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Terry Muck on How To Be Thankful in a Thankless World

01 Nov

If we gauge gratitude by the way God has worked in our lives, then nothing the world withholds can dispel our thanksgiving, and we can even rejoice in the pettiness of those around us.—Terry Muck

An old man wistfully reads the Hebrew Scripture’s promise of a Messiah to come. Night after night he reads until the light or his energy wanes. Each night he prays, O, that I could see the Messiah before I die!

Silence is his only answer. Still he prays.

Then one night he prays and, instead of silence, God answers: I have heard your prayer.

You shall see the Promised One.

Not sure he has heard correctly, the old man continues his yearning prayer on the nights that follow—yet the answer grows stronger, more firm. You shall see him. You shall hold him and touch the Messiah.

Simeon’s joy was great. He was probably already an old man when God told him he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The promised coming of the Savior was ancient, and few really believed it anymore. For a man of Simeon’s age, it was too much to hope for. Yet God said it would happen—and the promised day did come.

In the temple Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (Luke 2:29–30 niv).

Simeon’s experience is the paradigm of true thanksgiving. What better reason for giving thanks to God than the fact that we have all been given the chance to see the Savior? We have not held the baby Jesus in our arms, but we have been given the joy of holding him in our minds and hearts. If every other facet of our lives were negative—if we were poor, homeless, and friendless—we would still have this reason to be thankful: the fact of Jesus Christ.

Our human nature being what it is, however, very often we find the fact of Jesus Christ is not enough to help us maintain an attitude of thanksgiving. Gratitude is one of the most difficult emotions to express and maintain.

Perhaps our culture is partly to blame. Gratitude is particularly hard when everything comes easily, when our relative wealth makes us think we can, by birthright or the sweat of our brow, get whatever we need. Why should we be thankful when we’ve earned it on our own?

For Christian leaders, the problem is even more complex. Leaders are victims to all the gratitude-limiting pressures of a wealthy society, but as helping professionals they also suffer the ingratitude of those they serve, both lay workers and fellow leaders. Christian leaders are assailed from two directions: a sated society and a sometimes thankless Christian community.

Victims of prosperity

Wealth is not a worldwide phenomenon. Other cultures still have to struggle to earn their daily bread, to keep their families warm and safe. Westerners who live in those cultures for even a short time discover new meaning to the word gratitude.

Missionaries are typical.

Franklin and Phileda Nelson went to Burma as missionaries in the 1940s. They served there eight and a half years before the government closed the country to further missionary work. They returned to the United States where Franklin served several churches in various pastoral roles.

While in Burma they worked among remote tribes, and Franklin found his sense of gratitude for God’s providence rekindled:

In the Burmese hill country, the only way to get to remote villages was by “shank mare.” (That’s walking, in case you’ve never heard the phrase.) It was not at all uncommon for me to walk twenty miles a day in the dry season. When I got back to the States and worked as a pastor and church leader, I rarely walked a mile a day; the telephone and car made walking unnecessary.

In Burma, if one of us got sick, the nearest hospital was ten days away. In the States, medical care is minutes away. In Burma, we’d go months without bread. Once we asked our daughter Karen to say grace before a meal, and she said, “Why do I have to pray for my daily bread when I don’t ever get any?” I have often coveted that experience for our youngest daughter who never had to wonder where her food came from. It’s hard to have that sense of helplessness and humility so vital to prayer when you sit down to your daily bread and don’t even think about how you got it.

I don’t in any way blame people here for not knowing what God can do. We’re victims of our prosperity. But I sometimes wish we had a few more hard times so people could experience firsthand how wonderful it is to be totally dependent on God.

Thankless followers

One denominational official lamented that for him one of the hardest things about leadership has been developing lay and professional leaders in churches, only to have them quickly forget “from whence cometh their help” and turn their backs on their benefactors as soon as they begin to make it on their own.

I asked my father, who recently retired after thirty-five years of teaching at a Christian college, if he had any regrets about his fruitful professorial career.

