Living Thanks is available in three electronic formats for reading on any computer or eBook reader. Download your free copy (no registration or email necessary) from the Download page on our sister site here.
Gratitude may be one of the most important qualities we can develop in this life, yet many Christians do not seriously focus on growing in this area. After showing why gratitude is good for us, both physically and spiritually, our new eBook, Living Thanks: A Guide to Growing and Showing Gratitude, looks at why and how we can increase thankfulness – to not just occasionally give thanks, but to live thanks with the gratitude that God desires to see in our lives.
Living Thanks is available in three electronic formats for reading on any computer or eBook reader. Download your free copy (no registration or email necessary) from the Download page on our sister site here.
“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.” – John Ortberg
The point of the quote above is an excellent one that bears reflection. Although Christian writer John Ortberg did not develop the analogy between gratitude and our physical taste-buds in the context of the quote, it’s a comparison that can be profitably explored.
Our taste buds, containing the taste receptor cells that allow us to experience pleasure from what we eat and drink, are minor miracles of design and planning. The average human tongue has multiple thousands of these little cell clusters, and although most people are not aware of it, they are also found on the soft palate of the mouth, the upper esophagus, the insides of the cheeks, and the epiglottis at the back of the throat.
Some people are also naturally blessed with heightened abilities of taste through having a greater number of taste buds than others. These people – representing about 20 percent of the population – are known to science as “supertasters.” Most of us (about 60 percent of the population) have an average numbers of taste buds, but another 20 percent of the population are known as “non-tasters” as they can have far fewer taste buds than average.
But whatever our natural level of taste buds may be, it is a fact that anyone – even so-called “non-tasters” – can develop their ability to recognize and enjoy tastes. That ability to develop our sense of taste is the reason some people become connoisseurs of fine foods and wines. Those who train themselves in this way develop the ability to distinguish even the slightest differences among thousands of different tastes – and to appreciate and enjoy them to a heightened extent.
Our sense of gratitude and appreciation is certainly no different. Although some people may seem to be naturally more appreciative than others (perhaps we could call them “super-appreciators”), the truth is that we can all develop our capacity for appreciation in life. And that is something, of course, that we are commanded to do in dozens of biblical verses. The apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians are only one example of many: "Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20 ESV).
How do we develop our “appreciation” buds to better honor this instruction to be appreciative for everything in our lives? We do it exactly as the connoisseur of fine foods or wines develops his or her taste buds to better appreciate tastes – we concentrate on them.
Normally, we may not pay much attention to our physical taste bud sensors; but without them eating even the finest foods would be an experience no different from chewing sawdust or styrofoam chips. A life without gratitude and appreciation is no different – we derive no real joy from the things we receive, we fail to give thanks for them as we should, and ultimately we fail to give credit to God for the gifts themselves. On the other hand, when we learn to make a habit of focusing on the gifts we receive, we learn to properly appreciate them, to give thanks for them, and to credit them to God as we should. As the book of Psalms tells us: “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” (Psalms 50:23 ESV).
God gives us the capacity for gratitude, but we must develop it. And that is something anyone (even those with naturally few “appreciation buds”) can do with practice. We may not choose to become connoisseurs of fine wines or foods, but the God who gives us all things (James 1:17) invites, encourages, and even commands us – for the sake of our own heightened enjoyment and his praise – to become connoisseurs of his gifts.
In many ways, gratitude is the most important of all the good character traits. It is the most indispensable trait to both happiness and goodness. One can neither be a happy person nor a good person without gratitude. The less gratitude one has, the more one sees oneself as a victim; and nothing is more likely to produce a bad person or a bad group than defining oneself or one’s group as a victim. Victims, having been hurt, too often believe they have a license to hurt others. As for happiness, if you think of all the people you know, you will not be able to name one who is ungrateful and happy. The two are mutually exclusive.
From The Rational Bible: Exodus by Dennis Prager.
Many Bible verses affirm the importance of giving thanks. Here are ten scriptures that can remind us of that fact, and what Thanksgiving is all about:
When you sacrifice a thank offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.
1 Chronicles 16:34
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me, and to the blameless I will show my salvation.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him; bless his name.
Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
And be thankful… with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 2:1
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people ...
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably …
“… We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9-12).
The more we grow spiritually, the more we desire to please God; but how do we most effectively do that? The New Testament mentions a number of ways in which we should please God – that we cannot please him without faith (Hebrews 10:38), without “walking in the Spirit” (Romans 8:8), etc. But in his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul makes a statement that summarizes the many answers to that question (Colossians 1:9-12). Paul tells us he prayed that believers “… may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…” (vs. 10, emphasis added), and he then follows this thought by speaking of four specific ways that, taken together, please God in “every way.”
