God calls us to be a thankful people. However, more often than not, we’re like the Israelites—a complaining, grumpy people. If it’s raining, we complain that we can’t go outside. If the sun shines too many days in a row, we complain of the dryness of the ground. During the summer we complain of the heat, and during the winter we complain of the cold. At the moment of inconvenience, we make a growl of sorts and huff out a complaint. Sometimes we grit our teeth and force our lips into something like a smile and say, “Just look at the positive side of things!” (as if that’s what a truly thankful heart would produce).
Thanksgiving doesn’t come naturally to our hearts. It appears as the most easy of prayers, yet it’s often the one we neglect the most. If we collected all our complaints and praises in jars, we might be shocked by which one first bubbled up to the top. Why is this? Tim Keller explains in his book, Prayer, that according to Romans 1, ingratitude is our sinful disposition and likewise the root of all sin. He writes,
“Cosmic ingratitude is living in the illusion that you are spiritually self-sufficient. It is taking credit for something that was a gift. It is the belief that you know best how to live, that you have the power and ability to keep your life on the right path and protect yourself from danger. That is a delusion, and a dangerous one. We did not create ourselves, and we can’t keep our lives going one second without his upholding power. Yet we hate that knowledge, Paul says, and we repress it.”1
How do we grow in thanksgiving when it doesn’t come naturally? How do we work against this sinful disposition in our hearts?
More Than Forced Optimism And Silly Grins
When we think of thankfulness and praise, our minds may first think of optimism, strained smiles, and gratitude lists. These may work for a time, but ultimately we need heart change. Ingratitude is rooted in a heart issue, which means behaviour modification won’t work long term.
Heart work is always first the Spirit’s work. Consider Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.Ephesians 5:18-21 CSB
The fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22-23), and Paul further describes that here as giving thanks always and for everything. But we need the Holy Spirit working in us first—and the only requirement for that is believing the gospel. Every Christian is given the Holy Spirit in full at conversion, and from that moment the Spirit begins the work of forming that heart in the likeness of Christ’s.
We can set up guards to protect and guide our hearts (Proverbs 4:23), but ultimately behaviour modification will not sanctify us or stop sin (Colossians 2:23). We need to trust the Holy Spirit to do that work in us and for us.
Thankfulness comes from a heart that sees itself as insufficient on its own and totally dependent on God—both spiritually and physically. A woman who sees herself as reliant on God for salvation from sin, to have her faith sustained until eternal life, and to be sanctified will praise God each day as her Saviour and Sustainer. A woman who also recognizes that God is the sovereign owner of all of creation and therefore the Giver of everything we have and will have, praises God for everything from the water in the kitchen sink to the pots and pans in the cupboard and the little children who scurry around the house.
Conquering ingratitude begins by a work of the Spirit changing the attitude of hearts to see God as our Source, Saviour, and Sustainer in all things. This isn’t a one-time magical change that happens one day in worship, but a lifelong work of the Spirit and the reorienting of our hearts from the lies of self-sufficiency to utter dependence on God.
Cultivating A Thankful Attitude
In what opportunities can we reorient our heart towards dependent thankfulness to God?
In Battling Sin
But sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints. Obscene and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable, but rather giving thanks.Ephesians 5:3-4 CSB
Temptation gains a passage into our hearts when we’re discontent. The adulteress wants someone who doesn’t make so many messes and mistakes. The porn addict wants to feel good. The liar wants others to think well of them. The thief wants what she cannot buy. The angry woman wants control and things done her way. Many sins can be summed up by raging desires.
Our desires themselves may not be bad; a mother to a newborn who desperately wants a few uninterrupted hours of sleep wants a good thing, but that good thing can be distorted when she rages at her husband or other children for bothering her. When our desires lead to sin we’re loving what we desire more than God who calls us to holiness.
A thankful heart trusts God as the Giver of all good gifts. When we’re thankful, we trust God to provide and thank him for how he already has. Rather than fighting and grasping to get what we so desperately want through sin, we instead trust God who provides.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.1 Peter 1:3-9 CSB
Though our suffering may seem so overwhelming and unbearable in the moment, we can look back at God’s grace to us in the gospel when he saved us while we were hateful and rebellious creatures (Romans 5:8). We can look forward past our suffering to eternal life, where Christ is preparing our perfect and everlasting home, where tears and pain will be no more. And we can look at our suffering and see Christ making us more like him and continually sustaining us for that inheritance.
This isn’t mere positive thinking. This is a heavenward gaze. It’s a fixing of our eyes on our hope that is sure and final. Positive thinking doesn’t allow for sorrow and joy to mingle, but the heavenward gaze can weep for what isn’t as it should be while it gratefully longs for a perfect day to come.
More Ordinary, Christian Work
We won’t wake up one day having perfected thanksgiving. It will be yet another piece of our ordinary, Christian work. Sometimes practical habits such as starting every prayer with praise and thanksgiving or keeping a gratitude journal might help, but ultimately all change comes first from the Spirit working in our hearts.
Each day as we do housework, go to our jobs, care for our children, and serve in our churches we will, by the Spirit’s power, reorient our hearts from self-sufficiency to thankful dependence on our Heavenly Father. Never from a striving to earn our place in God’s household or a magic spell to get us what we want. Rather, from our place as a permanently adopted child of God seeking to praise him for all that he has already given us in Christ.
1Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (London: Penguin Books, 2016), 196.
Image Credit: Michael Marcagi
Lara d’Entremont is a wife and mom to three from Nova Scotia, Canada. Lara is a writer and learner at heart—always trying to find time to scribble down some words or read a book. Her desire in writing is to help women develop solid theology they can put into practice—in the mundane, the rugged terrain, and joyful moments.