Thankful Thinking

Hebrews 12: 28-29

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12: 28-29)

Receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken – what a wonderful image for God’s people today. When we consider the empires of history that have crumbled, being part of one that cannot be shaken sure is attractive. God’s kingdom is everlasting and steady. It will not fall.

The pilgrims were grateful for that fact. It gave them a courageous, persistent approach to life. Their gratefulness pervaded their lives so much that it gave them an eternal perspective that helped them persevere at the end of their rope. It gave them such confidence in God that they not only persevered in tough times, they actually gave thanks to God in the midst of almost unimaginable turmoil.

I would say that the Pilgrims were completely spiritually prepared for what they encountered, but in many other practical ways they were very unprepared. The Captain was the only person on board who had ever been hunting. He would be the only one on board who would have any wilderness or outdoors experience. They were prepared for opening a small village since there were tailors, a printing press operator, and a few merchants, but what they really needed was farming experience. The passengers included people who could operate a printing press, sew, and balance the books, but what they needed was farmers who could till the soil, not farmers who were just land owners. So the land owners brought what they thought they might use, candle snuffers, musical instruments, and books, not farming tools. Naturally the first challenge they faced was malnourishment, which, combined with disease and exposure, killed half of the pilgrims that first winter.

Yet the pilgrims did not have a day of mourning. They had a day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a part of their tradition. Several days of communal thanksgiving had been set aside throughout the year for a celebration of God’s gifts, so even when they were discouraged, they still were able to celebrate thanksgiving. They were programmed in thankful thinking. They were part of a kingdom that could not be shaken. If we could realize this approach to life as the pilgrims did, wouldn’t we be so much stronger in the midst of life’s hardships and troubles?

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln took great effort to unify America in gratitude as it suffered from civil war: “…I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union…”

Lincoln wanted to make this day of gratitude part of our cultural identity. Americans, here or abroad, would be identified by their gratefulness to God, bringing “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

Thankfulness is the hallmark of the Christian identity. When people see Christians, they should see grateful hearts, it should give us away. Before Laos and Vietnam had strict borders, their kings made taxation lines based on the what the houses looked like- the houses on the ground decorated with Chinese style dragons were Vietnamese. The houses on stilts with Indian style serpent décor were Laotian. The exact location of a person’s home was not what determined his or her nationality. Instead, each person belonged to the kingdom whose cultural values he or she exhibited.

What is true for the Laotians and Vietnamese is true for us as well: each person belongs to the kingdom whose values he or she exhibits. Ours is a kingdom that cannot be shaken because we lead lives of thankfulness.

Of course it is easy to forget to be thankful to God. Even when we are thankful for so many things, we can leave God out completely. Did you hear the story about the five-year-old boy who was asked to say grace at Thanksgiving. He began to thank his mother for cooking, his father for the turkey, then he thanked the turkey, the farmer who raised the turkey, the person in charge of the feed for the turkey, and on and on. Finally a sibling broke in and asked, “Are you done yet?” He stopped and said, “I think so, did I forget anything?” “Yes, you forgot God!” the sibling answered.

Paul wrote in Colossians that we should put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness, meekness, longsuffering, and love, and then he added at the end of that list “and be thankful” (Col. 3:15). Punctuating that list with thankfulness puts all those other qualities under its umbrella. The famous Roman orator, Cicero, who lived in the First Century, A. D., might not have been Christian but he agreed with Paul in saying this about gratitude, “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.” Thankful thinking should be the most external and obvious trait of Christians. It reveals citizenship in a kingdom that does not forget God.

If one is a chronic grumbler, maybe they have forgotten God. There was an chronic grumbler who couldn’t find anything about which to give thanks or praise. Although financially he was a very successful farmer, because of a very sour attitude, no one enjoyed his company. Nothing seemed to please him. Once at the time of the potato harvest, the disgruntled farmer enjoyed a bumper crop. Wanting to strike a more cheerful note, someone suggested, “I understand you’ve had a tremendous season with potatoes this year. That certainly must be cause for rejoicing!” The chronic complainer never even smiled, but sourly responded, “Yes, it’s true. The harvest was good enough. But my problem is, I don’t have any bad potatoes to feed my pigs.”

That farmer felt more entitled than grateful. Moses warned the Israelites about this in one of his final sermons. He told the Israelites that when they entered the land of milk and honey they would enjoy fine houses and a much better life. He warned them not to forget about God, but to remember that it was God that led them out of the desert into the Promised Land.

Abraham Lincoln may have been following the lead of King David, who in 1 Chronicles 16 commissioned a Psalm of thanksgiving when the ark of God was brought to Jerusalem. There was much rejoicing. David commissioned a Psalm of thanks for the occasion and appointed a number of the Levites to the task of offering regular thanks to God. These times of thanks were to be perpetual, not just for feast days. Even though certain Levites were set aside for this duty, Scripture also makes it clear that we are to offer our praise personally.

Thanksgiving doesn’t always come easily or naturally to us. We must take time to intentionally refocus our hearts on what God has done for us. If we are cranky and more upset with God than pleased, we need to remind myself of God’s goodness and provision.

How would the world look if we could truly see it with thankfulness? Suddenly our world could be much more positive. Eddie Lopat was a baseball pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1950’s. According to the late Red Barber, a former major league sports announcer, Eddie often lost his temper. He knew he had to master his weakness, so he went to a doctor to find out what he could do to control himself. The doctor told him that instead of getting upset, he should pause and count his blessings. He should not try to repress or hide his anger, rather, he should replace those angry feelings with thanksgiving.

No one can have a satisfying life without self-control, but struggling to repress sinful impulses like angry outbursts, violent responses, lying, or cheating won’t get rid of them. We can actually cleanse our mind with thankful thinking.

“It’s impossible to hold on to anger when our hands are full of gratitude.” Did your grandmother ever tell you that?

Again, Abraham Lincoln in 1863 wrote: The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

Like those first pilgrims, let us cultivate thankful thinking, a habit of gratitude that can focus our lives to receive, as our Scripture stated, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Henry Ward Beecher wrote,

The unthankful heart discovers

no mercies;

But let the thankful heart

sweep through the day

And as the magnet finds the

iron,

So it will find, in every hour,

some heavenly blessings!

May our cultural identity as Christians be marked by thanksgiving for all to see. Count your blessings and replace anger and discord, so your thanksgiving will be blessed with true gratefulness, the tough, enduring gratitude of the Pilgrims, so that your life will be like a magnet, in every hour, in every circumstance, attracting and collecting God’s most wonderful blessings!