Growing In Gratitude (1)
With thanks to Lyle Welty and Michael Zigarelli
By Paul Robison

"Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!  For His mercy endures forever!  Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!  For His mercy endures forever!  Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!  For His mercy endures forever" (Psalm 136:1-3)!  A researcher began a study by asking these questions: "How do I become more like Jesus Christ?  What can I do to develop authentic Christian character?  What can I do to truly care about people and to love them as God does?  How can I finally—and permanently—become a better person than I am today" (Zigarelli)?  Those are some important questions.  Then this researcher "studied the beliefs, behaviors and, character attributes of 5,000 [believers] worldwide, using a methodology applied regularly in the social sciences: compare the 'gold medalists' to the 'silver medalists' and see what really distinguishes the champions.  In other words, for this study he compared a group of what he called 'high-virtue [believers]' (that is, people who consistently display 'fruit of the Spirit' virtues) to a group that he called 'average-virtue [believers]' to see what makes the high-virtue [believers] different" (Ibid).  What he discovered surprised him.  "Of all the possible explanations for why some believers look more like Jesus than others, one explanation—one characteristic—clearly stood out above the rest: gratitude" (Ibid).  Now this surprised the researcher because we usually link things like Bible study, prayer, worship, or fasting to the development of a strong spiritual life.  But his research was showing that "gratitude dwarfed the practice of anything else as an explanation for how believers go from average in virtue to consistently high in virtue" (Ibid).  Well, this made the researcher even more curious about why gratitude was so important.  Then he read some more and began to see that gratitude is sort like a root that supports the leaves of many other character traits.  He explains that gratitude "does this by setting a new thought context for processing our circumstances in life—a context of an abundant life.  A context where we realize that everything we have is a gift [from God].  A context where we see clearly [and rejoice in] all that we really do [already] have in life, and where we recognize that things could always be worse" (Ibid).  He discovered further that gratitude is not really tied to wealth but to a state of mind.  He discovered that just about everybody can be grateful when they have some blessing occur, but "one of the major secrets to success for 'high-virtue believers'—those who are most consistently Christ-like—is that they have mastered the art of maintaining a grateful disposition.  Gratitude is simply part of who they are, rather than being some sporadic, refreshing occurrence" (Ibid).  Well, of course, this led him to ask some more questions: "How do they do it?  How do they nurture and sustain a grateful spirit" (Ibid)?  We'll see his answers to those questions at the end of our lesson today.

How would classify yourself in terms of gratitude?  Before you answer that, the Scriptures might be able to provide you some help.  It looks like that teach us that there a five classifications: the continuous complainer, the ungrateful, the barely or minimally grateful, the moderately or continually grateful, and the exceedingly or very grateful.  Let's look at each of these categories more closely now.

First of all there is the highly ungrateful or the continuous complainer.  This person is basically always dissatisfied with nothing ever going right and nothing ever good enough.  This person is usually very negative and hyper critical.  Let's look at three passages in the New Testament and then a modern example.  The first passage is Philippians 2:14: "Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation."  The apostle Paul is very plain; he wants these Christians in conflict to stop their complaining and bickering!  The next passage is 1 Corinthians 10:10: "Nor [let's us—a continuation of vr. 8] complain, as some of them complained [that is the Israelites], and were destroyed by the destroyer."  Because of their complaining against the leadership of Aaron and Moses, thousands of Israelites were killed by a plague (Numbers 16:41ff).  "These things were written for our admonition," says the very next verse.  We're NOT to follow their bad example in complaining!  We're to learn from it.  Now let's notice Jude 16 which is a passage about false teachers: "These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage."  If false teachers are complainers, then what should true Christians be?  They should be just the opposite; they should be givers of thanks!  Now a good rule of interpretation is this: if something has a command, an example, and an inference behind it in the Scriptures, then there a strong case for it.  Well, notice here, Paul gave a command not to complain, the Israelites are an example against doing it, and Jude provides us with an inference that complaining is not a part of the true Christian's life.  So, there's a strong case against our being continual complainers!  Now  here a modern example that could be beneficial to us.  A college teacher like to conduct an experiment each year.  He told his students that he wanted them to keep a written record of how often they complained or almost complained in a 24 hours period.  Of course, they immediately began to complain!  He urged them to follow through and give it try.  In the next class session, he asked them to guess how many out of 30 had not complained.  Most usually guessed between 6-12, but the answer always came out every year at zero, which was  a sad indication of how our culture teaches us to deal with our frustrations.  The students quickly learned that they all complained too much and what they complained about was usually pretty insignificant (Welty).  Are we continuous complainers?  Could we pass the 24 hour test?  Let's abandon complaining and shoot for a higher classification!

