Cultivating Grateful Habits of the Heart

The Thanksgiving Season is fast approaching, and this is the time for all of us to take a long hard look at our state of mind, our thought life, and to consider the importance of cultivating grateful habits of the heart (Philippians 1;15-19, 4:4-7 and 10-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). I have always been impressed with the letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the young churches during a time of intense persecution. Some of those letters were written while Paul himself was in prison, speaking freely and forcefully about his own various trials, the suffering he had endured for his faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in spite of threats, and living his life “..in a manner worthy of the gospel” (2 Corinthians 4;8-11, 5:1-9, and 11:16-33). No follower of Jesus ever suffered more for his Lord than Paul, but through it all, he was able to rejoice, he was always praising God, and even gave thanks for his sufferings in the service of Christ. Early in his life as an apostle, as the first missionary of the Church, he had discovered the secret of contentment: thanks-giving (i.e. thanks-living, read and meditate on Philippians 4:13).  

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It is easy to give thanks in the good times of our lives, but it is difficult to give thanks in the difficult and painful times when the ground seems to be giving way beneath our feet. In those testing times, it is easy to grumble and complain, but that can so easily become a deadly habit, one that is like cancer to the soul. A negative attitude can cripple a person mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It can destroy relationships. It can erode the personality. It can also be contagious, causing others to act and react in a way that is hurtful rather than helpful. On the other hand, a positive attitude and a thankful spirit can be healing and constructive rather than destructive, especially during times of adversity when it seems like life is treating you unfairly and that nothing is going your way.

The words of a popular song from an ageless Broadway musical comes to mind: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day; I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everythings going my way.” It is easy to give thanks when you feel that way in the morning – when you feel like singing in the shower because you have no complaints. However, when you have had a restless night because your mind was filled with negative thoughts, anxieties, and fears, you do not feel much like rejoicing. The truth is we too often allow our feelings to control us rather than having self-control (i.e. being in control of our emotions). When we are being filled with the Spirit (i.e. being “controlled by” the Holy Spirit), then the “fruit of the Spirit” is going to be produced in our lives, including “self-control” (Galatians 5:22). In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul is very specific in emphasizing that this is what identifies Spirit-filled believers, not the “gifts of the Spirit” but the “fruit of the Spirit.” He describes such believers with these words of admonishment: “…be filled with the Spirit (more literally “be ye being filled with the Spirit,” for this is a process, our greatest need day after day as believers)…as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).

The Apostle Peter gave similar words of encouragement to those first believers in Jesus Christ as their Lord and their God (i.e. those who believed the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith were one and the same; that the Jesus they had known and loved was the Risen Christ who had conquered sin and death) who were enduring great persecution because of their refusal to confess faith in Caesar as Lord: “Even if you do suffer, rejoice…glorify God, and entrust your souls to a faithful Creator…Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God…cast all your cares on him, for he cares about you…Rejoice and be glad that you are able to share Christ’s suffering…and after you have suffered for a little while the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Peter 4:13, 16, 19 and 5:6).

I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convinced I am of the truth that it is foolish, and can even be fatal, to spend the latter years of our lives brooding over those days that are “dwindling down to a precious few.” It is a complete waste of precious time to live with regrets, thinking about what might have been, remembering things that need to be forgotten, things we have no power to change, or worrying about other things that haven’t even happened yet. As older adult believers, we should be setting an example for those who are much younger and hopefully have many more years to live. We want to be an example of believers who have learned to live optimistically, breaking the terrible habit of complaining by reprograming our minds to think healthy thoughts (Philippians 4:8; Colossians 1:11-14, 3:1-4). We want to let the joy and peace of Christ “…rule in our hearts, and whatever we do, in word or deed, [be] doing it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17).

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Regardless of our age, emotions tend to follow thoughts. We cannot change how we feel until we change how we think. This is where God’s Word can play such a vital role. The book of Proverbs gives this prescription for mental, emotional, and spiritual healing: “A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken…a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones…as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 15:13, 17:22, 23:7). There is nothing wrong with our minds except we fill them with negative, pessimistic, critical, skeptical, and unhealthy thoughts or the thoughts of this world. Our minds were not made to think the thoughts of this world; our minds were made to think the thoughts of God! This is why it is so important to learn to be “meditators,” or believers that not only read scripture but actually learn to meditate on God’s Word, filling their minds with the promises of God, breaking free from negativism, always conscious of the power our thoughts possess, learning to think biblically, meditating on biblical truths, and memorizing verses that speak to us and encourage us.

