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The Art of Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude in the Character of Christ by Dr. Ken Boa

Ken Boa

Our culture teaches us that people are basically good and that their internal problems are the result of external circumstances. But Jesus taught that no outside-in program will rectify the human condition, since our fundamental problems stem from within (Mark 7:20-23). Holiness is never achieved by acting ourselves into a new way of being. Instead, it is a gift that God graciously implants within the core of those who have trusted in Christ. All holiness is the holiness of God within us—the indwelling life of Christ. Thus, the process of sanctification is the gradual diffusion of this life from the inside (being) to the outside (doing), so that we become in action what we already are in essence. Our efforts faithfully reveal what is within us, so that when we are dominated by the flesh we will do the deeds of the flesh, and when we walk by the Spirit we will bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).

A Process from the Inside to the Outside

Holiness is a new quality of life that progressively flows from the inside to the outside. As J. I. Packer outlines it in Keep in Step with the Spirit, the nature of holiness is transformation through consecration; the context of holiness is justification through Jesus Christ; the root of holiness is co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Jesus Christ; the agent of holiness is the Holy Spirit; the experience of holiness is one of conflict; the rule of holiness is God’s revealed law; and the heart of holiness is the spirit of love. When we come to know Jesus we are destined for heaven because He has already implanted His heavenly life within us. The inside-out process of the spiritual life is the gradual outworking of this kingdom righteousness. This involves a divine-human synergism of dependence and discipline so that the power of the Spirit is manifested through the formation of holy habits. As Augustine put it, “Without God we cannot; without us, He will not.” Disciplined grace and graceful discipline go together in such a way that God-given holiness is expressed through the actions of obedience. Spiritual formation is not a matter of total passivity or of unaided moral endeavor, but of increasing responsiveness to God’s gracious initiatives. The holy habits of immersion in Scripture, acknowledging God in all things, and learned obedience make us more receptive to the influx of grace and purify our aspirations and actions.

“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). It is wise to form the habit of inviting God to search your heart and reveal “any hurtful way” (Psalm 139:23) within you. Sustained attention to the heart, the wellspring of action, is essential to the formative process. By inviting Jesus to examine our intentions and priorities, we open ourselves to His good but often painful work of exposing our manipulative and self-seeking strategies, our hardness of heart (often concealed in religious activities), our competitively-driven resentments, and our pride. “A humble understanding of yourself is a surer way to God than a profound searching after knowledge” (Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ). Self-examining prayer or journaling in the presence of God will enable us to descend below the surface of our emotions and actions and to discern sinful patterns that require repentance and renewal. Since spiritual formation is a process, it is a good practice to compare yourself now with where you have been. Are you progressing in Christlike qualities like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, understanding, servanthood, and hope? To assist you, here is a prayer sequence for examination and encouragement that incorporates the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer, the beatitudes, the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the fruit of the Spirit. This can serve as a kind of spiritual diagnostic tool:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23-24)

Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father who is in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not lead us into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

The Beatitudes

Poverty of spirit (nothing apart from God’s grace)

Mourning (contrition)

Gentleness (meekness, humility)

Hunger and thirst for righteousness

Merciful to others

Purity of heart (desiring Christ above all else)

Peacemaking

Bearing persecution for the sake of righteousness

The Seven Deadly Sins

Pride

Avarice

Envy

Wrath

Sloth

Lust

Gluttony

The Four Cardinal and Three Theological Virtues

Prudence (wisdom, discernment, clear thinking, common sense)

Temperance (moderation, self-control)

Justice (fairness, honesty, truthfulness, integrity)

Fortitude (courage, conviction)

Faith (belief and trust in God’s character and work)

Hope (anticipating God’s promises)

Love (willing the highest good for others, compassion)

The Fruit of the Spirit

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control

Letting Loose of Control and Results

One of the great enemies of process spirituality is the craving to control our environment and the desire to determine the results of our endeavors. Many of us have a natural inclination to be manipulators, grabbers, owners, and controllers. The more we seek to rule our world, the more we will resist the rule of Christ; those who grasp are afraid of being grasped by God. But until we relinquish ownership of our lives, we will not experience the holy relief of surrender to God’s good and loving purposes. Thomas Merton put it this way in New Seeds of Contemplation:

This is one of the chief contradictions that sin has brought into our souls: we have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy, and we have to compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship and sometimes for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world.

