I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my son and his wife parent our first grandchild and I think all you grandparents out there know what I’m talking about. You know there is a special pleasure to be had in being a spectator in the wings, looking on as your children go through the same parental challenges you went through when you raised them.
And—I know I’m biased—but I think they are doing a great job. I mean, I’ve watched them teach my granddaughter all kinds of things: like how to sleep through the night and to how to clean up her toys and how to behave at the supper table. At the moment they are teaching a class called “Potty-training 101” and are having great success.
I remember one of the first lessons they taught her was to say, “Thank You” — and they used the same teaching technique embraced by parents for hundreds of years. When she would be given a gift of any kind—anything from a bowl of fresh blue berries to a new toy or book—before she began to enjoy that gift they would ask her to answer a question. They would ask: “What do you say?” And with a little prompting soon she got the idea and would reply, “Thank you.”
These days she uses that two word response all the time. I noticed the other day when I was babysitting, my granddaughter and I were having a great time playing with her doll house and whenever I would give her something like a tiny chair to put in the little kitchen or a toy vacuum cleaner so she could pretend to vacuum the little living room, she would look at me and say, “Thank you granddad!” — words I LOVED hearing! And—again I am super-biased in this area—but I think she really means it. I think my little two-year-old granddaughter is sincerely grateful whenever she uses those words. She recognizes that a gift has been given and wants to communicate her appreciation for it.
Of course this is what all parents want to happen. I mean, they don’t want their kids to just PARROT those two words. No—their hope and prayer is that their children will become grateful people—people with GRATEFUL HEARTS. And our Heavenly Father is no different. He feels the same way about HIS children. We see this in the fact that over and over again in His Book He teaches us lessons on the importance of authentic gratitude. In fact, the Bible tells us that the ability to express gratitude and offer heartfelt praise and thanksgiving is one of the fundamental signs of life and spiritual wholeness. Repeatedly the psalmists write, “God, let me live that I might praise You.”
One of the psalmists that God has used to teach His children this vital life lesson is the author of Psalm 136—the psalm we are looking at this morning. He lists several of the ways God has blessed us. For example:
- He created the universe for us to enjoy.
- He gave us the blessing of day and night…time to work and time to rest.
- He delivered Israel from bondage, destroyed their enemies and led them to the Promised Land.
- He provides for our needs of food…and so on.
Then, in the way the psalmist structures this 136th Psalm it seems like that same timeless parental question is implied: “What do you say?” because it is an antiphonal psalm and the expected response to each of these blessings is a thankful acknowledgment that every one is another reminder of God’s enduring love. Follow the screens and let’s read this Psalm aloud together antiphonally. I’ll read the “blessing statement” and “What do you say?” You say, “His love endures forever.”
1 – Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
2 – Give thanks to the God of gods. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
3 – Give thanks to the Lord of lords: HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
4 – to Him Who alone does great wonders, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
5 – Who by His understanding made the heavens, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
6 – Who spread out the earth upon the waters, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
7 – Who made the great lights— HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
8 – the sun to govern the day, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
9 – the moon and stars to govern the night; HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
10 – to Him Who struck down the firstborn of Egypt. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
11 – and brought Israel out from among them. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
12 – with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
13 – to Him Who divided the Red Sea asunder. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
14 – and brought Israel through the midst of it, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
15 – but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
16 – to Him Who led his people through the wilderness; HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
17 – to Him Who struck down great kings, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
18 – and killed mighty kings— HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
19 – Sihon king of the Amorites. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
20 – and Og king of Bashan— HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
21 – and gave their land as an inheritance, HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
22 – an inheritance to his servant Israel. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
23 – He remembered us in our low estate. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
24 – and freed us from our enemies. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
25 – He gives food to every creature. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
26 – Give thanks to the God of Heaven. HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
Now—before we go any further in our study, let’s try to DEFINE gratitude—and at the onset we have to understand that gratitude is much MORE than an ATTITUDE. Gratitude is one of the great secrets to ABUNDANT JOYFUL in life. I like what John Ortberg says on this subject in his book, It All Goes Back in the Box. I am indebted to Ortberg for much of my content this morning. He writes,“Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It opens us up to wonder, delight, and humility. It makes our hearts generous. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation. Gratitude is not something we give to God because He wants to make sure we know how much trouble He went to over us. Gratitude is the gift God gives us that enables us to be blessed by all His other gifts, the way our taste buds enable us to enjoy the gift of food. Without gratitude our lives degenerate into envy, dissatisfaction, and complaints, taking what we have for granted and always wanting more.”
