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Of Gratitude and Godliness

 

1st Thessalonians 5:15-20

“Who do you think you are?”, someone asked me recently. But the question wasn’t nasty or hostile. The question was asked in a spirit which was a peculiar blend of humour and seriousness. I felt the only thing for me to do was reply in the same spirit, a peculiar combination of humour and seriousness. “I think I am a mathematician-turned-grammarian”, I replied, “because grammar is the key to life”. The more I ponder my reply the more I think it was more serious than humorous: grammar is the key to life.

Think of the brief sentences in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always”, “Pray constantly”, “Give thanks in all circumstances”. Now here is the lesson in grammar. The mood of the verbs is imperative; the tense of the verbs is present iterative. The imperative mood means we are commanded to do something; the present iterative tense means we are commanded to do it continuously, without letup, ceaselessly, unfailingly. We are always to rejoice, ceaselessly to keep on praying, unfailingly to give thanks in all circumstances. We are to thank God from the moment we regain consciousness in the morning until that moment when we fade out at night. Our thanksgiving is to be unremitting.

But note something crucial: the apostle tells us we are to thank God in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. We are never commanded to thank God for all circumstances. It would be the height of spiritual ignorance to thank God for all circumstances, for then we should be thanking God for those things which he opposes, against which he has set his face, and which he does not will.

Yet while not thanking God for everything we must thank him in everything, for there is no development in our lives where God is absent or inaccessible; there is no development which God does not attend in person and which he cannot penetrate with his grace. We must never think that the very things God abhors he therefore shuns. On the contrary the very thing God abhors he hovers over just because he knows that his presence, his grace, is especially needed there! We are not to thank God for all circumstances, for then we should be thanking him (ridiculously) for evil and wickedness and sin. Yet we must thank him in all circumstances just because he is with us in them all and remains unhandcuffed in them all.

A minute ago I said that grammar is the key to life. The present iterative imperative means we are to thank God not once, not spasmodically, not episodically, but constantly. And what has ceaseless thanksgiving to do with life? Life flourishes, life glows for those who are ceaselessly grateful. To be ceaselessly grateful means, in the first place, that we recognize the gift-aspect in all of life. Whether it is the food we can’t cause to grow or the friends we don’t deserve or the serendipities which surprise us or the unwearying patience of God or the ever-effervescing truth of God or the fathomless mercy of God, it is all gift. We are endlessly convinced that life is gift above all else.

To be ceaselessly grateful means, in the second place, that we recognize a giver whom we can thank, since there can be no gift without a giver.

To be ceaselessly grateful means, in the third place, that we shall also be the happiest and healthiest — because holiest — people anywhere. People who give thanks to the giver are those who have stopped looking inward; people who give thanks to the giver are those who are now lifted out of themselves and lifted above themselves. Let’s not be fooled. As psychology is popularized more and more, people gain a smattering of psychological concepts and vocabulary; at the same time they spend more and more time thinking about themselves — with the result that the popularizing of psychology (which is supposed to make the populace feel better) appears to make the populace feel worse. Hypochondria concerning physical aches and pains is bad enough. Add to it a hypochondria of the psyche and people are convinced they aren’t well only to render themselves unwell. You understand the progression. To engage in endless self-preoccupation is to imagine that you have a pain in your tummy. Next you worry about the (imaginary) pain in your tummy until your worrying gives rise to a tummy-disorder. Now you have a real pain in your tummy. When neither the pain nor the anxiety disappears readily the next stage is depression over the syndrome. On it goes. So far from helping people, much pop-psychology turns people into themselves, fixes them upon themselves, addicts them to themselves. We need to be turned out of ourselves. But how?

How? You understand the progression. To discern the ceaseless gift-dimension is to be moved to gift thanks; to give thanks is to thank someone in particular (namely, the giver himself); therefore to give thanks ceaselessly is ceaselessly to be fixed upon God. End of hypochondria, whether hypochondria of body, mind or spirit! End of moaning, groaning, griping, whining! Now we are lifted out of ourselves as we look above ourselves to thank God for gifts he has strewn lavishly throughout our lives. I have mentioned the food we can’t cause to grow, the friends we don’t deserve, the serendipities which surprise us, the unwearying patience of God, the ever-effervescing truth of God, the fathomless mercy of God. I mention these because these so riddle my life that they leap to my mind unbidden. What would fall off your tongue in an instant? And in five minutes with a sheet of paper in front of you? In five minutes you would be looking for a second sheet! The happiest and healthiest people — because the holiest — are those who resonate with the verb, “Give thanks”, in the imperative mood and the present iterative tense: “Give thanks – always”. I was serious when I told my questioner that grammar is the key to life.