God’s Word becomes a mighty bulwark against the negative and unhealthy thoughts of this world, with which our minds are continuously being bombarded by the newspapers and magazines we read, the television shows we watch, the commercials and political campaign ads that we often do not mute. We may even find ourselves “double-minded,” and the Bible tells us that “…a double-minded person is unstable in every way” (i.e. reflects a lack of strong convictions and inconsistency in all of his/her ways, and is easily swayed by the opinions of others, wavering in his or her beliefs – James 1:8). This can apply to the cynical and critical spirit of others, the hateful rhetoric of politicians and celebrities, and the reports of senseless violence that can cause us to feel discouraged, depressed, helpless, and hopeless. We can easily be led to believe that everything is out of control, that criminals, terrorists, gangs, drugs, crooks and corrupt leaders in government are winning. But nothing could be further from the truth. As believers, we must continually be alert and steadfast in our faith and hope, even in the worst of times, and remember that our sovereign God is in control.

My wife and I were involved in ministry in Eastern European countries more than ten years before the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989. Believers in the Soviet Bloc nations lived under oppressive Communist regimes for forty years. During that long period, when they felt like aliens and exiles in their own countries, they never gave up hope. So many pastors who had lost their pulpits because of their refusal to yield to the demands and restrictions imposed by their communist governments had become leaders in the underground church, which was known in the West as the “Suffering Church.” We had met with some of those pastors in the Reformed Church and were always impressed with their indomitable spirit, their ability to praise God with joyful hearts, and giving thanks at all times in the worst of circumstances. Their attitude of gratitude, even though they had lost so much, put us to shame. Some of those very pastors later became leaders in the revolution that resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union, and one of those pastors in whose apartment we had held illegal meetings (i.e. “unregistered” with the government, and without a government representative present) was elected to the first Parliament following the overthrow of their Communist oppressors in Hungary. When we returned to Debrecen and Budapest, we were thankful that that pastor offered to serve as a guide for a personal tour of the Parliament building which had been restored to its original splendor. We were also told that churches in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe were filled with worshipers, including many new believers. Forty years of terrible persecution had not been able to rob believers in Eastern Europe of their joy and trust in their Risen and reigning Lord.

We were able to see first-hand how God’s promises to restore, renew, revive, and reward believers who remain steadfast in their faith had been fulfilled. The same thing has happened in China, and we have every reason to believe the same thing is going to happen in North Korea, where the underground church is strong. Many have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Christianity was strongest in North Korea before communists came into power, resulting in the Korean War. Believers in North Korea have been driven underground, but we know the “house church” movement is alive and well. Our religion is a resurrection faith. Christianity was born in a “borrowed tomb” and Christ’s Church has been forced to borrow a tomb again and again through the centuries in so many places around the world. But our God is the One who brings life out of death! Therefore, the followers of Jesus do not lose hope. We have learned to rejoice at all times, and to give thanks in all circumstances, for we are confident we are on the winning side!

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Yes, there are many real threats and dangers in this world – even in our own land. We are living in corrupt, chaotic, and changing times, and many of these changes are not for the better. Nevertheless, we do not lose heart, for we have a firm foundation for our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, who “….is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). As we have seen in previous blog posts, some people attempt to change the Bible by questioning the authenticity of some books, as well as some of the teachings attributed to Jesus, in order to support their own unorthodox views. However, the Bible is unchanging, trustworthy, and eternally valid. In fact, the psalmist tells us that the Word of God “endures forever.” It is a good thing in such times as these days of ruined dreams and crushed hopes to get back to a simple creed of faith like this:

“I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord is the strength of my life. Every day is a good day, and a good time to give thanks. Today is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it. This is the first day of the rest of my life. My faith may be tested today, but I will not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I will praise the God of my salvation. Today I will speak a word of faith and hope to someone who needs encouragement, and I will go out of my way to perform an act of kindness for someone I don’t even know. Today is the day I will quit complaining about the things I do not have, and start being grateful for the wonderful blessings I have already received. I will stop worrying about what tomorrow may bring, and remember that my God is able to work in all things for good in my life. I will live with the expectation that tomorrow may be the best day of my life.”