Ortberg’s words help remind us that one reason it is so important for us to develop grateful hearts is because of the ALTERNATIVE. I’m referring to the OTHER kind of heart—the heart that is chronically discontent, complaining, judgmental, and dissatisfied. This is the heart of a person who lives with a demanding spirit and without any sense of awe or wonder. It’s the person who lives every day with a sense of entitlement. Ingratitude makes our hearts grow smaller, harder and colder day after day. It is a miserable way to live—and—if we are honest this morning, some of us would have to say, “There are too many times when I allow my heart to become like that. Too often I let it become ungrateful. I often see myself as a victim. There is a bitterness and entitlement about me at times.”
Well, how do we keep that kind of thinking from finding a permanent place in our lives? How do we cultivate GRATEFUL HEARTS? In the time we have left, I want to mention four exercises that I think will help—things that combine to make us into more thankful people.
(1) First we must learn to appreciate IMPERFECT gifts.
Let me ask, have you ever RECEIVED an imperfect gift? Every hand should be up because we all do. Imperfection is everywhere. I mean, if you are married and are in worship beside your spouse today, you are sitting next to an imperfect gift. Go ahead. Take a look at that “gift” if you want to. Look at him or her. Right now you are looking at an imperfect gift. As you look into each other’s eyes you can “AMEN” each other because you are both imperfect gifts! Our kids and our grandkids are precious gifts about which we should be incredibly grateful but they are not perfect. Even my granddaughter is not perfect. She can be selfish. She throws fits at times—but I’m grateful for that because it’s proof that she’s related to me!
Your body is a gift. Let’s see a show of hands on this one. How many here have a perfect body? Raise your hand. Good—no hands—you’re learning. How many of you live in a perfect house? Work at the perfect job? Have clothes that always fit perfectly? Eat perfect food? Have ever gotten a PERFECT haircut? Have perfect friends? Have a perfect pastor? Do you get my point? We are fallen people living in a fallen world. We are imperfect beings surrounded by imperfection and we must learn to be grateful—grateful for imperfect things like our body, our home, our friends, our work, our kids, and our life.
This is a foundational part of learning to cultivate a grateful heart for a couple reasons.
First, no matter how “imperfect” your life is, I can guarantee there are other people in this world whose lives are less perfect than yours. I’m reminded of something one of our single moms, said in CC Day’s Sunday School Class “mid-week update” recently. She writes:
“I have learned to thank God for what we humans think of as ‘the basics.’ I thank Him for my sight to see the beautiful paintings He creates every morning when I take my son to school. I thank Him for allowing me to have 2 hands and 2 feet, I thank Him for these things because I know that there are people without ‘the basic’ gifts which are often taken for granted. I thank Him for the roof He has put over my head and for a son who rarely gets sick. Yes I complain at times of achy feet or being sick, not having enough money to pay this or that, and the list goes on, but almost always I’m reminded that somewhere someone would be not just content, but OVERJOYED just by having the [imperfect] life I have.”
This single mom has a grateful heart doesn’t she! She realizes that many people in the world would consider her IMPERFECT life—far more “perfect” than theirs.
A second reason we must be grateful for imperfect gifts is because of the fact that the popular belief that perfect circumstances will produce lasting joy is an illusion. I mean, too many times people think, “If I just have enough good things happen to me I’ll be happy,” but life doesn’t work that way. Some of the most unhappy, ungrateful hearts I have known beat inside people who had what we would define as “perfect” lives. They had almost literally every THING this world has to offer but were miserable. Happiness is NOT related to circumstances.
I can’t help but think of a little girl we met in the D.R. last year. She lived in Kilo 16, that impoverished little village you’ve heard me mention so often. This means her home has a dirt floor and no plumbing. She drinks dirty water and is probably hungry much of the time. She has almost no possessions—certainly none of the toys that overflow out of OUR children’s closets. But the day we were there I saw JOY bursting out of her being as she ran down the path towing a cheap craft project she had made in our Vacation Bible School. She was thankfully happy with literally almost nothing! This is because the joy of gratitude does not come from things. It is possible to be perfectly happy while living in IMPERFECT circumstances. To develop grateful hearts, we must learn to embrace this first “exercise.” We have to learn to appreciate imperfect gifts—imperfect situations.
- So, when your little girl tries to make her bed but the sheet is still sticking out—be grateful.
- When your husband tries to help you by making dinner but burns the rice, be grateful.
- When you have to drive an old imperfect junker of a car, be grateful.