Paul’s statement is almost startling in both its reach and its simplicity. No other passage in the New Testament claims to tell us how to be completely pleasing to God, so we should look very closely at the characteristics the apostle tells us fulfill this goal. The four things are:
1. Bearing fruit in every good work (vs. 10). Paul makes it clear throughout his epistles that although good works do not save us, God expects us to produce good works as a result of being saved (Titus 3:8, 14, etc.). Throughout the New Testament the expression “good works” primarily refers to works done to help others (Hebrews 13:16, etc.), but it also includes our obedience to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1, Hebrews 13:20-21, etc.). We should also notice Paul’s stress in Colossians 1 is not that “some” good works will please God, but that we are urged to “every good work” – to as many good works as possible!
2. Growing in the knowledge of God (vs. 10). Paul next cites our ongoing growing in the knowledge of God and his ways as being central to our ability to please God. It is only as we come to know God that we can learn to properly love, fear, trust, and obey him (Psalm 147:11). Knowledge itself is of no use without application (1 Corinthians 13:1-2), but growing in knowledge can enable us to better grow in good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The first two points Paul gives for how to please God correspond directly with the apostle Peter’s summary admonition that we should “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, emphasis added). Paul also stresses these same two characteristics elsewhere in his writing (Philippians 1:9), but in Colossians 1 he goes further to add two more points that we need in order to fully please God:
3. Being strengthened by God (vs. 11). This is not strength for its own sake, of course, rather “… that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11, Ephesians 3:16, etc.). Given what Paul says in this verse, there is no question that this strengthening is actually something God must do in us: “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might,” yet we must make this possible by asking God’s help and trusting him in faith to supply his strength. In that sense, this characteristic includes the quality of faith itself, as the basis of our strength, endurance and patience (Hebrews 11:6).
4. Giving thanks to God (vs. 12). The final characteristic that Paul tells us is pleasing to God is deep gratitude on our part: “… giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” In fact, thankfulness is a theme to which the apostle returns numerous times in this short epistle (Colossians 2:7; 3:15, 17; 4:2) – in this way reinforcing our understanding of its importance in God’s eyes.
So Paul’s four summary characteristics of believers who truly please God are not what many of us might guess. Humanly, we might suppose that never-failing obedience, great sacrifice, frequent or long periods of prayer, or any number of other things that relate to our own lives might be what please God. But Paul’s four characteristics do not focus on our lives – they are all primarily outward looking toward others and God himself.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the things Paul says greatly please God are all expressions of our love for others and love for God. That is basic enough, but the four specific characteristics Paul enumerates are worthy of our careful staudy – if we truly want to please God, they are among the highest goals for which we can aim.
They are characteristics that Paul himself urged us to continually seek: “... we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (1 Thesallonians 1:4).
There is no doubt that when the writings of the New Testament apostles are compared, it is the apostle Paul who might be called “the apostle of thanksgiving.” Paul uses the word for “thanks” in its various forms more than all other New Testament writers combined, and all except two of Paul’s epistles (Galatians and Titus) speak of giving thanks or the quality of thankfulness.
Even in his epistles that don’t mention thankfulness specifically, we can see Paul’s underlying attitude of gratitude implicit in what he says, for example, regarding the hope of eternal life (Titus 1:2), God’s grace (Titus 2:11), and his goodness, kindness, and mercy (Titus 3:4-6).
But in the majority of Paul’s writings, the expression of gratitude is a primary part of his message. Typically, after greeting his readers, or very soon after, Paul gives thanks. This was frequently done in the world of his day, where individuals writing to others would often give thanks to their gods for benefits and blessings they had received. But in Paul’s writing the thanksgiving is different. Instead of thanking God for blessings he has received, Paul usually gives thanks for those to whom he is writing.
Paul tells the believers in Rome: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8). Similarly, he tells the Colossians: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:3-5). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says: “ …because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15).
Paul does give thanks for blessings he and others received (Galatians 1:5, 1 Corinthians 15:57), and he clearly taught that we should give thanks for all things (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). But if we read his epistles carefully, we see that Paul’s thankfulness is primarily expressed in his writings not for things he had received, but far more often for the spiritual gifts God had bestowed in the lives of others.
That’s an interesting thought to consider as those of us in the United States and Canada celebrate Thanksgiving Day or at any time of year. The apostle Paul was not just the “apostle of thanksgiving,” he was also the apostle who primarily gave thanks for others. In fact, when we understand that, we realize it is typical of Paul that he writes: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1, emphasis added).