“I guess it would have to be the lack of gratitude by students,” he said. “I never had very high expectations about students thanking me. They are in school at a difficult age—late teens and early twenties. Their identity crisis makes it a hard time psychologically for expressing thankfulness. But I did notice a steady decline over the years in what gratitude there was. It was almost as if students were never taught to be thankful. And even though I didn’t expect much gratitude, I missed it all the same.”

Gratitude is one of those curious emotions that grows or shrivels in direct proportion to the amount we receive from others. Pastors, especially, seem to get caught in the middle of a two-flank attack: our wealthy society discourages it, and the nature of the pastoral task often seems hopeless, helpless, and thankless. Over the past generation or two, a subtle devaluation of the pastoral role has occurred that rivals the devaluation of the dollar. In the same span that has seen the dollar shrink in buying power by almost half, the role of the pastor in the local community has probably shrunk even further. The natural respect once shown is a thing of the past. The gratitude that goes with respect is even less.

Interestingly, you don’t find many pastors publicly bemoaning their reduced status. But in terms of their functioning in the community, in terms of their spiritual lives, the danger is that cynicism about the task can subtly creep in and rot the roots of thankfulness.

God-based gratitude

What’s the solution? Perhaps to focus on the natural opportunities of Christian leadership, not its shortcomings. The call to ministry is not strictly parallel to other professional career paths. God guides his chosen leaders in profound ways. We sometimes feel frustrated with our inability to discern God’s will for our lives. The factor most often overlooked in such cases is that gratitude for guidance is actually one of the things that increases its intensity. Recognition that God has directed in the past is what increases the volume of his voice in the future.

Some helpful insights for gratitude can be found in Deuteronomy 26, which outlines three elements to thanksgiving.

The first is a concrete expression of thanks. “Take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land … and [the priest shall] set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God” (vv. 2–4 niv). God says that when the Israelites arrive in the land and have conquered it and are living there, they must present to the Lord the firstfruits from each annual harvest. They are to take it in a basket and hand it to the priest at the temple.

It is almost paradoxical but still true today: giving increases gratitude. Psychologists tell us that the human mind grasps the concrete far more easily than the abstract. By giving a concrete expression of thanks, the abstract reality (our feeling of gratitude), the crucial part, becomes more real to us.

Sometimes the concrete gift is prayer itself. Gib Martin, pastor of Trinity Church in Burien, Washington, said, “Bonhoeffer wrote that the Psalms were God’s gift to the church, and when we have nothing else to give God, we can give those back to him in the form of prayers. I have tried that and reaped the benefits.”

The second element is to remember difficulties God has seen you through. Verses five to nine say that after the priest has accepted the gifts in the name of God, the people should recite a brief history of their being freed from Egypt and given a new fertile land. In this illustration, the children of Israel remember what it was like to live in Egypt. For us it is the remembrance or recognition of what we are like without God. After all, that is the crucial factor. What is it like not to hold the Messiah in our hearts and minds? Bleak, desolate, hopeless.

One Christian leader said she uses the harder times of her life to combat current crises: “I’m a person who is always ready with plan B or C if plan A doesn’t work out. I think my experiences have forced me to develop that attitude. I once had three major surgeries in three months. I had no control over what would happen with my life then. Remembering those brick walls helps me understand God’s sovereignty and the potter-clay relationship.”

Perhaps for today’s Christian leaders, fellowship needs are greater than any other. Most local churches, for example, are one-person pastorates, and most are operated in entrepreneurial fashion. Fellowship languishes under such conditions. No camaraderie with staff, no employer to unload on, no evaluation sessions to tell you how it’s going. Ministerial associations usually turn into bragging rather than brainstorming sessions. The minister feels cut off from the warmth of peer support.

Again, Franklin Nelson’s experience on the mission field is instructive:

Like the pastorate in the States, the mission field can be lonely. I remember when our first daughter was born. Several days after her birth I had to visit some villages. It would take two weeks. After a couple of days out I began to feel sorry for myself. I was alone, climbing steep hills, no one to talk to and tell about my new daughter.