- When you look in the mirror and see a body that is wrinklier and lumpier than you’d like it to be—be grateful.
- When your health is not good—but you have a good doctor to care for you—be grateful.
Researchers have concluded that grateful people experience what they call a low threshold of gratitude. You see, in the same way that a whisper has to reach a certain decibel level before we hear it, goodness has to reach a certain experiential lever before we perceive it. In his book Ortberg writes, “Just as some of us are hard of hearing, some of us are “hard of thanking. It takes a gift of epic proportions (winning the lottery or getting a new car) before we actually feel grateful. People with a high capacity for thankfulness, on the other hand, have a low threshold for gratitude. They find that a sunset or a smile from a friend can set off a sense that they have been blessed by a gift they did not earn.”
People who have grateful hearts have developed a LOW threshold of gratitude. They have learned to appreciate imperfection. They learn to see God’s goodness even in the things in this life that are less than good—less than perfect.
(2) Here’s a second exercise that helps us develop grateful hearts. Learn to appreciate times of ANXIETY and FRUSTRATION.
This may seem a bit counterintuitive but there IS indeed a link between anxiety and gratitude. Let me share a couple illustrations to show you what I mean. First, let’s say you find a lump somewhere on your body and are filled with anxiety. You go in for tests, and the word comes back from the doctor that everything is OK. It’s just a benign growth. You are filled with gratitude when he says this—but you wouldn’t be if you hadn’t experienced the anxiety of the moment first. Nothing really has changed from how it was a few weeks ago, except that anxiety has taught you that what you once took for granted is a wonderful gift. You are flooded with gratitude that you have this gift.
When my son was about two, one day we took him to get some new clothes at the Lake Forest Mall. We were shopping in The Children’s Place because they had a little play area with a slide that he enjoyed. Well, we turned our heads for a moment and Daniel was gone. We looked everywhere. We called his name. Employees, as well as other customers, joined in searching the store. Sue and I panicked. We thought surely someone had taken our son when we weren’t looking. I remember thinking, “People like that—people who take kids—probably hang out in stores like this waiting for parents to look the other way.” I was about to run out into the mall and look when my son popped up and said, “Here I am!” He had been hiding inside one of those circular racks that hold clothes. In plowing through the clothing he had discovered that the middle in that circular rack was a perfect little hiding place. He could see and hear us but we could not see or hear him and he had enjoyed his little game of hide and seek. Well, when he popped out part of me wanted to spank him for hiding like that but then there was this other part of me that was so grateful—so relieved—because it had been a scary deal. That time of anxiety helped me be grateful for the safety of my little boy.
Listen: as I alluded in my first point, one of the foundations of gratitude is PERSPECTIVE and nothing gives us perspective like tough times. Grateful people are people who learn to appreciate this principle.
Have you heard the story about a letter that a girl in college wrote to her parents? She wrote an e-mail and said,
“Dear Mom and Dad, I have so much to tell you. First, because of the fire in my dorm that was started by the student riots, I experienced temporary lung damage and had to go to the hospital. While I was there, I fell in love with an orderly. We have moved in together. I dropped out of school when I found out that I was pregnant. Then he got fired because of his drinking, so we are going to move to Alaska where we might get married after the birth of the baby.” It was signed, “Your loving daughter.” But there was a “P.S.” that said, “None of that really happened. I did flunk my chemistry class though—and wanted to help you to keep it in perspective.” Smart kid! I bet is she applied her smarts to studying for chemistry as much as she did zapping her parents she would have done better!
Learn to appreciate the anxious times of life. The perspective those times bring can become opportunities for us to be truly grateful.
(3) A third exercise for developing a grateful heart is found in learning to express gratitude openly and often.
You see, for some reason we open ourselves to gratitude when we EXPRESS it, even if we don’t FEEL it yet. There just is something about the way that God made us that makes this work. I don’ t understand why—but it does work. Don’t get me wrong. The FEELING part of gratitude is important. But don’t wait to FEEL thankful before giving thanks. Usually the THINKING and the DOING lead to the emotions—the feelings.
C. S. Lewis once said that it’s a thin line between pretending to feel something and beginning to feel it. Many times we cross that line into feeling gratitude when we simply express our thanks. Perhaps this is why they call the fourth Thursday in November ThanksGIVING not ThanksFEELING.
Let’s try this principle out for a few minutes. First, on a scale of 1-10 rate how grateful you feel at this moment. You might be having a hard time and think, “I’m about a ‘3’right now.” Or you might be at a “6.5” but be honest. Now, begin a list of the reasons you have to be thankful in life.
