The Prayer of Gratitude

Series: Preacher: Date: February 12, 2017 Scripture Reference: Philippians 4:6-7

6 – Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

7 – And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I want to begin with a question. How do you know if a person is maturing—growing up?  I mean—you can’t always tell by age—because I’ve known some older people who acted very immature. And—size doesn’t help either.  I’ve known some LITTLE people who acted more like BIG people. So—how do you determine maturity? Well, in an effort to answer this question I asked Mr. Google and he provided an interesting list of growth indicators. As I read the list—see how you MEASURE up when it comes to GROWING up. Raise your hand whenever something applies to you.

  • You actually watch the news—I suppose that means on any device—not just an actual TV.
  • You own a lawn mower
  • You do your own laundry—maybe you use your parent’s machines—but you do it.
  • You keep track of interest rates
  • You find a messy house annoying—especially if it’s yours
  • You are able to change a light bulb all by yourself
  • You own—and know how to operate—a vacuum cleaner
  • Your parents start asking you for advice
  • You go to bed before 11pm
  • You classify work as a career rather than a job
  • You iron clothes that need it.

Okay—how many actual grownups do we have here today? How many of you raised your hands most of the time? I guess the rest of you will need to go to the nursery.

I bring this up because this morning I want us to deal with SPIRITUAL growth—or as we are referring to it this year—“soaring.”  So—how do you know if someone is soaring as a follower of Jesus? What characteristics or qualities are seen in a maturing Christian? I could list many things—but in my opinion one of the essentials—one of the best indicators of spiritual maturity is an attitude of gratitude that is manifest in the way we pray. And to help us learn to foster this attitude I want to share some three principles—things that will help us make gratitude an integral part of our prayer life. John Ortberg’s comments have been very helpful to me in preparing this message.

(1) First, we must embrace the mindset that God is ALWAYS Good.

You see, the kind of gratitude that shows up in our prayer life on a consistent basis is a byproduct of a way of SEEING THINGS—a perspective in life—and it always involves THREE BASIC FACTORS.

And—by the way the “dead” Latin language that I mentioned last week helps us understand these gratitude factors—because each comes from the old Latin word “bene,” which means “good.”  So, here’s the first factor involved in this mindset: there is a “BENEFIT.”  This may seem obvious but in order for us to be grateful, we have to receive something that we think is “bene” — good.  And—sadly, many people—even Christians—are blind to most of the “BENEFITS” of life. They don’t see all the benefits that come their way.

The second factor of an attitude of gratitude is of course a BENEFACTOR. To be grateful, you must not just believe that benefits are coming your way—you also have to believe they don’t come at random or by accident. They come from Somebody. And you must believe this benefactor has your best interests in mind. If we are to be grateful Christians we must believe that about God.  We must believe as James puts it that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”  A Christian needs to understand that God sends us gifts—benefits—in all shapes and forms—all the time. As Psalm 103 says, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, Who satisfies your desires with good things.”  This benefit-giving is an expression of God’s goodness.

Quick review—a maturing Christian is a grateful Christian because they embrace the mindset that God exists; He’s good; and He’s always giving to us.

Okay—here’s the third element that contributes to gratitude. There has to be a benefit, and a benefactor, and there has to be a BENEFICIARY: one who receives the good.  That’s you and me.  We are the beneficiaries of the benefits of God. Spiritual growth comes when we look at our lives and realize that God is GOOD—and that He is always BENEFITING us. That fact becomes a settled perspective for us.

You may remember a couple months ago—my telling you about Mylene Paquette—a brave thirty-year-old Canadian woman who, in 2013 set out to row a twenty-four foot boat, alone—across the Atlantic from Halifax, Canada, to France—a distance of about thirty-one hundred statute miles.  Well, after being battered by several storms, encountering some adverse currents and some equipment failures, this tough young lady started to lose hope. I mean, she was eighty-three days on the open ocean all by herself, without seeing another human being. She was less than halfway to her destination; and she was running out of food. She finally radioed to her ground crew back in Canada and said that barring an old-fashioned miracle, this was not going to end well. She was going to have to give up. Then she collapsed on the floor of her tiny boat and began to pray. Almost immediately she heard on her radio the voice of the captain of the Queen Mary II—telling her to hold on—because help was on the way. He said they were only a hundred miles from her location. Imagine what she must have been thinking. “The largest, grandest ocean liner in the world is changing course and going a hundred miles out of its way to come and help me? I must be hearing things.” But a few hours later, the eleven hundred thirty-two-foot-long Queen Mary II, twenty-three stories—high came over the horizon—and stopped dead in the water alongside Mylene’s twenty-four-foot rowboat. All twenty-six hundred passengers and all twelve hundred crew were on deck, cheering wildly as they transferred watertight canisters—filled with food and equipment from the huge Queen Mary over to her tiny rowboat.