It’s a lesson we can all keep in mind. How much of our thanksgiving is focused on what we personally have to be thankful for, and how much is focused on thankfulness for God’s gifts to his people – and to all people – everywhere? Paul shows us that true and full thankfulness is gratitude for others and what they have received physically and spiritually, just as much as it is gratitude for what we ourselves have received.
The apostle Paul’s famous words that we should “give thanks for all things” (Ephesians 5:20) are perhaps his best known regarding the principle of gratitude, but they are not the only ones.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul gives another dimension of gratitude: that we should give thanks not only for things throughout “space” – the blessings of the family, home, work, recreation, relationships and friendships near and far – but that we should also give thanks for all things throughout time.
This does not just mean in an ongoing manner, which is right and good, of course, but also regarding the different parts of time. Things of the present are naturally things for which we should express ongoing appreciation (Philippians 4:6). But because we live in the present we can often limit our thankfulness to gratitude for that which we see around us in the here and now. Paul shows that deep and full gratitude extends further than that.
One of the first things Paul mentions as he begins his letter to the Philippian church is that “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3). It had clearly been some time since Paul had seen the brethren in that congregation and his statement is one not only of affection for them, but also one of giving thanks for his time with them in the past. Paul is certainly clear that we do not need to dwell on the misfortunes and mistakes of the past (Philippians 3:13), but shows here that we can certainly remember the good things with a spirit of thanksgiving.
This is true of many things and is especially true of relationships. So often we remember the good times with spouses, friends and family members after they are no longer alive. Paul’s words remind us that we can remember the good past things of our relationships and be thankful for them now. But the principle of gratitude for past things certainly extends beyond relationships. In fact, the second part of many of Paul's letters expresses his thankfulness for the spiritual growth that occurred in the lives of those to whom he writes.
In Philippians, Paul continues the theme of thankfulness by saying that one of the reasons for his gratitude and joy was “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 and see vss. 9-11). We see the same thought in some of Paul’s other letters, such as Colossians: “…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light" (Colossians 1:12). This is not just “positive thinking” about the future – it’s an attitude of thankfulness for the future. It is a mark of Paul’s faith – and ours – that when our faith is sure of things to come, we are thankful for them just as much as for things we see and receive right now.
So in his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows us that giving thanks for the things of the past, as well as those things to which we look forward, is just as much a part of true thanksgiving as gratitude for every good thing we experience in the present.
The Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate in the United States is one in which we celebrate and hopefully give thanks for the abundance we have been given. The Autumn “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” has “overbrimmed,” and we are conscious of the overflow of good things with which we have been blessed.
A biblical verse often quoted in this context is that of the words of Christ regarding blessings: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
Notice how four measures are used to describe the overflowing fullness of the blessings being spoken of: Good measure – this is not a short-filling, but a filling to the brim. Pressed down – this is the first way we can get more into a container, by forcing even more in. Shaken together – we can also shake a container to make the contents settle to make room for more. Running over – finally, we can overfill till the container has an overflowing excess.
It would be hard to better describe the concept of the cornucopia – the horn of plenty spilling out abundant blessings that is so often used as a symbol of Thanksgiving! But let’s go back to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. We should remind ourselves, of course, that Jesus spoke of being blessed to the extent we bless – gifted to the extent that we give.
But there is actually more to consider when we look at the preceding verse – which is less frequently quoted – and we grasp the whole context: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38).
Reading these verses together shows us that Christ’s words regarding overflowing blessings were set in the context of not judging, not condemning, and forgiving, as well as giving. In each of these cases the overflowing aspect of what we are given applies. Jesus’ words stress that we must be willing to “overflow” in our not judging or condemning others, and in our forgiving them (Matthew 18:21-22).
So what does forgiveness have to do with Thanksgiving season? God’s word shows us that with blessings come responsibilities; God’s gifts are freely and abundantly given, but they come with expectations. Jesus’ words remind us that we will be blessed (there is nothing in his words indicating that he was not talking about both physical and spiritual blessings) as we bless, and we will be forgiven as we forgive. In a season in which we focus on thankfulness for the blessings we receive, we should perhaps also focus on the blessings we give – the gifts of not judging or condemning and actively forgiving. And the blessings we give should be “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
Our God is an abundantly generous God. In giving and in forgiving, may we strive to be the same.
“He who does not see the gift, does not see the giver.”
There is an old saying that “yesterday’s gift is already twice forgotten.” We may express appreciation when we receive a gift, but it’s a human proclivity to forget it after a little while; and even important gifts become parts of our everyday lives that we don’t think about any more. We even say something is a “given” if it is accepted and something we no longer need to focus on.
