Cultivating a Thankful Heart

November 20, 2016

Thanksgiving Day is coming and many will enjoy turkey and all the trimmings. But will we be giving thanks? That’s the question. The kitchen is alive with activity. The t.v. is filled with images of parades and football games. Family gathers together to talk, laugh and eat. Will any time be set aside to give thanks? And if so, who are we giving thanks to? We may give thanks to one another or we may just be thankful to no one in particular. We’re just thankful.

The origins of Thanksgiving Day are deeply rooted in a belief in the God of the Bible. We are thankful to God our creator and sustainor. And so this morning let me remind us that followers of Jesus Christ cultivate a thankful heart.


In v.16 Paul writes, “Rejoice always.” Having a sunny disposition may be wonderful, but not many have a sunny disposition all the time. And I’m not sure I would be drawn to such a person. I remember being in California for the Triennial Conference and then we took time for vacation. Well, what I discovered is that every day in California is a beautiful day. It never rained and the sun always seemed to shine. And I found it to be a little depressing. I like rain! It was odd to get up in the morning and say, “O, another nice day! Too bad.” But that’s how I felt. Well, maybe that’s how it would be with someone who has a perpetual sunny disposition. It’s not normal.

When Paul says, “Rejoice always,” I don’t think he is talking about having a sunny disposition all the time. It is difficult to always be rejoicing and happy. There is just too much that occurs in our lives that is not happy. So when I read this phrase I hear Paul urging us to be intentional about rejoicing. And since Paul is writing to a local congregation I would suggest that he is encouraging corporate worship. I would not limit this to corporate worship. We can certainly be rejoicing always wherever we are, but corporate worship helps to create the foundation for rejoicing in all of life. We come together to worship in the presence of God.

In Rm.1:21 Paul is describing humanity without God. He says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God…” What does it mean to honor God as God? It means to worship him. When we worship God, we extol his greatness. We acknowledge his majesty, power, goodness and love. We rejoice in Jesus Christ who has enabled us to receive his salvation. To worship God is to immerse ourselves (to use a Baptist word) in the presence of God.

Now confession is good for the soul. When I was young there were a couple of table games that I overdosed on. One was the game of Life and the other was Monopoly. For a period of months I played monopoly with my friends just about every day. Today I am not a big fan of table games. At least that’s what I say. You won’t find me and Angie playing a game when we are at home after dinner. But here’s the thing. When we have a game night at the church, I show up and get involved in playing a game and I find that I have a good time laughing with others. I have to be intentional about playing, but once I play I enjoy myself.

I think it is similar when it comes to worship. Truth be told, we may struggle in our desire to worship God. I would imagine that many of us experience spiritual apathy in our lives. There are days when we just don’t feel like worshipping, especially if it is cold and rainy outside. At any given worship service there are often aspects of the service we may not like. Whether it’s an unfamiliar hymn or worship chorus, or the worship leader urging us to greet one another when we don’t feel like it, or the pastor preaching too long or too loud, whatever it is, these things can bother us. But because we have entered into life with God through faith in Christ, we value corporate worship because we value and honor God. We recognize God as the One who gives and sustains our lives.

And so, whether we feel like it or not, it is important for us to be intentional about corporate worship. And when we are intentional somehow we find a way to deal with those things that bother us so that we can rejoice in the Lord together. Do not underestimate the spiritual, emotional, and physical value of intentional worship. My late father-in-law was not a very good singer. He was sort of tone deaf. However, I remember being at worship with him and hearing him sing out loud to the Lord. He put himself into the worship of God.

When we do this it lifts our soul to acknowledge the goodness of God and we are cultivating a thankful heart. We give thanks for all of God’s blessing in our lives. Worship is continually drawing us upward to give thanks to God.


In v.17 Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing.” Personally, I think just about everyone on earth prays in one way or another. After all, what constitutes a prayer? If someone in their heart and mind merely extends a cry of need in the darkness, is that not a kind of prayer? It may not be a proper prayer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it is a kind of praying none the less. Recently I mentioned the testimony of an atheist woman who in a time of need said the words, “Be with me.” God began working in her heart and she eventually turned to Christ.