In the time that remains today I want to indicate briefly how gratitude renders us holy and therefore profoundly healthy and happy as gratitude turns our gaze away from ourselves and fixes our gaze upon God.

(i) In the first instance thanksgiving is the essence of worship. The note sounded in Psalm 100 is a note heard everywhere in scripture. “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Worship is adoration. And what we adore in God is precisely what we are moved to thank him for. Then thank him we shall. And in thanking him we shall adore him; we shall worship.

I sag every time I hear the expression, “worship-experience”. Why do I groan at the mention of “worship experience”? Here’s a hint: Martin Buber, a wonderful philosopher and biblical thinker; Buber has said, “The moment you become aware that you are praying, you are no longer praying.” He’s right. Prayer is the heart’s outpoured exclamation before God. The moment I say “I am now praying”, I’m preoccupied with myself, not preoccupied with God. Recently a fellow-professor in whose course I was asked to teach for six hours one Saturday stepped up to the lectern right after I had finished, right after I had told the class what Buber had said and why he he had said it. This fellow-professor urged the class, “Now be sure to journal your prayer-experiences”. Journal one’s “prayer-experiences”? That guaranteed they wouldn’t be praying at all.

Now you understand why I’m upset at the expression “worship-experience”. A Saturday morning or Wednesday evening church event that begins with a service of worship is evaluated at the conclusion of the event. Everyone filling in the evaluation-sheet is asked to comment on “the worship-experience”. But as soon as we speak of “worship-experience” we plainly have in mind our own experience. At this point worship has been corrupted into something which is supposed to fuel our experience. But it’s nothing less than a corruption! Worship is not a technique or tool for elevating us; worship is the adoration of God, even as the essence of adoration is thanksgiving.

Not fewer than six times a day do I tell my wife that I love her. I don’t tell her repeatedly that I love her because I enjoy the experience of telling her, because telling her makes me feel good. Neither do I tell her because she is neurotically insecure and if I don’t tell her she will unravel or even leave me. I tell her I love her because I cannot thank her enough. She has loved me so lavishly that the love she spills over me splashes back upon her in the form of gratitude. It is love so deep that it uncovers the inconsistencies and contradictions in me without shaming me or annihilating me; love so undeflectable that not even my residual sin has induced her to stop loving me.

Nonetheless my dear wife would be the first to admit that she is a spiritually stunted, sin-riddled creature whose sinnership warps her, and therefore warps her love for me. Then let us say no more about her but instead contemplate GOD: his love for all of us is inexhaustibly deep and eternally undeflectable. Little wonder, then, we are commanded to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Because you and I are deformed creatures of dull wit and calcified heart the psalmist knows he has to repeat himself if we are to get the message. Therefore he tells us immediately that God is not only good but also faithful; i.e., God is constant with respect to his love.

To grasp this — because first grasped by this — is to be overwhelmed with a gratitude which expresses itself in adoration. Thanksgiving is the essence of worship.

(ii) In the second instance thanksgiving renders us holy — and therefore profoundly happy and healthy — in that thanksgiving ensures contentment. The uncontented are those who are not grateful just because they are covetous. Covetousness and contentedness are mutually exclusive. To covet is to forfeit contentment; on the other hand, to be contented is to dispel coveting. Martin Luther was correct when he said that to keep the first commandment is to keep them all, while to violate the tenth commandment is to violate them all. The first commandment is that we recognize no other deity than the Holy One of Israel; the tenth, that we covet nothing at all. Honour the first, and we honour them all; violate the last, and we violate them all.

It’s easy to understand. If we violate the tenth; that is, if we covet, we covet whatever our neighbour has, including his good reputation, and soon we are bearing false witness against him. At this point the ninth commandment is violated. If we covet, we covet our neighbour’s goods, and soon we are stealing from him. Now the eighth is violated. If we covet, we covet our neighbour’s spouse, and soon we are committing adultery. Now the seventh is violated. As covetousness comes to rage in us we get to the point where we resent everything about our neighbour, and soon we feel murderous toward him. Now the sixth is violated.