I watched the video on YOUTUBE and it took quite a while to make the transfer. Once Mylene had the food and equipment on board—the Queen Mary steamed off leaving her alone again. Well, surely at that point when Mylene realized what had happened—surely when it all sank in—she must have got back down on her knees and thanked God for His goodness!

By the way, Mylene succeeded in her quest. It took her 129 days—and of all the memories she made on that arduous journey this answer to prayer must have stood out. Surely that Queen Mary experience helped shape her mindset—it helped her see that God does care—that He is ALWAYS good. I mean, for the rest of her life’s journey, she can look back on that experience and be reminded of her eternal Benefactor.

Well, we don’t have to row across the Atlantic to learn this—for each of us have hundreds, if not thousands of memories of times when God has showered us with GOOD and perfect gifts. And it all started when we embraced the fact that God sent the provision of His Son from Heaven to earth, not just to redeem us, and not just to pull up alongside of us to help us out once.  No—our God doesn’t just do “Queen Mary-style redeeming”—for He stays alongside us. He doesn’t motor off into the distance and leave us alone. He stays alongside. Not one day or one year, but every day, every year for the rest of my life until we go home to be with Him. And—Christians who pray well—maturing believers—pray from this perspective.

Thomas Merton said: “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of his love. Every moment of our existence is a gift of his grace.”  And I love this next phrase: “Gratitude takes nothing for granted. It is never unresponsive. The grateful person knows that God is good not just by hearsay, but by personal experience.” This is why the apostle Paul says in our text, “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.”

Okay let’s move on to our second principle. You see, for there to be gratitude—for us to embrace this mindset—we must believe we are receiving something we did not earn, merit, or deserve.

(2) In other words, we must always be HUMBLE.

Gratitude always involves this posture. You see, if I believe I am owed something, I will not be thankful for it because I think I’m entitled to it.  Let’s say you give me a car.  Not asking—just illustrating here. If you just give me a car for no reason at all, I’ll be overwhelmed with gratitude.

I’ll say, “THANK YOU! I can’t believe how good you are to me.”  But on the other hand, if I pay the fair market value for the car—well then, when you hand me the keys and the title, I would say, “That’s fine. Good deal.”  And I’ll head to the DMV to get my plates, etc. but I won’t say, “Thank you for this incredible gift. I’m overwhelmed,” because I bought it. I’m owed it.

Well, part of our sin nature is the tendency to feel entitled. We feel we DESERVE good—when the opposite is true. Our sinful minds can convince us to embrace the falsehood that we’re entitled to anything we want, and if we don’t get something we want, other people must be messing up.  We think, “They owe me, and they ought to pay me.”  This mindset is widespread in our culture and has led to a proliferation of lawsuits. Here’s a few examples.

  • A few years ago the San Francisco Giants were sued for passing out Father’s Day gifts to men only. Some female felt entitled.
  • A psychology professor sued for sexual harassment because of the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party. There was not encouragement to use it. It was just there as part of the decorations.
  • A psychic was awarded $986,000 when she said a doctor’s CAT scan impaired her psychic abilities. You have to wonder about this third one: If she really was a psychic, shouldn’t she have known not to go to that doctor in the first place?
  • One more entitlement example—do you remember the six-year-old little girl who used her sleeping mother’s thumb to unlock her phone this past Christmas?

When the mother checked her email later, she was greeted with 13 order confirmations for Pokémon items that her little girl had ordered through the Amazon app. The mother apparently thought it was cute and posted, “$250 later, she has shopped for all her Christmas presents on Amazon.” She also said her daughter was “really proud of herself.”  There was no mention of whether the mischievous girl received any punishment for the merchandise she felt entitled to own—stuff she got by borrowing her mother’s thumb.

