BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
A chaplain of some prison trustees once came to his group and announced that he was going on a six week trip to Europe. He had been a faithful servant to them for years, and they appreciated him a great deal. They began to slap him on the back as they expressed their congratulations, and they gave him big hugs. When the service of that day was over the leader came to the chaplain with a big box. He said, "We can't give you much, but we want you to have this, and asked that you not open it until you get home."
He was so touched, he could not wait to get home and share with his wife what had happened. It was an exciting moment as he pulled the top of that box back, and there he saw his own billfold, his own tie clasp, his own pen, and his own watch. In embracing him they had stripped him of every loose possession he had, and this is what they gave him back. They had nothing to give him that was not already his. So it is with us and God. The poet was right who said,
"We give thee but thine own dear Lord,
Whatever the gift may be.
All that we have is thine alone,
A trust O Lord from Thee."
If all we are and all we have is a gift from God, then the best we can do is to give back to God what is already his. But this leads to a problem. The problem is, it seems like much ado about nothing. Our giving to God is like giving a thimble of water to the ocean, or like giving a candle to the Sun. It seems so insignificant that we tend to lose the thrill of Thanksgiving.
Sir Michael Costa, a famous composer and conductor from Naples, was once rehearsing with a vast array of instruments and hundreds of voices. With the thunder of the organ, the roll of the drums, the sounding of the horns, and the clashing of the cymbals, the mighty chorus rang out. You can understand the mood that came over the piccolo player who said within himself, "In all this din it matters not what I do!" So he ceased to play. Suddenly, Costa stopped and flung up his arms, and all was still. He shouted out, "Where is the piccolo?" His sensitive ear missed it, and it's absence made a difference to him.
God has a sensitive ear as well, and he misses any voice that is not lifted in Thanksgiving to Him. Besides the angelic host of heaven, millions on earth join the chorus with all sorts of spectacular things to thank God for, and it is easy for us to feel like that piccolo player and say, "How can it matter what I do? In the colossal symphony of voices, what does it matter if I remain silent? God's blessings are more than I can count, but my ability to express my thanks is so inadequate."
Simon Greenberg expresses the frustration of the thankful heart as he deals with the gifts of God just in nature alone:
"Five thousand breathless dawns all new;
Five thousand flowers fresh in dew;
Five thousand sunsets wrapped in gold;
One million snowflakes served ice cold;
Five quiet friends, one baby's love;
One white mad sea with clouds above;
One hundred music--haunted dreams,
Of moon--drenched roads and hurrying
Of prophesying winds, and trees,
Of silent stars and browsing bees;
One June night in a fragrant wood;
One heart that loved and understood.
I wondered when I waked that day,
How--how in God's name--I could pay!"
He never even got into the greatest gifts--the gifts of love and salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. We can't even pay for the gifts of natural life let alone for the gifts of eternal life. So let's face up to the reality that Thanksgiving is not a way to pay God back. All we can give is what is already His, and we can only give a fraction in return for the fullness He has given us. So forget the idea that thanks is to pay. It is not to pay, it is to pray, and to say to God, this is how I look at life, history, nature, and all that is, because I acknowledge you as my God. Thanksgiving is the expression of an attitude, or a philosophy of life.
The thankful person is a person who looks at life from a unique perspective, and, therefore, sees what the ungrateful do not see. At best we see only a part, a mere fraction of God's grace. We see through a glass darkly Paul says, and so none of us can be as thankful as we ought to be, for we are all ignorant of so much that God has spared us from, and even of what He has given us.
We can get tiresome and superficial when we try to enumerate all the things for which we are thankful. One author describes the boredom of going through and endless litany of thanks:
"For sun and moon and stars,
We thank Thee, O Lord.
For food and fun and fellowship,
We thank Thee, O Lord.
For fish and frogs and fruit flies,
We thank Thee, O Lord."
By the time you are finished, what you are most thankful for is that the list is over.
David here in Psalm 30 does not give us a long list, but focuses on just a few ways of looking at life that expresses the grateful heart. I hear him saying here, thank God for the past; thank God for the present, and thank God for the permanent.
I. THANK GOD FOR THE PAST.
David looks back and recognizes that had God not loved him, led him, and lifted him, he would have been long gone, and a part of the population of the pit. The only reason any of us are sitting here, and not lying in a cemetery is because of the grace and providence of God. There have been millions of people just our age who have gone into the grave because of war, accidents, or disease, but we are alive, and not because we are more worthy, but because we have been spared.
David knew he was alive for that same reason, and he says in verse 3, "O Lord, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit." Life has its burdens and sorrows, and sometimes we even get depressed enough to want to chuck the whole thing. David knew these dark depths as well, but most of the time we feel like David does here, and like the modern poet who wrote,
"Thank God I'm alive!
That the skies are blue,
That a new day dawns
For me and you.
The sun light glistens
On field and on tree,
And the house wren sings
To his mate and to me.
The whole world glows
With a heavenly glee!
I know there are heart--aches,
A world full of strife,
But thank God, O thank God,
Thank God just for life."
We could not say that or feel that unless we could look back to the past and see how God has spared us and protected us to this point.