But when the apostle Paul wrote that we should be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20 ESV), the “always” and “for everything” would certainly seem to include past gifts that we still enjoy rather than only those new ones of which we might be more aware. But human forgetfulness still stops us doing this as much as we should. So how do we make our appreciation stick? There are four things that help:
Give thanks for it. That’s exactly what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5:20. We need to offer thanks to the One from whom all gifts ultimately come (James 1:17) – no matter who delivers them. And occasionally we need to remind ourselves of the most basic gifts of all. The average human heart beats around 100,000 times a day, 35 million times a year, but how many of those mega-micro-gifts have we ever given thanks for? The more we see small gifts, the more we see large ones in true perspective.
Write it down. It may be hard to write down every gift we receive, but complete recording is not the point. The more we think to write down our gifts, the more we become aware of them. Writing down the things for which you are truly thankful at the end of each week in a “gratitude list” gives you a way of keeping the memory and appreciation of them alive.
Tell someone about it. This is easy enough if we have mates, family members or close friends with whom we can talk openly. Naturally, our significant people don’t need to know that we are thankful that we didn’t burn the toast again this morning, but telling others about serious blessings is the opposite of confession – it tells others how good God is and helps them realize the gifts they have.
Share it with someone. By “share” I mean literally share the gift or part of it where this is appropriate. We may not be able to share some of the most basic gifts in life, but then again, sometimes we can. We can share many aspects of our physical blessings by giving part of what we earn, loaning items to people who need them, giving of our time and by sharing in many other ways. If you read through your "gratitude list" every so often, you may find a number of things that are appropriate to share. Whatever it may be, when we share a gift we focus on it and often appreciate it more ourselves.
The more of these basic techniques we employ, the more we appreciate what we have – and the more the appreciation sticks with us. And there is another aspect to this. The more appreciative we become, the more we live our "attitude of gratitude." As John F. Kennedy wrote: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
The Bible is clear in urging us to trust the God we follow. The reminder to trust (Psalm 4:5) is actually one of the most frequently repeated biblical principles; but how do we learn trust if we lack that quality? Or how do we grow trust if we have it, but desire more? The answer is simple, yet requires effort. We grow in trust by focusing on what God has done and is now doing for us. As we see God’s help and blessing in our everyday lives, we come to trust Him more and more. In one way it is the same process as that in which we come to trust our neighbor. The more we see those with whom we interact in life can be trusted, the more we trust them. But in our relationship with God we find a difference. Our neighbor doesn’t usually tell us to do things which require great amounts of trust. If he or she does (“loan me a thousand dollars”), we may quickly balk.
Continuing to grow in the faith in the One who asks the most of us requires continuing to grow in trust, and we do that most effectively by simply giving thanks. But that’s not something we naturally do consistently. The Bible gives the interesting example of Hezekiah – one of ancient Judah’s few righteous kings – who despite his right behavior and relationship with God neglected to give thanks for a healing he received (2 Chronicles 32:24-25). It’s a human failing – we can’t forget a problem when we suffer from it, but we don’t remember the help we receive when the problem is gone. Nothing disappears faster from our minds than problems that are resolved.
Sometimes, too, the feeling that our prayers are unanswered in some area can lead to a feeling of lack of trust, but patience is key in those situations – time will often show the answer was there or was just different from what we expected. In such situations, as is sometimes said: “Don’t look at the things God did not give you that you prayed for, look at the things He gave you that you didn’t even ask for.”
That’s why the apostle Paul admonishes us to give thanks “in all things” (Ephesians 5:20); and it is in consistently doing so that we learn to focus properly and see the help we are already receiving. You can start to do this in any area of life, from the most basic things on up. The old saying “Sometimes the only blessings you need count are your heartbeats” is not a bad place to start. Giving thanks for each day of life and building on that, we begin to see more and more what we are given and how we are helped.
The Book of Psalms shows the relationship between this kind of giving thanks and trust. Psalm 4:5 tells us “Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord." Psalm 50:14 and many others tell us that we are to “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” So offering the “sacrifice” of thanksgiving and trust are directly related, and the more we do this, the more we see the signs of real and loving help in many aspects of our lives. In fact, when we learn to give thanks regularly for all the help we have been given, the question becomes “where shall I start and where shall I stop?” in giving thanks. It is as we recognize help in every aspect of our lives that we give thanks for more and more, and the more we give thanks, the more we learn to trust.
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Unless otherwise stated, blog posts are written by R. Herbert, Ph.D., who writes for a number of Christian venues – including our sister site: TacticalChristianity.org