We chuckle at these things—but from the perspective of a maturing Christian, ingratitude is not just a psychological problem.  It’s a sin.  Paul says it’s the hallmark of a life opposed to God.

Speaking to all the proud, entitled people of this world he writes, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile.” (Romans 1) Too many times too many of us see ourselves as entitled. We don’t see ourselves as grateful receivers of God’s grace every moment.

Well, you can’t grow as a Christian until you humble yourself and fix this problem.

By the way, the Bible’s word for ingratitude is GRUMBLING.  Paul says that grumbling is the quintessential mindset of life without God. It’s a clear symptom of ingratitude. I’m reminded of a story I came across recently about an Israeli man who in May of 2016 petitioned for a restraining order against God.  Apparently, the plaintiff, identified as Mr. David Shoshan, represented himself at a court hearing in Haifa. The report noted that God was not present to defend himself. (Of course, maybe God was present but didn’t feel a need to defend himself). Mr. Shoshan complained to the court that God had been treating him “harshly and not nicely”—though no specific details were given about what exactly had happened to make him feel this way.  Mr. Shoshan also explained that he had made several attempts to contact police to report God’s alleged crimes, and that patrol cars had been sent to his house on 10 occasions.  Police advised Shoshan to try taking out a restraining order. Surely, they were joking! Well he did what they said but the request for a restraining order was denied by the presiding Judge Ahsan Canaan—who said the request was “delusional” and that the petitioner required help from sources outside of the court.

Sure this is funny—but have you ever found yourself grumbling—perhaps over a “Category One” deal?  Have you ever complained to God? You know, Paul heard about a spirit of complaint in the church at Corinth, so he wrote to them about how Israel grumbled at Mount Sinai.  Now—think of it. God was so good to the Israelites. We’ve been reading about this chapter of Hebrew history in our Chronological Bible reading this week. God gave them freedom, took care of them, gave them water, manna, quail—gave them the Ten Commandments, led them to the Promised Land, but they just grumbled in response.

They were not grateful.  Referring to this Paul says to the church at Corinth, “And do not grumble, as some of them did––and were killed by the destroying angel.”  (1 Cor. 10:10)

How many of you who have grumbled a lot lately are a little worried right now?

(3) Here’s a third principle. We ALWAYS pray—and when we do—we always pray THANKFULLY.

I mean, one indication of spiritual growth is when we our gratitude is always heard in our prayers. We see this principle in the teachings of the Rabbis of Jesus’ day. John Ortberg reminds us that—back then every devout Jewish person was devoted to two daily forms of prayer. We’re familiar with the first one—it was called the Shema, from the first word in Deuteronomy 6:4–5:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

The other form of daily prayer was called “the 18,” or its complete title: “The 18 benedictions.”

A “benediction” is another one of those “bene” words. It literally means “a good word.” In Hebrew, a benediction was any prayer that began with the word “bless” — and to bless is to speak good to somebody else. So in “the 18” they were speaking good to God—they were thanking God. And they would do this constantly.

  • In the morning when they woke up, they would pray the 18. “Blessed are You, God.”
  • At night before they went to bed, they would pray the 18. “Blessed are you, God.”
  • In the middle of the day, they would pause and pray the 18. “Blessed are You, God.”

Then they would ENRICH that simple phrase. Rabbis would teach their followers how to

expand on it by saying—praying—things like: “Blessed are You, Lord, Who heals the sick.”

They’d think, “I have a body and I’ve been sick and God is the One Who’s behind my health. He’s my BENEFACTOR.”  They would pray the 18 an extra time on the Sabbath. They didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. So, they used the extra time to thank God.

These benedictions were also called “the Amidah,” which means “standing,” because they were to be said—prayed—standing up.  The idea was if you prayed while sitting down, you might fall asleep.  In fact, they discussed THE BEST WAY to say the 18. Rabbis would say, “Never say the 18 when you’re on a donkey.”  This was because being up high might make you feel proud or self-sufficient and as we just said you can’t be PROUD and grateful at the same time.  Gratitude requires humility. It comes from the knowledge that you are the beneficiary of benefits from a benefactor.

