November 22, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
GROWING IN GRATITUDE
Thanksgiving is not part of the official church year. I’ve never understood that. There are lectionary preachers all over the country today whose sermons will not mention Thanksgiving at all. This is officially “Christ the King” Sunday. I think I’ve preached one “Christ the King” sermon in my entire life and as I recall, it was a horrible sermon. People were even more glad than usual when I finally stopped talking.
I’ve never understood why the official church seems to keep Thanksgiving at arm’s length. I’ve never understood it for a couple of reasons: For one, the Bible is full of passages about giving thanks. For another, God made us in such a way that gratitude is something we really need. Without gratitude we just don’t do very well in life.
There’s quite a bit of research on this subject. Secular, scientific research. It tells us that it’s not just the Christians who need to grow in gratitude. All people do.
Did you know grateful people sleep better? If you are one of the many who suffers from insomnia, I’m not saying that’s because you aren’t thankful enough. But all things being equal, insomniacs who are grateful sleep better than insomniacs who aren’t. It’s better than counting sheep. Count your blessings!
Researchers have also learned that grateful people tend to be:
- less prone to anxiety
- less prone to depression
- have a higher level of satisfaction with their lives
- they are kinder
- they have better romantic lives, and
- they are less aggressive.
Being less aggressive is not necessarily a good thing. So maybe football coaches don’t give locker room talks about gratitude before the kick-off. But for the rest of us, it’s a good thing to be grateful.
One experiment had two groups. The control group did nothing out of the ordinary. They just lived their lives as they normally did. But the people in the other group added one extra thing to their daily routines. Before they went to bed each night, they took a few minutes to write down on paper what they were thankful for that day. This experiment went on for a period of time. Not days, but months. And then the control group was compared with the group that took the time each day to make this list of blessings.
Here’s what they learned: Just getting down on paper the reasons they were thankful changed their lives in profound ways. They had better relational health than the control group. They had better physical health. They exercised more. They slept more soundly. They woke up later. They were simply happier, healthier, better adjusted people. There is power in being grateful!
We’re talking here about more than just how to get a good night’s sleep. We’re talking about how to live the way God designed us to live. The great people of the Bible were grateful people. It’s spelled differently, but maybe there is a connection between being great and being grate-full!
David, for example. He wrote all those Psalms about being grateful. We read one of them today. “Enter [God’s] gates with thanksgiving, and [God’s] courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name!” That’s how we’re supposed to worship. Thankfully. With plenty of thanksgiving. Gratitude will change our lives. Gratitude will also change our worship. When worship is more about saying “thanks” to God and less about looking for something to get out of it for ourselves, worship comes alive! The reason we are here is to bless God’s name. Because “[God is good; God’s] steadfast love endures, and [God’s] faithfulness to all generations.”
Paul was another great person who was also a grate-full person. The passage we read from Colossians is a laundry list of all the qualities we should be developing as Christian disciples: compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace. And then at the end of the list, kind of like wrapping it all up with a bow, Paul adds three words: ” . . . and be thankful.”
It’s not an afterthought. It’s not one more thing to add to an already long list. It is the underlying attitude that makes everything else on the list possible.
Maybe you can help me here. Do you know of a person who
is compassionate who is not also grateful? I can’t think of one. Or
a person who exhibits any of these spiritual qualities — who is kind or lowly or meek or patient or forgiving or loving or peaceful — without also being a truly thankful person?
The Roman statesman, Cicero said this: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
So thanksgiving is kind of like a gateway. When the gate is closed, it blocks our Christian growth. When the gate is open, all bets are off on what God can do with us. When the gate is closed, even God has a hard time getting through. When the gate is open, it’s like an open channel straight to our heart. And from the abundance of our heart come all good things (see Luke 6:45).
So I hope you have been convicted by now that it is a good thing to be grateful. But that’s nothing new. You already knew that. And still ingratitude is something most of us struggle with from time to time. Being grateful is not like flipping a switch. It takes more than just knowing we should and trying our best to feel it. Because even though God designed us to function best when we are grateful, there are also some significant barriers that are gratitude blockers. If we are going to grow in gratitude, we’re going to have to deal with each of these.
The first barrier to gratitude is sin. That’s a significant barrier because we’re all sinners. Sin has a way of saying, “thanks but no thanks.” We say “thank you God” with our words, but with our hearts we are saying something else.
Moses gave the Israelites a warning. They were about to enter the Promised Land. They’d been looking forward to this for 40 years. They were on the verge of having their hopes and dreams come true. They had been nomads wandering through the wilderness. Now they were going to have land and houses and cattle and silver and gold. Were they feeling the gratitude? Well, not really. Because here’s the warning: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’. You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
Sin is focused on the self. Gratitude is focused on the other. Gratitude requires the acknowledgement that the good things in my life are not self-generated. They are gifts. From God. From other people. So if the gratitude you think you are feeling is really thinly veiled self-congratulations, beware.