The next classification is ungrateful.  This is the person who doesn't complain much but doesn't also have a real attitude of thanksgiving either.  They rarely, if ever, thank God for anything.  Here's two examples of ingratitude from the Old Testament.  When David was on the run from King Saul, he went to a city called Keliah.  It was being attacked by the Philistines.  David conquered the Philistines and got back much livestock that had been taken away.  Now when Saul heard that David was in Keliah, he tried to muster up an army to attack the city.  David discovers that the men of Keliah will turn him over to Saul if he remains there.  David had defeated their enemy, but they were so ungrateful that they were ready to betray David to his enemy (1 Sam. 23)!  Here's another example.  There was a little city in Israel wth just a few men in it.  Then there was this mighty king who besieged it and did his best to bring about its destruction.  There was also a poor man who was very wise.  Somehow this wise man was able to persuade the king to give up his attack, so the king stopped, and the city was spared.  As the poor man grew older, nobody in that city ever thanked him and all the men forgot what he had done (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15).  From these examples, we see that some people just don't seem to be able to express gratitude for the help that they receive.  Let's look at some New Testament passages now.  The first in Romans 1:20ff where Paul is talking about the Gentiles: "For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, and their foolish hearts were darkened."  Paul told other Gentile audiences how God had manifested Himself through rain, and seasons, and crops, and other things that bring mankind gladness (Acts 14:14ff).  Now the proper response to a Divine Being who provides like this should be gratitude, but these pagans have foolish hearts and ignore all of God's blessings!  Someone had noted that a person who forgets the language of gratitude can never be on speaking terms with happiness.  The next example is seen in Luke 17:11ff where Jesus comes upon ten lepers.  They ask Jesus to have mercy on them, and He tells them to go show themselves to the priests.  As they were going, they were healed!  Only one of them, a Samaritan, came back to Jesus, bowed himself before, and thanked Him!  This story shows us that as high as 90% of us will rarely express thanks to God, even when something very good happens in our lives.  Maybe we're just becoming too culturally conditioned not to offer thanks.  One person has observed: “In this world of being obsessed with what’s 'in'—from the newest fashions, to the latest songs and to absurd political correctness—gratitude has been all but declared unconstitutional" (Pack)!  One last example is found in 2 Timothy  3:1ff: "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come [by the way, we are in the last days]: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, [and then follows many more bad traits, now go down to verse 5], having a form of godliness but denying its power.  And from such people turn away!"  Did you notice that unthankfulness was right in the midst of all these others sins that these proud false teachers?  They won't acknowledge that God is source of all good things.  Let's don't live ungrateful lives.  Let's remember how much God and other people, both believers and unbelievers, have loved, and served, and blessed our lives!  Someone has made this interesting comparison: “Let's be grateful for those who give us happiness; they are the charming gardeners who make our soul bloom" (Proust)!

The next classification is the barely or minimally grateful.  This is the Christian who thanks God for the obvious physical and spiritual blessings, for the pleasant things in life.  They say prayers occasionally for their health, their food, their home, their clothing, their family, their friends, their church.  Now nothing is wrong with this.  In fact, Paul states that food should be received with thanksgiving, and he was continually giving God thanks for the churches that he knew.  Someone asked this interesting question: “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds each day.  How many are we using to say: "Thank you!" each day" (Ward)?  Are we just trying to “get by” with the minimum time in prayer?  Remember the experiment that the college teacher did.  Well, it didn't stop just with keeping a record of complaints.  He had two other steps.  First of all, he told his students to take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns.  Above one column, the students were to write "Things," above the next column, they were to write "People," and over the third column, they were to write "Other" (anything which wouldn't go into the other columns, such as freedom, beauty, love, truth, etc.  They were amazed at how much they had to be thankful for!  After that part was done, the students were then to review their list four times before coming to their next  class, at each meal and when they got up the next morning.  "When they arrived at school the next day, [the teacher] asked them if they felt any different then they did the day before .... They came to class with a totally different disposition; different attitude then they had the previous day.  He described the students this way: 'They had more and bigger smiles, eyes were opened wider and their bodies were more alive.' So he concluded this: 'Thankfulness does wonders for the soul.  All we need to do is ask ourselves what's getting our attention?  When we focus on what's right instead of what's wrong, life improves considerably'" (Welty).  Let's not be satisfied with the minimally grateful classification!