I asked the Lord for some sign that he was with me. I didn’t know what I wanted him to do because I didn’t know what would help me. As far as I knew, it was impossible to cheer me up. But I asked God to do it anyway.

The middle of that afternoon I came to a village. It was a new Christian village that was just beginning to get grounded spiritually, so I didn’t expect the warm welcome of old friends. But to my surprise, they came out en masse singing a welcome song. I hadn’t planned on spending the night there, but they asked me to. They took me to a hut they had cleaned up very nicely. I decided to stay. This overwhelming hospitality and love, totally unexpected, answered my prayer. It was simple, something we expect almost as a matter of course back home. But it was just what I needed at that time.

Remembrances of God’s love in good times and bad can stimulate our gratitude.

The third element is to be grateful for what the Lord has made out of us. After reciting the litany of our once-lost-now-found status, the Lord says to “rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (v. 11). Like Simeon who held the baby Jesus and rejoiced, we should be ever aware that God has worked, is working, and will continue to work in our lives.

For Christian leaders, then, the key to developing a deep thankfulness is not to base our gratitude on the uncertain status of wealth and prosperity or the fickle gratitude of those we serve. The Christian leader’s gratitude must be based on a deep satisfaction in ministries faithful to God’s will.

Gordon Johnson pastored College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego. Before coming to California, Gordon had been dean of a Christian college and had held several pastorates. He said:

Gratitude for me comes only when I focus strictly on what God has done in my life. For example, I pray for guidance more often than anything—and God has always answered. When I was serving a church in Chicago, I had two job offers at once. One was to become dean of students at a Christian college. They asked first, and after interviewing there, I was pretty convinced I would go if the college trustee board approved the call. I went back to Chicago and preached in my church on Sunday morning. After the service representatives from another church in the area came up and asked if they could take me and my family out to dinner. We had no other commitments, so I agreed. At dinner they asked me if I would come to pastor their church. I was thrown into a terrible confusion. Why is God doing this? What is he trying to tell me?

That week an official letter of invitation came from both the church and the college. I prayed about both at length and finally wrote a letter of acceptance to the college and a letter of rejection to the other church. My wife typed the letters, and I remember sitting on the edge of my bed that evening looking at them both. I felt sick, plagued by inner doubt. You’re just getting emotional about this, I thought. Get them in the mail and that will give you some peace.

I walked to the corner mailbox and dropped the letters in. But when I got back home, I felt sicker and sicker about the whole thing. About eleven o’clock that night I called the post office to see if I could get the letters back. “Too late,” they said. They had already gone.

The next morning I called the college president and asked if he would please ignore the letter he was about to receive from me. I did the same with the pastoral search committee. Then I got on a train and went back to the college for one more look. By the end of that visit, I decided being dean of students wasn’t for me, and I turned down their invitation. I also declined the invitation from the other church.

Looking back, I think God used the invitation from the church to get me to rethink the way he was working in my life.

Had Gordon not asked the fundamental question of What is God trying to tell me in this? His prayer for guidance might have been the much more self-centered—Please, God, which of these offers will be the best for me?

If we gauge our gratitude on worldly wealth and opportunity, we may someday find ourselves in Franklin Nelson’s shoes in Burma with no worldly wealth to celebrate. If we gauge gratitude on the thankfulness of those around us, human nature will disappoint us. Nine of ten healed lepers ran away without even thanking Jesus.

If, however, we gauge gratitude by the way God has worked in our lives, then nothing the world withholds can dispel our thanksgiving, and we can even rejoice in the pettiness of those around us because we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you for the opportunity of working with these your children so obviously in need of your love.”

To those who seek, God provides the grace to be gracious.

About Terry Muck:

Terry C. Muck is professor of World Religions at Asbury Theological Seminary. The article above was adapted from chapter six in a collection of articles from the Library of Christian Leadership book entitled Deepening Your Ministry Through Prayer and Personal Growth: 30 Strategies to Transform Your Ministry; edited by Marshall Shelley. Nashville: Moorings, 1996.

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