Jews would regularly gather AT THE TEMPLE to pray the 18. You can see this in the New Testament.  For example, Acts 3 says, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer at three in the afternoon.” That’s the time when they would gather to pray the 18.  They would do it at the temple because the temple was the reminder, the expression of God’s presence.  If you couldn’t go to the temple then the law say you had to turn your body toward the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was expressed. Here’s something else. Every rabbi would teach his disciples how to pray the 18 in their own way. When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” they were asking him to do precisely this.  They were asking our Lord, “How should we pray? What’s our way of praying the 18, of blessing God?” And the Lord’s Prayer is the 18 in their summary form. “Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed [blessed] be Your name.”

The early church would pray the Lord’s Prayer three times every day.  It was the 18 for the early church.  But gratitude did not stop with the 18. Every meal was an occasion to express gratitude.

Food was not eaten until people stopped and remembered it was a gift.  Rabbis taught, “A man must not taste anything until he has blessed it.”  And understand—they weren’t so much blessing the food. They were blessing God Who gave it. They were so serious about getting the blessing before eating right that certain rabbis believed if you forgot to bless God for His great gift of food—you had to go back to where you ate your meal and thank Him there so you wouldn’t forget the next time.  If you were on the road when you remembered you forgot, you couldn’t thank God on the road. No—you had to go all the way back to the location of your meal. It was a way of saying, “I’m going to remember to do this. Going back will make me remember to bless God for His goodness in giving me food to eat.”

Applying it to our day and age, if you ate lunch at Ledo’s—like so many Redlanders do—and realized later you forgot to say the blessing you would have to drive back to Ledo’s.  And if somebody was sitting where you sat, you’d ask them to get up. You’d sit down there and say, “O God, thank you.” Rabbis would even argue about HOW MUCH TIME someone had in which to return to give thanks. They said, “You have to do that before the food is digested out of your body,” because they were people of gratitude.

In fact, every different item of food had to receive its own unique blessing. You would bless God for the bread, and then when the figs came out, you’d bless Him for the figs. Then when the wine was served, you’d bless Him for the wine.  Then if you were lucky enough to have meat, you’d bless Him for the meat. If you’ve ever wondered why when we share communion we thank God for the bread—and then later we thank Him—bless Him—for the cup—this is where that practice comes from. Jesus—a Rabbi—taught His disciples to do that.  Remember? The New Testament account of the Last Supper says, “When they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it.”  Later during the same meal: “Then he took the cup, and when He had given thanks…”

Gratitude wasn’t just at mealtime and when they prayed the 18 benedictions.  No—they had blessings for everything.

  • They had a blessing for a lamp, because to have light in the world is such a gift.

We could be living in darkness, but God said, “Let there be light.” So they’d say, “Bless you God, the Father of all lights.”

  • They had blessings for seeing a comet.
  • They had a blessing for looking at the ocean.
  • They had blessings for rain, blessings for completing a home.

No occasion was too menial to bless God—to THANK God. In fact, disciples would follow their rabbis around all the time, because they never knew when he would say another blessing, and they wanted to know, “How do I bless God for that?” There are stories of them following the rabbi around when he went into the bushes to go to the bathroom, because they would want to know, “Is there going to be a blessing?”  And there was one. A Rabbi named Abayei said, “Blessed are you, O Lord, Who has formed man in wisdom, and created in him many orifices and many cavities.” Now that may sound strange or even coarse to you and me, but we will surely all admit that when one of those orifices or cavities isn’t working well, life gets a little miserable, doesn’t it?

If a rabbi back then were to hear us complaining about this particular blessing he would say, “Shame on you for thinking you are so proper that any part of your existence is too undignified to thank the God Who thought it up. Shame on you for thinking there is something unspiritual, something not worth thanking God for, about any part of our bodies.”

The point is—maturing Christians learn to thank God for EVERYTHING. They pray this way without ceasing for they remember that every breath—every heartbeat is a gift from God.

