The imbalance between the requests and the thanksgiving we bring into our worship is something any Christian can talk about, and not just based on other people’s experiences. As long as we approach praise and thanksgiving as duties to be fulfilled, we will miss the greatest blessings that can rest upon a heart full of gratitude.
During an evangelistic conference sponsored by Billy Graham, a Cambodian man shared the experience of his detention under the Pol Pot regime, which killed at least 1.5 million Cambodians. Locked up in a concentration camp where cruelty and death lurked around every corner, convinced that he would not survive under those circumstances, the detainee sought to spend whatever time he had left searching for the presence of God. It didn’t take him long to realise that even a few minutes of silence were an impossible luxury in the camp. Finally, discovering that no one wanted to clean the latrine, our Christian friend asked to be given this task, discovering that he was neither interrupted nor threatened with punishment if he didn’t get the work done sooner. It could be that the smell was more than anyone unaccustomed to such a chore could bear. But, he said, “it was there that I could see the blue sky. I praised God that I had survived yet another day”. For him, those minutes of humiliating work became “glorious moments of meeting with God”.
If they were to respond honestly to a survey on the topic of gratitude, too many Christians would probably admit that they had not recently thanked God, for the sky, for the trees in bloom or for the ones dressed up in autumn clothes, for the crunch of the crickets, for the bread that is baking in the oven, for the tinkling of children’s voices or for every movement made painlessly—ultimately, for life itself, with its constellation of gifts, and for the peace of a tomorrow in which His presence is promised to us.
Of course, we all have our own moments of heartfelt gratitude, when we feel blessed beyond measure. But aside from those special occasions or moments when our eyes are wide open to the wonders of our lives, we need to transform gratitude into a way of living and a way of worshiping. And for that we need to meet with God, the Source of any good gift we get to hold in our hands.
At the centre of life
There is a difference between giving thanks to God and giving praise to Him, writes Pastor Brian Chilton: “Giving thanks is related to the things He has done for us, while giving praise means thanking God for who He is”. And here is where everyone is free to experience some of His greatness, kindness, love, and power.
One of the obvious reasons why praise and thanksgiving have the appearance of a flashlight in the prayers of Christians is that the prayer life of the modern man has become less and less consistent. Commenting on a study that shows that many American pastors do not spend more than 7 minutes a day in prayer, Chilton says that our failure to pray is, in fact, our failure to reach the presence of God, which is actually the true objective of prayer.
For a Christian, “prayer is as essential as space astronauts connecting with their launch base”, writes professor Roberto Badenas.
Loss of contact is the worst thing that can happen to both astronauts and Christians. What we need to learn is that prayer should not be reduced to a boring monologue, because it is not about informing Someone who already knows everything, but instead it should mean openness, closeness, and fellowship. After all, prayer means relationship, and in order to develop that relationship, we need to stop from what we are doing to choose “what is better”, the things that will not be taken away from us, those things that Jesus was talking about in the house of Martha and Mary.
When prayer is, in the words of the Puritan’s prayer, a meeting, not a ritual, God becomes the centre of life. With a very poor poor lunch consisting of a piece of bread and a glass of water before him, the Puritan exclaims: “All this and, on top of that, Jesus, too!”
The blessing of being a grateful worshiper
Jesus Christ is our supreme example regarding a life of prayer. We know from the Gospels that He used to pray in secluded places and that He sometimes spent the whole night in prayer, as happened before He chose the 12 disciples (Luke 6:12). We also know that following His baptism, His prayer opened the heavens (Luke 3:21) and that His last words, before He gave up His Spirit, were a prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The Bible also records several occasions in which Jesus thanked His Father—at the Last Supper (Luke 22:17,19) or before the miracle of feeding the multitude (Matthew 15:36).
The Old and New Testaments are filled with prayers of thanksgiving, lifted in the most varied of circumstances, from gratitude for the healing of an incurable disease (Luke 17:16), to hymns of praise sung in prison (Acts 15:24-25).
“Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!” is the leitmotif of Psalm 107 (NKJV). On the one hand, the author emphasises the economy of gratitude with which we respond to divine goodness. On the other hand, the construction of the sentence is incomplete: only the conditional clause is present, but the main clause is missing.