There’s a book out called The Psychology of Gratitude. The authors are Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. It’s not a Christian book. It’s not written from a faith perspective. But it’s certainly consistent with everything the Bible teaches on this subject. It doesn’t talk about sin. It talks about how human beings are “hard-wired”. It says we are hard-wired with a bias toward negativity. It doesn’t say that’s the way we have to be. That’s just the way we tend to be. Negativity is part of our sinful nature. They didn’t say that, but I did.
Moses gave a warning. The authors of this book give a similar warning.
As negative feelings are repeatedly rehashed, these patterns reinforce their familiarity in the neural architecture, thus becoming stereotyped and increasingly automatic and mechanized.
In other words, beware lest your negativity becomes a habit. Because negativity, if you let it, will feed on itself and will make you more and more negative.
Many people do not realize the extent to which these habitual response patterns dominate their internal landscape, diluting and limiting positive emotional experience and eventually becoming so familiar that they become engrained in one’s sense of self-identity.
In other words, once we start walking on this ungrateful path, if we stay on that path long enough, eventually it just becomes who we are. We are no longer people who are occasionally ungrateful. We are ungrateful people. Do you see the difference? That doesn’t mean we can’t change. Jesus changes people from a lot worse than negativity. It just means change is not going to be easy.
So, are you a grateful person? But you know what? I’m asking the wrong person. We’re all pretty good at self-deception. If you want the truth, ask a friend. A friend who isn’t afraid to be honest with you. The truth is that we all have room to grow in gratitude.
And since sin is the first and the greatest barrier, we shouldn’t think we can just flip a switch. Or turn over a new leaf. Or try extra hard. When sin is the problem the first step always involves God. Only God who made us to be grateful can set us free from the sin that so often gets in the way.
The second barrier to gratitude is the future. You might want to think about that one for a moment. We probably agree that sin is a bad thing. But the future? Here’s the problem: when we live in the future we live in a world either of fear or of fantasy. We either worry excessively about all the imaginary bad things that might happen or we dream excessively about all the imaginary good things that might happen. Either way, we have lost touch with the good things that have already happened and that are happening right now.
C.S. Lewis put his finger on this in The Screwtape Letters: “Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”
There is a connection between remembering and being grateful. When we remember God’s faithfulness in the past we give thanks. We can hardly help it. When we forget God’s faithfulness in the past, when we live in that imaginary world of the future, we forget God. And we forget to say thanks.
Moses uses the word “remember” over and over in his farewell speech that we call Deuteronomy. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. He warned them about taking all the credit and forgetting God. He says, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (8:18). He says, “Remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (7:18). He says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years” (8:2).
Sometimes a gratitude problem can simply be a memory problem. We fail to remember how blessed we have been. We fail to remember all the reasons we have to say thanks.
The last barrier to gratitude is entitlement. What I mean by entitlement is the attitude that we have a right to the blessings that come our way. We deserve them. We have them coming. So we don’t need to be grateful when we these blessings come. We have every reason to complain when they don’t come. But when they do, we will barely notice because, after all, life had better be as wonderful as I am!
Paul Gibbons says this: “Feeling entitled is the opposite of feeling grateful. Gratitude opens the heart, entitlement closes it.”
Two sisters went to Disneyland. They were standing in the crowd waiting for the daily parade featuring all the Disney characters. One sister was 11. She thought the parade was stupid. She knew she was just watching ordinary people dressed up in costumes. She was too old for this. She would rather be going on some of the scary rides. But her parents made her go. So she stood there and she sulked.
The other sister was 3. She had never been so excited in her life. She’d seen all the movies. She’d seen them so many times her older sister was about ready to hide the DVD’s. And now she was really there where they all lived. Disneyland! And they were going to walk right next to her!
The parade began. While the older sister sulked, the younger sister was jumping up and down. And pointing: “Mickey!!” “Snow White!!” “Pinocchio!!” “Ariel!!” “Goofy!!” “Cinderella!!” The older sister had never been so embarrassed in her entire life. And the younger sister had never been so happy.
Do you experience life more like the 3-year-old or the 11-year-old? Are you living your life jumping up and down with joy? Grateful for all the good things in your life? Or would you really rather be somewhere else, doing something else, and complaining that life isn’t going all your way?
Gratitude will do more than make you sleep better. Gratitude will make you eager to wake up. Because God is good, life is worth living, and God’s steadfast love lasts forever.
Thank you, God. And help us to mean it when we say it. Whatever might be blocking our gratitude, whether it’s something we’ve talked about today or something else, we pray that you will open that closed gateway to our heart. Ingratitude can be habit forming and there are some of us here this morning who just need to acknowledge that it’s happened to us. We’ve become hardened, negative, unhappy people. And we’re not the only ones we’re making miserable. I pray you will do a great work to replace the bad habit with the good. And many of us here this morning already are grateful people. We’re not even sure this sermon is for us. But the truth is the needle on our gratitude meter is barely registering compared to where it should be once we truly experience your greatness and your goodness. We all need to grow in gratitude. May Thanksgiving this year be more than food and football. May it be a day to say thank you and to mean it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.