But I also think that the majority of people who pray, usually pray prayers asking that God meet a need or intervene to rescue them from a bad situation or to heal their loved one. In other words all their prayers are asking God to make things better for them. I’m not saying this is all bad, but it does convey a lack of real relationship with God. It sort of makes God out to be a “cosmic bellhop” as C.S. Lewis pointed out. And when the bellhop does not deliver we feel we have right to complain and be angry.

For followers of Jesus Christ, prayer is a means by which we have ongoing communion with God as we seek to live like Jesus in this world. Yes, we pray for healing. We ask God to resolve our situations and to meet our needs. But no matter what happens our primary goal is to honor God in our lives. Because we are followers of Jesus we want Jesus to be honored in our bodies whether by life or by death. And so all of our life on earth is a cooperative venture with God. We are working together with God to see his name honored in our lives and in the lives of the people we have relationship with. But there are surely days when we can only cry out to God in sadness, despair, and desperation because there is nothing and no one else who can help us. We need God’s comfort and strength. All of this is involved in prayer.

That said, because we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we pray as if we are in relationship with God. And since we believe that God is good, loving and kind towards his people, we trust him in all things. Paul makes the point in Rm.8 that since God has given us Jesus Christ, how will he not also give us all things! Christians are those who have a settled trust in the goodness of God. And so prayer is not just about asking for things. Asking is foundational in prayer but our asking always takes place within a framework of trust and thankfulness. Because we trust in God and because we know that God is directing his goodness, grace and mercy to us at all times, we give thanks to him in all our prayers.

Now if I don’t trust that God is good, gracious and merciful towards me, then why would I be inclined to give thanks in prayer, except when things work out in the way I want them to? Thanksgiving in prayer shows our absolute trust and dependency on God. And so, when we pray we cultivate a thankful heart because we are thankful to God for all that he has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. Followers of Jesus Christ are thankful in all their prayers, because we know this God and he is good.


In v.18 Paul writes, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Now before we go on, let me point out that I do not think Paul is saying that every circumstance that you and I face is God’s will for us. Some people read this verse in that way. And so what happens is that when awful things occur in our lives we say, “Why is God doing this to me?” Why is God punishing me like this? Why did God put me in this terrible car accident,” and on and on. We blame God.

We live in a fallen world in which things happen that cause even God to grieve. Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus. He didn’t just say, “Hey, be thankful. It was God’s will.” Instead at Lazarus’ tomb he told them to remove the stone and said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” In all that happens in this world, God is working all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. In other words, while many things happen that are not in accordance with the will of God, in everything that happens God can redeem it and bring good from it. Only God can do that and those who work with God in this world.

Verses 16-18 are one sentence. I believe Paul is saying that God’s will for us is to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. So I may not be able to give thanks for what is happening to me at the moment, especially if what is happening is evil. But can I give thanks in the circumstances? Well yes, I can.

We can give thanks because we know that God is holding our lives safe in his hands. We can give thanks because we know that God is working all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. We can give thanks in all circumstances because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Now at some point there are going to be circumstances in each of our lives in which it will be very difficult to give thanks. While Jesus was hanging on the cross I don’t find any words of thanksgiving. What he did say was very important. He extended the grace and mercy of God, but I don’t see him giving thanks to God. When Paul described his circumstances in 2Cor.1, it doesn’t say that he gave thanks. Rather he says that he despaired of his life. So yes, we may all face circumstances that take every ounce of strength we have just to bear up.

This is why I think it is very important that we cultivate a heart of thanksgiving in all the normal circumstances of life. There are plenty of challenging circumstances that we face on a daily basis. Can we be thankful to God for his goodness in those circumstances? Can we develop a discipline of being thankful in the daily struggles of life?

In Rm.1:21 Paul is describing the unbeliever and he says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They failed to worship God and they failed to be thankful to God. In Phil.4:6-7, Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Being thankful in all circumstances helps to guard our hearts and minds in Christ.

On Thursday as we gather in the presence of God many of us will be eating. Food is one of God’s blessings. Eating a meal together shows the goodness of God to us. We enjoy the food and the people we are eating with. We appreciate those who have made the meal. We give thanks to God who has made it all possible and who sustains our lives with good things. Are you cultivating a thankful heart? Are you thankful in worship, in prayer, and in all circumstances? Amen