It is as if the psalmist would like to tell us that a domino of good things will roll over us as an effect of our gratitude, but he stops right before revealing those things, letting his readers discover for themselves the blessings of a grateful heart.
Our thanksgiving and praise will not make God stronger or more important than He already is, but they will make room for a significant change in our Christian experience, writes Christian journalist Mike Bennett.
First of all, praising God means settling in a place that allows for a new perspective regarding everything that is happening to us. Focusing on God, the One who created the heavens, the earth, and everything in them, helps us approach the problems we are facing in a more realistic way, no matter how difficult they may seem in the moment.
Also, when we praise God for who He is in His relationship with us, we understand a bit better the reality behind the curtain and receive peace and stability, no matter how chaotic our lives may be. Last but not least, contemplating our Creator transforms us, making us resemble Him, Bennett argues.
“You who complain that God does not listen to your prayers, change the present order of your prayers and add praise to your requests,” is the advice of a Christian author whose own experience reinforces the fact that gratitude builds the worshiper’s faith and gives more strength to his prayers.
In fact, it is easier to become grateful when you realise that by following in the wake of any good gift in our lives, we will find God behind that gift. And, when life no longer seems to give us many reasons to be grateful, in the thickest darkness we can still thank Him, not only for the light on the road already travelled, or for the light that will shine upon us in the future, but also for the fact that He always chooses to remain with us through the dark parts of our journey, whether we feel His presence or not.
A love above our merits
“Of all the gods of mythology, literature, and religion, this is the only ragged God”, writes author John Ortberg, focusing on the humility to which the Son of God consented. He is the God who was born in a manger, because no place was found at the inn for Mary and her baby. He is the God who toiled in Joseph’s carpentry workshop, finishing the wood with His hands, living among the inhabitants of a town that did not enjoy a very good reputation (“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” asked Nathanael). This is the God who was betrayed by one of His disciples, sold at a ridiculous price, forsaken by His closest companions, and left to walk alone on the path of shame and suffering. The One the chosen people rejected, the One so hated by the rulers that they allied themselves with the Romans in order to kill Him. The One whose scars did not fade after the resurrection, remaining engraved in His palms as an assurance that we can never be forgotten.
He is the God who “suffers and dies a worse death than any other human being could”, says writer Clifford Goldstein.
The pain is personal and intimate at the same time. It cannot be fully shared with another person, so no man, no matter how terrible his pain, has suffered more than the limits of finite beings allow. The only one who has gone through the agony of bearing the pain, the sin and the punishment for every human being who has lived or ever will live on this fallen planet is Jesus Christ, Goldstein points out. And the reason He let Himself be broken by a pain too intense to be imagined was love. It was His desire to rebuild, over the abyss, a way to be together, us and Him, forever.
The greatest loss of the unsaved will be an “everlasting destruction” as they will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might”, writes the apostle Paul. Worse than a death without the chance of resurrection is the loss of any chance of ever getting to know the God they rejected without first knowing His incomparable kindness.
Levi, my sister’s son, is the liveliest child I have ever met. In his first years of life, it was very difficult to even imagine him sitting quietly for a few minutes and letting his parents or grandparents catch a breath. However, the morning he saw his father again after a longer separation, something memorable happened. When he awoke, instead of shooting out of bed like a bow from an arrow, he put his hand under his cheek and stood still, unable to take his eyes off his still-sleeping father. It is natural for a parent to be able to look at his child for hours without getting tired, but the image of a three-year-old who can’t take his eyes off his parent is far more touching.
We often come into prayer in a hurry, tired, anxious, with our shoulders bent forward by all the requests we would like God to fulfil. We fail to stop and still our souls so that we may hear Him should He want to tell us something. We get on our knees when burdened and we often rise up from our knees bearing the same burdens, because we seek His help more than His presence.
In a world inhabited by sin, we will always have requests to bring to Him, and He will always stop and listen to us. But what if we sought Him without haste, not trying to obtain solutions for our never-ending list of needs and problems, but only to be with Him, for His sake. Just to spend time together, discovering a little more of what He is, better figuring out what He wants us to be, and staying in His presence long enough for our hearts to learn to beat to the rhythm of His heart.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.