Our resistance to God’s rule even extends to our prayerful attempts to persuade the Lord to bless our plans and to meet our needs in the ways we deem best. Instead of seeking God’s will in prayer, we hope to induce Him to accomplish our will. Thus, even in our prayers, we can adopt the mentality of a consumer rather than a servant.

Perhaps the most painful lesson for believers to learn is the wisdom of being faithful to the process and letting loose of the results.

Opportunity Obedience Outcome
Divine Sovereignty Human Responsibility Divine Sovereignty

We have little control over opportunities we encounter and the outcomes of our efforts, but we can be obedient to the process.

Distorted dreams and selfish ambitions must die before we can know the way of resurrection. We cannot be responsive to God’s purposes until we abandon our strategies to control and acknowledge His exclusive ownership of our lives. At the front end, this surrender to the life of Christ in us appears to be the way of renunciation, but on the other side of renunciation we discover that it is actually the way of affirmation. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24). The better we apprehend our spiritual poverty and weakness, the more we will be willing to invite Jesus to increase so that we may decrease (John 3:30).

Another key to staying in the process is learning to receive each day and whatever it brings as from the hand of God. Instead of viewing God’s character in light of our circumstances, we should view our circumstances in light of God’s character. Because God’s character is unchanging and good, whatever circumstances He allows in the life of His children are for their good, even though they may not seem so at the time. Since His will for us is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), the trials, disappointments, setbacks, tasks, and adversities we encounter are, from an eternal vantage point, the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. This Romans 8:28-39 perspective can change the way we pray. Instead of asking the Lord to change our circumstances to suit us, we can ask Him to use our circumstances to change us. Realizing that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18), we can experience “the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” through “the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Thus, Blaise Pascal prayed in his Pensees:

With perfect consistency of mind, help me to receive all manner of events. For we know not what to ask, and we cannot ask for one event rather than another without presumption. We cannot desire a specific action without presuming to be a judge, and assuming responsibility for what in Your wisdom You may hide from me. O Lord, I know only one thing, and that is that it is good to follow You and wicked to offend You. Beyond this, I do not know what is good for me, whether health or sickness, riches or poverty, or anything else in this world. This knowledge surpasses both the wisdom of men and of angels. It lies hidden in the secrets of Your providence, which I adore, and will not dare to pry open.

We are essentially spiritual beings, and each “today” that is received with gratitude from God’s hand contributes to our preparation for our glorious and eternal destiny in His presence. In “the sacrament of the present moment” as Jean-Pierre de Caussade described it, “It is only right that if we are discontented with what God offers us every moment, we should be punished by finding nothing else that will content us” (Abandonment to Divine Providence). It is when we learn to love God’s will that we can embrace the present moment as a source of spiritual formation.

As we grow in dependence on Christ’s life and diminish in dependence on our own, the fulfillment of receiving His life gradually replaces the frustration of trying to create our own. It is in this place of conscious dependence that God shapes us into the image of His Son. Here we must trust Him for the outcome, because we cannot measure or quantify the spiritual life. We know that we are in a formative process and that God is not finished with us yet, but we must also remember that we cannot control or create the product. Furthermore, we cannot measure our ministry or impact on others in this life. If we forget this, we will be in a hurry to accomplish significant things by the world’s standard of reckoning. Frances Felenon noted that “the soul, by the neglect of little things, becomes accustomed to unfaithfulness” (Christian Perfection). It is faithfulness in the little daily things that leads to faithfulness in much (Luke 16:10). Henri Nouwen used to ask God to get rid of his interruptions so he could get on with his ministry. “Then I realized that interruptions are my ministry.” As servants and ambassadors of the King, we must be obedient in the daily process even when we cannot see what difference our obedience makes.

Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude

A young man with a bandaged hand approached the clerk at the post office. “Sir, could you please address this post card for me?” The clerk did so gladly, and then agreed to write a message on the card.

He then asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The young man looked at the card for a moment and then said, “Yes, add a PS: ‘Please excuse the handwriting.’”

We are an ungrateful people. Writing of man in Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky says, “If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.” Luke’s account of the cleansing of the ten lepers underscores the human tendency to expect grace as our due and to forget to thank God for His benefits. “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who turned back to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18).

Remember: God’s Deliverance in the Past

Our calendar allocates one day to give thanks to God for His many benefits, and even that day is more consumed with gorging than with gratitude. Ancient Israel’s calendar included several annual festivals to remind the people of God’s acts of deliverance and provision so that they would renew their sense of gratitude and reliance upon the Lord.

In spite of this, they forgot: “they became disobedient and rebelled against You . . . . they did not remember Your abundant kindnesses . . . . they quickly forgot His works” (Nehemiah 9:26;Psalm 106:7, 13). The prophet Hosea captured the essence of this decline into ingratitude: “As they had their pasture, they became satisfied, and being satisfied, their heart became proud; therefore, they forgot Me” (13:6). When we are doing well, we tend to think that our prosperity was self-made; this delusion leads us into the folly of pride; pride makes us forget God and prompts us to rely on ourselves in place of our Creator; this forgetfulness always leads to ingratitude.

Centuries earlier, Moses warned the children of Israel that they would be tempted to forget the Lord once they began to enjoy the blessings of the promised land. “Then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . . Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17). The antidote to this spiritual poison is found in the next verse: “But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth” (8:18).

Our propensity to forget is a mark of our fallenness. Because of this, we should view remembering and gratitude as a discipline, a daily and intentional act, a conscious choice. If it is limited to spontaneous moments of emotional gratitude, it will gradually erode and we will forget all that God has done for us and take His grace for granted.

Remember: God’s Benefits in the Present

“Rebellion against God does not begin with the clenched fist of atheism but with the self-satisfied heart of the one for whom ‘thank you’ is redundant” (Os Guinness, In Two Minds). The apostle Paul exposes the error of this thinking when he asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Even as believers in Christ, it is quite natural to overlook the fact that all that we have and are—our health, our intelligence, our abilities, our very lives—are gifts from the hand of God, and not our own creation. We understand this, but few of us actively acknowledge our utter reliance upon the Lord throughout the course of the week. We rarely review the many benefits we enjoy in the present. And so we forget.

We tend toward two extremes when we forget to remember God’s benefits in our lives. The first extreme is presumption, and this is the error we have been discussing. When things are going “our way,” we may forget God or acknowledge Him in a shallow or mechanical manner. The other extreme is resentment and bitterness due to difficult circumstances. When we suffer setbacks or losses, we wonder why we are not doing as well as others and develop a mindset of murmuring and complaining. We may attribute it to “bad luck” or “misfortune” or not “getting the breaks,” but it really boils down to dissatisfaction with God’s provision and care. This lack of contentment and gratitude stems in part from our efforts to control the content of our lives in spite of what Christ may or may not desire for us to have. It also stems from our tendency to focus on what we do not possess rather than all the wonderful things we have already received.

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We cannot give thanks and complain at the same time. To give thanks is to remember the spiritual and material blessings we have received and to be content with what our loving Lord provides, even when it does not correspond to what we had in mind. Gratitude is a choice, not merely a feeling, and it requires effort especially in difficult times. But the more we choose to live in the discipline of conscious thanksgiving, the more natural it becomes, and the more our eyes are opened to the little things throughout the course of the day that we previously overlooked. G. K. Chesterton had a way of acknowledging these many little benefits: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Henri Nouwen observed that “every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.”

