring all of our desires, fears, feelings, thoughts, and doubts to the Lord first.  Only after we have poured out all that is within us – like Jesus crying and pleading before the Father in the garden of Gethsemane - can we get to the point of humbly saying and truly meaning, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.”  Jesus shows us the importance of both asking for - pleading for - what we want, and yet finally accepting God's Will for us in the end.  Honesty – transparency - with God is a critical step to being truly, humbly content and thankful.) 
            No matter how we may feel about our circumstances, we need to remember that thanksgiving is a command.  It is something God wills that we do:             

            1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

            Colossians 2: 6-7:  “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

            Thankfulness is not just about feeling warm and cozy and happy because life is going well.  It’s not about feeling ooey-gooey toward God because He gave us something we really wanted.  It’s not even really about what we have.  It’s about who God is and how much He loves us.  It’s about praising Him – regardless of what is going on in our lives - because He is a good, loving, faithful Father who cares about what’s going on and who will make all things right in the end.  It’s honoring and glorifying Him in the good times and bad, with the little we have or with the lot, because we know that everything is by Him and for Him.  It’s for our spiritual health and protection, because bitterness, worry, and fear attract demons, but praising God puts up a hedge of protection around us as we immerse ourselves in the Lord. 
            And ultimately, thankfulness is about living as though He is God, and we are not.  And if there is anything that we can be thankful for, it’s that He is a great big God who loves us a great big bunch, so much so that He came and died for us so that we could live with Him.  Can you think of any god or any gift greater than that?