David saw many a good man go down in battle. Israel was a winner, but even the winners lose men, and often a great many men. Some of you have no doubt survived wars. Some of us could have been killed in the wars of our nation, as many thousands were. We were spared, and we got the chance to live, to marry, to raise children, and to have grandchildren. We have been granted the gift to be a part of history, and not because we are more worthy, but because of the grace of God.
It is good for us to reflect on this, for it can help us to develop a more thankful perspective. So often we forget the enormous privilege it is just to be alive, that we become resentful and even bitter because we are only among the riches people of the world, and not literally the richest people around. The curse of comparative thinking takes its toll on all of us at come point in life. We compare ourselves to others who have been more materially blest, and who have acquired more things, and we envy them, and this envy quenches the spirit of thankfulness.
Many of the most blest people alive are not happy to be alive because they are caught in this curse of comparison. There is no level of life you can arrive at where you can escape this curse. Millionaires compare themselves with multi-millionaires, and they grieve. The multi-millionaires compare themselves with billionaires, and they grieve, for they have been deprived of the highest place. Art Linkletter actually has a friend who has eight million dollars, but he is always depressed because all of his friends have at least 10 million dollars.
The only cure for this curse is to change your perspective and look at life like David is doing in this Psalm. He is not comparing himself to the Pharaoh of Egypt, or to the kings of the world. He is comparing himself to those in the grave, and he likes his place better. If you have to compare, don't look up, for by this foolish logic everybody is nobody except the man at the very top. The only one who can win the comparison game is the one that has nobody he can look up to because he is on top of everyone else. In other words, only one can win this game, for anyone else is below him and thus, by comparison are failures.
But if you look the other way, and compare yourself to those who are in the grave, you are the very essence of success and superiority. How do you measure the degree of value between you and those not alive? Are you fifty percent, seventy five percent, or one hundred percent better off? Keep in mind, we are not talking about eternal life, but temporal life. The dead in Christ are with him, and are blest beyond our knowledge, but they have zero potential to enjoy the gifts of God in this earthly life. Compared to them we are infinitely blest. Therefore, let us look back, and thank God for the past and for all the ways by which He preserved us so we could be alive this day.
In our pride we often think we are who we are because of our labor and wisdom. There is some truth to this, but if it hinders our sense of thankfulness to God, we need to see life from a new perspective. Did you choose to not be raised by the Mafia, and learn to live by crime? Did you choose not to be born in Ethiopia, and be starving?
Did you choose not to live in Mexico City and be killed by a earthquake? Did you choose not to be a farmer in Columbia and be killed by a volcano? The list could go on for hours of all the evils you have escaped, not by your own choice and wisdom, but by the grace of God.
Henry Ward Beecher said, "A proud man is seldom a grateful man for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves." David is a grateful man for he knows he has received so much more than he deserves. Let us join in the spirit of David, and thank God for all His deliverance's of the past that bring us to the present, alive and full of potential. Thank God for the past.
II. THANK GOD FOR THE PRESENT.
David calls upon us to join him in song in verse 4. "Sing to the Lord you saints of His, praise His holy name." Do it now, even if it is a tough time, and you feel like you are under God's anger. The good news David says in verse 5 is, God's anger only lasts a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning. David is thankful for the present because he is an optimist. No matter how heavy the present is, the burden will soon become lite, and joy will replace sorrow. We see here that weeping is no sign of weakness, but is merely an honest expression of emotion, which even a strong man like David could show. Being an optimist does not mean you do not feel the sorrow of present suffering.
How many times have we been there? The cloud cover is oppressive and living is a chore, and so many things are discouraging. But those days pass by, and the sun shines again, and we are delighted to be alive. Not everything in the present is pleasant, but the thankful heart can and will see values that are missed by the complaining heart. Listen for example to the insight of this poem-
"Thank God for dirty dishes,
They have a tale to tell:
While others may go hungry,
We still are eating well;
With home and health and happiness
We have no right to fuss;
This stack is ample evidence
That God's been good to us."
The challenge of life is to find a reason to be thankful in what seems on the surface to be a reason to complain.
There are volumes of testimonies by people who have come to actually thank God for problems and trials, and even diseases and accidents because these so-called misfortunes opened their eyes to the fact that they were going away from God, and they were motivated by their need for God to get back on the right road. Their burden became their greatest blessing.
Charles Colson in his book Loving God said all of his proud and sophisticated labor in Government was not used of God--it was his shame, humiliation, and fall, in the Watergate scandal that God used for His glory, for when he was down he prayed as David did in verse 10. "Hear O Lord, and be merciful to me, O Lord, be my help." God listens to such a prayer, and most of the thankful people in the world are so, because they know God listens to the cry for mercy and help, and will work with them even in the worst situations to bring forth good.
Chuck Colson is thanking God for the present ministry he has in the prisons of our nation where many are coming to Christ because God is merciful and turns wailing into dancing. The worst can be used for the best, and that is why the thankful heart can always be thankful for the present, for no matter what it is, it has potential for good. The very trial you now endure can be laying the foundation for a triumph tomorrow, and so be thankful for the present. The thankful heart is ever searching for that diamond that is hidden in life's dirt.