Complete this sentence as many times as you can for the next two minutes. “I am thankful for…” You could be thankful for your health or a person or a possession. But for two minutes express your thanks for as many things or people or circumstances as you can. You can write your reasons for being thankful down or just make a mental list but I’ll tell you when to stop. Ready—set—go.
(WAIT TWO MINUTES)
Ok—now rate how grateful you feel from 1-10 again. How many got a higher gratitude rating now than you did two minutes ago? Show of hands please. See what I mean!? We begin to FEEL more thankful when we ACT more thankful!
By the way—if you want to make someone’s day—if you want to make them grateful for you—take a few minutes this afternoon to drop an e-mail or a snail-mail to people on that list you just made—the people you thanked God for. In your note, tell them you are grateful for them. It will encourage them! It will keep them going. It will help both your heart and their heart become more grateful. I promise! I know this is true because I have a file in my desk where I keep notes or e-mails of thanks like that. Don’t get me wrong. I get other kinds of notes from time to time that aren’t encouraging but I don’t keep those. They don’t make it into my “encouragement file.” But I do keep the others and sometimes when I feel down—I pull out my encouragement file and leaf through those notes. As I read them I get the strength to keep on keeping on…and something else happens. I become more THANKFUL.
But I digress. The fact is people with grateful hearts are people who have trained themselves to NOTICE God’s blessings—blessings that are all around us all the time. They keep a mental list of the evidence in their own lives of God’s goodness and like the single mom I quote earlier they are able to SEE things to add to their list everywhere.
You could say ingratitude is a moral BLINDNESS. It’s a blindness to the goodness of being alive, the beauty of creation, the love of friends and the joy of work—a blindness that makes it impossible for us to see all the evidences of God’s great faithfulness.
(4) This leads to a fourth exercise for developing a grateful heart…devote yourself to WORSHIPPING God.
You see, people with grateful hearts are people who realize that God is indeed the source of all the blessings of life, so they worship Him. They praise Him. That’s what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote this 136th psalm. His words are his own act of grateful worship. If you have your Bible’s open, look at that psalm again. Notice, the psalmist begins by reminding his readers three times to “Give thanks to God” and he closes his worship psalm with the same admonition.
By the way, here’s a little Hebrew trivia. The phrase “give thanks” is best translated, “gratefully ACKNOWLEDGE” or “thankfully EXPRESS” and people with grateful hearts, like this unknown psalmist, do this. They gratefully acknowledge God’s goodness to them.
Here’s a little MORE Hebrew trivia. The phrase, “Praise the Lord” is a translation of two Hebrew words, “hallelu” and “ja” which we transliterate into one word, “Halleluja!” Well, in Jewish tradition, Psalm 136 has been called, “The Great Hallel” or “The Great Psalm of Praise.” You’ll note that it does not use the phrase, “Praise the Lord” but it is still given this designation because of the way it reminds the reader over and over and over and over and over again about the kinds of good gifts our Heavenly Father has showered on us. In short, it is twenty-six verses of praising God—twenty-six verses of worshipping Him for His enduring love.
Well, people with grateful hearts—people like this psalmist—worship God all the time! Their lives are a long “Great Hallel” because they constantly praise Him for His goodness and greatness. They acknowledge Him as the Giver of every blessing of life. And please understand. I’m not just talking about their involvement in corporate worship. No, people with grateful hearts are always GIVING THANKS TO GOD. They are always GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGING His goodness, minute by minute, day by day. For them worship is a lifestyle.
Before we close our service let’s try this exercise to grateful hearts together a bit. Let’s have a little “great Hallel time” of our own. Ready? Here goes!
- When you lay down in a soft bed in a cool house in the summer and a soft bed in a warm house in the winter, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you look into the face of somebody who knows you and loves you anyway, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you eat something that tastes really good and you are so glad for the gift of taste, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you tell your hand to do something and your hand does it, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you read a book and your mind is able to contemplate what you are reading, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you sit in traffic on I-270 because you are blessed to have a job, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you look out the window and see the leaves beginning to change and remember the beauty of the fall season, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you open this Book, and read God saying to you, “I knit your body together in your mother’s womb before you were aware of anything, gave you the day of your birth, numbered the days of your life and counted the hairs on your head. I fed you just as I have fed little sparrows and clothed you just as I have clothed lilies in the field.” What do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you read that God sent His only Son to die for your sins so you wouldn’t have to, what do you say? “Thank You God!”
- When you experience the abundant purposeful existence that comes from joining God in His work, what do you say? “Thank You God!”