Then are we to will ourselves not to covet? But coveting comes naturally to fallen people, people whose orientation is sin. Given this orientation, fierce determination not to covet will only produce grim frustration and scarcely suppressed fury. Plainly we need a new orientation. Our new orientation must be gratitude to God for the gifts he continues to give us — regardless of what someone else appears to have! Thankfulness ensures contentment. To give thanks in all circumstances is profoundly to be contented in all circumstances; not to be pleased with all circumstances, not to be complacent in all circumstances, not to be stupidly indifferent to all circumstances, but profoundly to know that there is no area or development in life where the gift-dimension is absent, and therefore there is no day on which the giver himself is not be thanked and our hearts to be rendered content.

Contentment crushes covetousness. Contentment is born of gratitude. Thanksgiving ensures contentment.

(iii) In the third instance thanksgiving attests our recognition of God’s provision in the past and fires our courage for the future. The apostle Paul had wanted to go to Rome for three years. Rome was the capital city of the empire, and he wanted to declare his gospel in the seat of the imperial power. Rome was also the gateway to western Europe, and Paul’s missionary vocation impelled him to push on past Rome into Spain where he could announce the news of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard the name.

Three years had elapsed since he had written the Christians in Rome , informing them of his plans. No doubt he had often wondered, in those three years, if he were ever going to get to Rome . No doubt he had wondered too what sort of reception he would find among the Christians in Rome . After all, many Christians were suspicious of Paul, to say the least. Since his reputation as a fierce Christian-basher was widespread, Christians tended to dismiss their suspicion only upon meeting him face-to-face and spending time with him. The Roman Christians had never met him. To what extent would they suspect him? How long would it take for them to trust him? Would they ever “warm up” to him? His courage sagged.

And then there were the sights which greeted Paul as he approached Rome . The huge Roman fleet anchored at Misenum; the holiday beaches at Baiae where “swingers” splashed around mindlessly; the vast storehouses and granaries and merchant ships at Puteoli. What was he, a diminutive Jewish tentmaker, supposed to do in the face of all this? His courage sagged again.

Then he saw them. A delegation of Christians from Rome ! They couldn’t wait for him to get to the city, and so had walked miles to meet him. Some had walked as far as the town of Three Taverns, thirty-three miles from Rome ; others had walked to the Forum of Appius, forty-three miles! And what a greeting it was! In his write-up of the incident Luke tells us that there was a “meeting”. Meeting? The English word is far too weak. The Greek word APANTESIS is the word used when dignitaries go out to greet a king or a general or a victorious hero. The Christians from Rome who had tramped forty-three miles (and would have to walk forty-three miles back) were investing Paul with immense honour and esteem and appreciation.

In that instant the apostle’s misgivings disappeared. Provision had been made for him. He wasn’t suspect; he wasn’t met with ice-cold frigidity; he didn’t have to prove himself; he wasn’t going to be kept to the fringes of the Christian fellowship in Rome on account of his past persecutions. Luke tells us that when Paul saw the delegation of Roman Christians he “gave thanks and took courage”. He gave thanks for provision made in the past, and took courage because he knew that provision would be made for the future.

Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. We give thanks because we are impelled to thank God for his unending goodness to us. As we do give thanks we are lifted out of ourselves, lifted above ourselves, and find that whining and complaining and bellyaching are fleeing.

What’s more, our thankfulness will ever be the essence of our worship; it will ever ensure our contentment, dispelling covetousness; and it will ever signify our recognition of God’s mercies in the past even as it lends us courage for the future.

Then let us exclaim with the psalmist,

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Victor Shepherd
October 2005

OF GRATITUDE AND GODLINESS

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18**
Psalm 100:6
Ephesians 5:4
Acts 28:15
Psalm 106:1

To grasp this — because first grasped by this — is to be overwhelmed with a gratitude which expresses itself in adoration. Thanksgiving is the essence of worship.

(ii) In the second instance thanksgiving renders us holy — and therefore profoundly happy and healthy — in that thanksgiving ensures contentment. The uncontented are those who are not grateful just because they are covetous. Covetousness and contentedness are mutually exclusive. To covet is to forfeit contentment; on the other hand, to be contented is to dispel coveting. Martin Luther was correct when he said that to keep the first commandment is to keep them all, while to violate the tenth commandment is to violate them all. The first commandment is that we recognize no other deity than the Holy One of Israel; the tenth, that we covet nothing at all. Honour the first, and we honour them all; violate the last, and we violate them all.