No, there is another classification that we can discover in the Bible, the moderately or continually thankful.  This is the Christian who has learned to give thanks
in every situation and circumstance.  They not only give thanks when things are going well, they give it when things are difficult and hard.  Let's look at three passages quickly.  The first is in Ephesians 5:18ff: "Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God."  Notice that these verses explain how we can be filled with the Spirit: we do it through singing, expressing thanks always for all things, and submitting to one another.  Notice now Colossians 2:6: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving!"  If you have been rooted in Jesus and established in your faith, then what is going to the fruit or outcome?  Isn't going to abundant or habitual thanksgiving!  In fact, remember that eh apostle Paul was writing these encouraging words while being under house arrest and chained to a Roman soldier!  One last passage is in 1 Thessalonians 5:16ff: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."  If you want to do God's will, then you need to rejoice, pray, and express gratitude continually.  One man tells this story of a Christian woman who was suffering from a terminal illness: "Marcia is incredible evidence of this.  She began pursuing an attitude of thankfulness while I was out of town for several weeks.  When I visited her on my return, I couldn't believe the difference.  Physically Marcia hadn't changed—still emaciated, the hardened skin on her hands stretched so tightly it pulled her fingers in toward her palms.  She was on heavy doses of pain medication and rarely got out of bed.  Emotionally, however, she was a woman transformed.  'What's happened?' I asked, scarcely believing the sparkle in her eyes.  Marcia smiled. 'I've been thanking God!' she explained.  First, she said, she'd begun with little things: the blue sky outside her window, the roof over her head, her wonderful husband.  Every day she persevered in this task regardless of how much pain she was in.  'It's the most astonishing thing,' she said. 'The more I praise God, the more aware of His presence I become. In fact,' she continued, 'one morning as I was thinking of things I was thankful for, without even realizing it I heard myself say, 'God, thank you for this disease that's brought me so much closer to you!'  I could only stare in astonishment.  In her determination to be thankful ... Marcia had loosened the choke-hold of terror in which the disease had held her.  Marcia had switched her focus from her helplessness to God's holiness.  No wonder God tells us to cultivate thankfulness in our lives!  It's an attitude that empowers rather than debilitates" (Mathers).  Giving thanks always, with abundance, for all things and in everything!  This classification shows a Christian who has learned a comprehensive gratitude.

The last classification is the very grateful.  "This is the Christian who thanks God for who and what He is.  In other words, loving the Giver more than the gift.  Praising God for who and what He is [no matter what may be the circumstances]" (Welty).  Let's look at three examples.  The first is Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving for her newborn son in 1 Samuel 2:1-2: "My heart rejoices in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord.  I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.  No one is holy like the Lord.  For there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God."  See how her focus in the Giver in this time of joy.  Secondly, notice Job words in Job 1:21: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there.  The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name if the Lord."  See again how the focus is on the Giver in this time of anguished pain.  Now notice Jesus' thanksgiving in Matthew 11:25: "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them unto babes.  Even so, Father, it seemed good in Your sight."  We see once again the focus on the Giver in a time of joy again.  "Thankfulness is an indispensable part of Christian character because it affects our relationship with God" (Welty)!  Someone else has noted: "It is a rare person who, when his cup frequently runs over, can thank God instead of complaining about the limited size of his mug" (Bob Russel)!

Were the classifications thought-provoking?  Where did you find yourself?  Can we all stand some improvement?  Now let's return to answering those questions our first researcher raised: "How do they do it?  How do [the high-virtue believers] nurture and sustain a grateful spirit" (Ibid)?  And he discovered this: "they think differently from the way many of the rest of us think.  The mind of the high-virtue [believer], it seems, is a disciplined mind, a pure and godly mind.  A mind that is adept at immediately clearing away sinful thoughts.  It is a mind that is focused on what one has, rather than what one does not have.  [It is] a mind that refuses to think in terms of what's missing from life—in terms of how much better life could be 'if only …'  Instead, the high-virtue [believers] ... want what they have.  They are fully content with what's been conferred upon them, and they frequently thank God for their blessings" (Ibid).  He discovered that 53% in the high-virtue group said that they "always" or "almost always" tried to immediately clear sinful thoughts from their minds while only 18% tried to do this in the average-virtue group.  He concluded that the high-virtue group had conditioned their minds to eradicate the incubators for ingratitude—jealousy, greed, lust, and so on.  That [was] one of their secrets to success.  Another secret was that 68% of the high-virture group said they "rarely" or "never" desired what others had while 55% of the average-virtue group said they "often" or "always" wanted what others had.  This shows that envy is great killer of gratitude, and the high- virtue believers were training themselves not to be envious.  Here was a third secret.  In the high-virtue group, 80% consistently remembered throughout the day how God had blessed them while only 40% in the average-virtue group did this.  So the researcher made this conclusion: "What does drive gratitude is proper perspective.  Seeing clearly.  Remaining mindful moment-to-moment of what God has bestowed upon you.  High-virtue [believers] are perpetually aware of their bountiful life, regardless of what that life entails.  They have trained their minds to think about the abundance in their lives rather than the insufficiencies.  And it is this habit—a habit of keeping perspective—that transports them to the next level of gratitude and of character" (Ibid).  Let's review just a moment.  How can you be a better Christian, or more like Jesus?  Develop gratitude.  And how do you develop gratitude?  You think differently.  There were six ways to do that: Focus on what you have, not what you don't have!  Don't think: "What's missing?" or "If only I had ..."!  Eradicate sinful thoughts immediately!  Don't let what others have make you envious!  Think: "I'm not living at rock bottom yet (you're probably far from it)!"  Concentrate on how much God has blessed you already and thank Him often for it!

If your gratitude classification was low and if you need to learn to think differently in order to be more grateful, now would be a great time to ask Jesus to help you to improve and develop some new habits.  He want to bless you and help you grow in gratitude.  Put complaining and ingratitude behind you as you let Jesus help you!