Why be grateful? The simple, straightforward answer is because God is good. The goodness of God is reflected in his care and provision for humankind as a whole – creating a good and beautiful earth for us to enjoy and providing for our many needs. It is also reflected in us being created after His very own image (in which we are fearfully and wonderfully made, Ps 139:14).
The penultimate expression of his goodness is in the gift of His very own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, whom the apostle Paul describes as the “indescribable gift” (II Cor 9:15). In Rom 8:31, he exclaims, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will be not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
In the very first chapter of the book of Romans, Paul gave a main reason why God’s wrath had to be revealed and expressed: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him …” (Rom 1:21). A lack of gratitude is a sure sign that we do not acknowledge the goodness of God.
But more, it also a denial of His sovereignty. Murmuring, complaining, blaming, whining, self-pity – all these and more are open denial that our God reigns. And if we engage in such behaviors, we are directly or indirectly reflecting the fact that our God is stingy, lazy, indifferent, impotent – unable and unwilling to help. And that in God’s hands, all things work together for bad!
Conversely, the importance of thankfulness is that it incarnates faith in the sovereign goodness of God. We can speak all the lofty phrases we want about God’s sovereign goodness, but the proof is in the thanking. And so, How grateful are we? What are we grateful for?
Something happens psychologically when we choose gratitude. It opens us up to receive, to lift our eyes above our circumstances, and to gain new perspective. Henri Nouwen calls this a daring act as “it transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future, and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.” (p. 75, Can You Drink?).
Thankfulness is more than an act; it’s an orientation. It is a way of facing the world, of receiving it and, when needed, overcoming it (as in the hardships, trials and difficulties that we face). It is a reframing of reality, not in some “whistling-in-the-dark” way but in “fixing-our-eyes-on-what-is-unseen” way. It is a way of faith, a declaration that God is very much concern and involved in our lives, and that He’s able to work all things for good to those who love Him (Rom 8:28)
As an act, may I recommend that we start small in learning to give thanks. Start with the things you can genuinely be thankful for, but which you may have taken for granted. Like your shoes. Your clothes. A car or our MRT and public buses. As a senior citizen, I can travel anywhere and everywhere (within a two-hour framework) for a maximum of 92 cents! And I don’t have to wait that long either. How grateful am I for this! Thank God for a fridge that, at a minimum, keeps the fruits, veg, milk or your Coke, cold. And thank Him for the stuff in the fridge, for that matter. Thank him for the computer or mobile phone, which at the touch of your finger, works.
Thank Him for your church, and yes, even with that couple of members you don’t quite like, but who at least has helped to deepen your prayer life! Thank God for your mother. And your mother-in-law! Thank God for the chat you had with a friend over a cup of coffee, that he or she cared enough to listen. Thank God for any friend who knows you well and still likes you! Thank Him that you have sufficient breath to thank Him and that He is the kind of God who listens.
The list of things to be thankful for is very long.
Almost every evening, before I sleep, I try to think of five things I can be thankful for. Make a daily practice of that, and what will happen is you will start to see the world differently. More of your life will look and feel like pure gift – the clouds that bring the rain, the food you ate today, the treadmill that helps you burn calories from the food, the semi-interesting sermon your pastor preached last week, the pew you sat on to hear it. Gifts, all of them.
Now, take a step further: Take a situation you’d rather not be in. Spend time giving thanks in it. Thank God in spite of it. Thank God for all the good that still abounds regardless of it. Do this not as an act of masochism but as an act of faith. Of course, you are not thankful for the specific grief, tragedy, mess, or loss. But one day you’ll see that even the worst things in your life God used as raw material for some of the best things in your life.
You’ll be thanking him then. Might as well get a head start!