It’s easy to understand. If we violate the tenth; that is, if we covet, we covet whatever our neighbour has, including his good reputation, and soon we are bearing false witness against him. At this point the ninth commandment is violated. If we covet, we covet our neighbour’s goods, and soon we are stealing from him. Now the eighth is violated. If we covet, we covet our neighbour’s spouse, and soon we are committing adultery. Now the seventh is violated. As covetousness comes to rage in us we get to the point where we resent everything about our neighbour, and soon we feel murderous toward him. Now the sixth is violated.

Then are we to will ourselves not to covet? But coveting comes naturally to fallen people, people whose orientation is sin. Given this orientation, fierce determination not to covet will only produce grim frustration and scarcely suppressed fury. Plainly we need a new orientation. Our new orientation must be gratitude to God for the gifts he continues to give us — regardless of what someone else appears to have! Thankfulness ensures contentment. To give thanks in all circumstances is profoundly to be contented in all circumstances; not to be pleased with all circumstances, not to be complacent in all circumstances, not to be stupidly indifferent to all circumstances, but profoundly to know that there is no area or development in life where the gift-dimension is absent, and therefore there is no day on which the giver himself is not be thanked and our hearts to be rendered content.

Contentment crushes covetousness. Contentment is born of gratitude. Thanksgiving ensures contentment.

(iii) In the third instance thanksgiving attests our recognition of God’s provision in the past and fires our courage for the future. The apostle Paul had wanted to go to Rome for three years. Rome was the capital city of the empire, and he wanted to declare his gospel in the seat of the imperial power. Rome was also the gateway to western Europe, and Paul’s missionary vocation impelled him to push on past Rome into Spain where he could announce the news of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard the name.

Three years had elapsed since he had written the Christians in Rome , informing them of his plans. No doubt he had often wondered, in those three years, if he were ever going to get to Rome . No doubt he had wondered too what sort of reception he would find among the Christians in Rome . After all, many Christians were suspicious of Paul, to say the least. Since his reputation as a fierce Christian-basher was widespread, Christians tended to dismiss their suspicion only upon meeting him face-to-face and spending time with him. The Roman Christians had never met him. To what extent would they suspect him? How long would it take for them to trust him? Would they ever “warm up” to him? His courage sagged.

And then there were the sights which greeted Paul as he approached Rome . The huge Roman fleet anchored at Misenum; the holiday beaches at Baiae where “swingers” splashed around mindlessly; the vast storehouses and granaries and merchant ships at Puteoli. What was he, a diminutive Jewish tentmaker, supposed to do in the face of all this? His courage sagged again.

Then he saw them. A delegation of Christians from Rome ! They couldn’t wait for him to get to the city, and so had walked miles to meet him. Some had walked as far as the town of Three Taverns, thirty-three miles from Rome ; others had walked to the Forum of Appius, forty-three miles! And what a greeting it was! In his write-up of the incident Luke tells us that there was a “meeting”. Meeting? The English word is far too weak. The Greek word APANTESIS is the word used when dignitaries go out to greet a king or a general or a victorious hero. The Christians from Rome who had tramped forty-three miles (and would have to walk forty-three miles back) were investing Paul with immense honour and esteem and appreciation.

In that instant the apostle’s misgivings disappeared. Provision had been made for him. He wasn’t suspect; he wasn’t met with ice-cold frigidity; he didn’t have to prove himself; he wasn’t going to be kept to the fringes of the Christian fellowship in Rome on account of his past persecutions. Luke tells us that when Paul saw the delegation of Roman Christians he “gave thanks and took courage”. He gave thanks for provision made in the past, and took courage because he knew that provision would be made for the future.

Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. We give thanks because we are impelled to thank God for his unending goodness to us. As we do give thanks we are lifted out of ourselves, lifted above ourselves, and find that whining and complaining and bellyaching are fleeing.

What’s more, our thankfulness will ever be the essence of our worship; it will ever ensure our contentment, dispelling covetousness; and it will ever signify our recognition of God’s mercies in the past even as it lends us courage for the future.

Then let us exclaim with the psalmist,

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Victor Shepherd
October 2005