Mr. Otha Anders, of Ruston, Louisiana, spent 45 years bending down and collecting something most of us ignore—pennies.  In October of 2015, the 73-year-old Anders—a supervisor for in-school suspended children–took all the pennies he had collected to his local bank. They filled 15 five-gallon jugs and contained a grand total of $5,136.14. The bank’s coin machines took five hours to count all those pennies. But what’s truly moving about this story isn’t Anders’ THRIFTINESS; it’s his THANKFULNESS.  Each new penny on the ground served as a prompt to give thanks to God.  Anders told reporters: “I became convinced that spotting a lost or dropped penny was an additional God-given incentive reminding me to ALWAYS be thankful. There have been days where I failed to pray and more often than not, a lost or dropped penny would show up to remind me.” Pun intended—but this makes a lot of sense doesn’t it!? Maturing believers CONSTANTLY thank God for His goodness—because they know God IS ALWAYS good—even in bad times. Ortberg writes, “When we are thankful ONLY when good things come our way our threshold for gratitude gets higher and higher, and we become ungrateful people. Being transformed by God means learning to see ways in which God is at work, even in bad situations.”  We must learn that in all things God is ALWAYS at work for our good. Do you remember Paul’s experience when he was imprisoned in Rome?  In Philippians 1 he writes:

“What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result of my imprisonment it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard—and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains,most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.”

Let me give you the picture here. Paul was chained to a Roman soldier 24-7-365 while he waited for his trial. This took quite a while. So—twenty-four hours a day, in six hour shifts each, one after another of these soldiers was forced to be with the world’s greatest missionary.  They heard the conversations Paul had with his visitors as they discussed spiritual things. They listened as he dictated his epistles.  They were constantly bound to this man who prayed without ceasing. Talk about a captive audience!  Warren Wiersbe writes, “Little did the Romans realize that the chains they affixed to his wrists would release Paul instead of binding him!” Paul’s maturing faith enabled him to see that his imprisonment provided the opportunity for the gospel of Christ to penetrate into the ranks of the most powerful men in the empire—and from them into the city of Rome and from Rome to soldiers stationed all over the world.  He would never have had that kind of opportunity if he had not been imprisoned.  On top of that—the Christians in Rome became more emboldened to share their faith—because of Paul being in chains. Before his imprisonment, they had been fearful to share their faith. But, now they were boldly sharing Christ in their everyday conversation. His circumstances invoked courage in the Roman Christians.  They decided that if God could use Paul IN prison, He certainly could use them OUTSIDE of prison.  Paul’s courage gave them courage to share their faith throughout the capitol city.  So, because of Paul’s imprisonment Jesus was literally the talk of the town. Paul learned that when we say God is ALWAYS good—we mean ALWAYS—even in bad times God is working for our good.

How many of you have endured hard times—and later—as you looked back on those hard times you saw how God allowed them to come so as to benefit you? You thanked God in hindsight for a bad thing?

This week I read about a wedding where the couple left the church, hopped in their cars, and headed for the reception. But for this Ohio couple that’s when things came to a standstill—literally.  Jeff and Rebecca Payne and most of their guests were met with an unexpected (and unwelcome) surprise: a traffic jam that left them all sitting on U.S. Route 35. After being parked there for an hour, another surprise development unfolded.  A couple of fellow drivers, who had noticed the wedding dress and asked what the couple would be doing if they weren’t stuck in traffic, had a creative idea—how about have the first dance right there on the highway? Jeff and Rebecca decided to do it. They got out of their car—and danced to a song played loudly on a car’s music system. The wedding party joined them. Another bystander, who filmed the dance, said that the newlyweds the dance turned it into a party. In fact, it ended up inspiring the first scene of the hit movie, LA LA LAND. Just kidding—this couple saw good in a bad thing—and as Christians we must be able to as well. We must trust God enough to know that when bad comes our way—there’s a reason. He’s allowing it because He knows good can come through it.

Let’s go back to our text. Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And THE PEACE OF GOD, WHICH TRANSCENDS ALL UNDERSTANDING,WILL GUARD YOUR HEARTS AND YOUR MINDS IN CHRIST JESUS.” When we KNOW God is GOOD—when our look back at all the ways He comes alongside and helps us—when that is our settled mindset—when we HUMBLE ourselves and we acknowledge that our GOOD GOD is in charge.–when we learn to constantly pray thankfully—then Paul says, instead of being anxious—we experience “the peace of God which transcends all understanding.” I think surely this is what the hymn-writer had in mind when he wrote,  “oh what peace we often forfeit—oh what needless pain we bear—all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

Let’s pray.

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