Remember: God’s Promises for the Future

If we are not grateful for God’s deliverance in the past and His benefits in the present, we will not be grateful for His promises for the future. Scripture exhorts us to lay hold of our hope in Christ and to renew it frequently so that we will maintain God’s perspective on our present journey. His plans for His children exceed our imagination, and it is His intention to make all things new, to wipe away every tear, and to “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” in the ages to come (Ephesians 2:7).

Make it a daily exercise, either at the beginning or the end of the day, to review God’s benefits in your past, present, and future. This discipline will be pleasing to God, because it will cultivate a heart of gratitude and ongoing thanksgiving.

The Secret of Contentment

“We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.” Uncle Screwtape’s diabolical counsel to his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is a reminder that most of us live more in the future than in the present. Somehow we think that the days ahead will make up for what we perceive to be our present lack. We think, “When I get this or when that happens, then I’ll be happy,” but this is an exercise in self-deception that overlooks the fact that even when we get what we want, it never delivers what it promised.

Most of us don’t know precisely what we want, but we are certain we don’t have it. Driven by dissatisfaction, we pursue the treasure at the end of the rainbow and rarely drink deeply at the well of the present moment, which is all we ever have. The truth is that if we are not satisfied with what we have, we will never be satisfied with what we want.

The real issue of contentment is whether it is Christ or ourselves who determine the content (e.g., money, position, family, circumstances) of our lives. When we seek to control the content, we inevitably turn to the criterion of comparison to measure what it should look like. The problem is that comparison is the enemy of contentment—there will always be people who possess a greater quality or quantity of what we think we should have. Because of this, comparison leads to covetousness. Instead of loving our neighbors, we find ourselves loving what they possess.

Covetousness in turn leads to a competitive spirit. We find ourselves competing with others for the limited resources to which we think we are entitled. Competition often becomes a vehicle through which we seek to authenticate our identity or prove our capability. This kind of competition tempts us to compromise our character. When we want something enough, we may be willing to steamroll our convictions in order to attain it. We find ourselves cutting corners, misrepresenting the truth, cheating, or using people as objects to accomplish our self-driven purposes.

It is only when we allow Christ to determine the content of our lives that we can discover the secret of contentment. Instead of comparing ourselves with others, we must realize that the Lord alone knows what is best for us and loves us enough to use our present circumstances to accomplish eternal good. We can be content when we put our hope in His character rather than our own concept of how our lives should appear.

Writing from prison to the believers in Philippi, Paul affirmed that “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Philippians 4:11-12). Contentment is not found in having everything, but in being satisfied with everything we have. As the Apostle told Timothy, “we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:7-8). Paul acknowledged God’s right to determine his circumstances, even if it meant taking him down to nothing. His contentment was grounded not in how much he had but in the One who had him. Job understood this when he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The more we release temporal possessions, the more we can grasp eternal treasures. There are times when God may take away our toys to force us to transfer our affections to Christ and His character.

A biblical understanding of contentment leads to a sense of our competency in Christ. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). As Peter put it, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). Contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want, but the realization of how much we already possess in Christ.

A vision of our competency in Christ enables us to respond to others with compassion rather than competition, because we understand that our fundamental needs are fulfilled in the security and significance we have found in Him. Since we are complete in Christ, we are free to serve others instead of using them in the quest to meet our needs. Thus we are liberated to pursue character rather than comfort and convictions rather than compromise.

Notice the contrast between the four horizontal pairs in this chart:

WHO DETERMINES THE CONTENT OF YOUR LIFE?

SELF

CHRIST

Comparison

Covetousness

Competition

Compromise

Contentment

Competency

Compassion

Character

As we learn the secret of contentment, we will be less impressed by numbers, less driven to achieve, less hurried, and more alive to the grace of the present moment.

Article adapted from several sources on the Internet – most likely originally from Bible.org or Monergism.com. Dr. Ken Boa is an outstanding Bible scholar, and Spiritual director, and author of numerous helpful books including the Outstanding Textbook on the Subject of Sanctification and Spiritual Formation: Conformed To His Image.

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Terry Muck on How To Be Thankful in a Thankless World

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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