Matthew Henry, the famous Bible scholar, was once accosted by thieves and robbed of his money. He wrote these words in his diary. "Let me be thankful.......
First, because I was never robbed before,
Second, although they took my purse they didn't take my life,
Third, because, although they took my all, it wasn't much,
Fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed."
Could you be thankful for the present if it was as unpleasant as being robbed? You could if you choose to-
"Count your blessings instead of your crosses,
Count your gains instead of your loses,
Count your joys instead of your woes
Count your friends instead of your foes
Count your courage instead of your fears,
Count your health instead of your wealth,
Count on God instead of yourself."
One of the quickest ways there is of quenching the spirit, and thereby withering the fruit of the spirit in our lives, is by an attitude of ingratitude which focuses on what we do not have rather than on the abundance which we do have. The quickest way to cure any negative mood is by the therapy of Thanksgiving. There is healing power in praise. David said his sack cloth was removed and he was clothed with joy, and that is what can happen to anyone who will chance their tune from the blues to the song of Thanksgiving.
A surprising conclusion that many have come to is that Thanksgiving is to the Christian what swearing is to the non-Christian. It is a release, and a therapeutic expression of emotion. The one takes the low road of the negative, and the other takes the high road of the positive. Pastor Chase, a Presbyterian minister, was visiting a hospital ward late at night where two elderly women were in great pain.
Both were terminal patients. One of them was cursing God and swearing at life. The other was thanking God for the precious memories of that life and love had given her. She was saying with the Psalmist, "Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all His benefits."
The present was unpleasant for both of these ladies, but one was building on a broader foundation than the moment. She had a reservoir of memories she could thank God for, and that made her thankful for the present, for her now was not empty, but was packed with grateful memories of the past. The past influences the present, and, therefore, every one of us has an obligation to our future self to start being grateful for the present, so we can have a positive past to influence our future.
This makes more sense than it sounds like, for what it means is, everyday we are laying up a treasure of Thanksgiving that will bring healing in some future circumstance. If we neglect being thankful for the present, we will someday go to the medicine chest, and find it empty. If you want to enjoy the therapeutic power of Thanksgiving do not wait until someday, start now, and thank God for the present.
III. THANK GOD FOR THE PERMANENT.
David begins this song of Thanksgiving by saying, "I will exalt you O Lord," and he ends with, "O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever." God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. In between these two peaks of permanence, David has a whole range of verbal mountains, as he lifts up the Lord, over and over again. David has discovered the essence of Thanksgiving. It is not in his past or his present, but in God's permanence. It is his foreverness that is the basis for all Thanksgiving.
David was preserved from death many times, but this deliverance did not last forever. His deliverance from all kinds of trials filled his heart with gratitude, but they did not go on forever. We can be so thankful for God's providence in our lives, but there is no guarantee that they will be permanent. That is why Thanksgiving has to be more than a feeling. It has to be a faith. It is a conviction that regardless of what happens in life, God will have the final word, and because of that we will, like David, give thanks to the Lord forever.
The story goes that a preacher, a boy scout, and a scholar were all up in a small plane. The pilot turned and said that he had bad news. The plane was not operating properly and they would likely crash. He also compounded the crisis by telling them they only had three parachutes. He added that he was a family man and his family needed him, and with that he grabbed one of the chutes and jumped.
The scholar said, "I want you to know I am one of the smartest men in the world. My lost would be profoundly felt in the intellectual world." He grabbed another chute and jumped. The preacher looked at the scout and said, "Son, I've lived my life and I am ready to die. You take the last chute." The scout said, "Cool it Rev.
there's no problem. That smartest guy in the world just jumped with my knapsack."
Smart people can make some big mistakes, and David is a great example. His sin and the foolish blunders to cover it up led to great sorrow for him the rest of his life. But through it all David had a grateful heart, for he knew the negatives of life were passing, but the positive were permanent. God is merciful, and as long as a man will call upon God, there is no mistake that can rob him of eternal love.
In essence, the whole of David's Thanksgiving, and the whole of all Thanksgiving that really matters, is summed up in the phrase, "Thank God for God." If God was not who He is, and did not have an eternal plan for man, all the rest of theology would be a fly by night operation. It's here today and gone tomorrow. If the basis of my thanks is my health, that can be gone tomorrow. If the basis is my wealth, or my possessions, or my relationships, or anything else you can think of, those are all subject to change, and I can be robbed of them at any time. For Thanksgiving to have a stability that can ride out the changes of time it has to be based on the nature of God, which is untouched by the ravages of time. An unknown poet wrote,
Today I kneel to say
"I thank you for You."
For once my prayer holds no request,
No names of friends for you to bless.
Because I think even You,
Might sometimes like a prayer that's new.
Might like to hear somebody pray,
Who has no words but thanks to say.
Somebody satisfied and glad
For all the joys that he has had,
And so I say again,
"I THANK YOU, LORD FOR YOU."
May God help us to be thankful for our past; thankful for our present, but most of all thankful for the permanent, which means, thanking God for Himself.