The Grace of Gratitude
“…by [Jesus] let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name” (Hebrews 13:15).
As you eat your turkey and dressing this year, remember this verse and remember that God’s own idea of a thanksgiving feast is “the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” God deserves and delights in the praise and thanksgiving of His creatures.
Apparently, though, God is not so only interested in Thanksgiving; He demands “thanks-living”… the continual praise and thanksgiving of our hearts, in all kinds of situations and circumstances. We must develop the purposeful habit of thanksgiving in order for it to become “thanks-living.”
How can we perform such a difficult task, which demands heart-deep and genuine gratitude, even in the midst of the many trials and sorrows that every person faces? It seems too difficult for any person to consistently, sincerely do. Because it is.
Gratitude is a Gift
Notice how this exhortation begins: “by Jesus let us continually offer…thanks to His name.” Just like every other act of obedience, we cannot perform even this—giving thanks to God from our hearts—without His enabling grace.
We perhaps all know—both scripturally and experientially—the bondage that discontent and covetousness brings upon a soul. But we may often forget that the overcoming virtue of gratitude, by which we are enabled to gain freedom from these sins, is a grace that only God can give. Like any truly spiritual service, giving thanks from our heart is not something we can muster or stir up in our own strength.
Thanksgiving is not a favor we do for God; it is a favor to us from God.
Paul echoes the Hebrew letter and language in his epistle to the church at Colosse, when he reminds them “whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col. 3:17). We recognize that neither writer is merely speaking of praying, or thanking, in or to Jesus’ name because in both verses that exhortation is already provided separately.
The reality is, as these passages remind us, we can and do give thanks to God only by Christ, by means of His enabling strength and mercy.
In his classic autobiography Mercies of a Covenant God, 19th century English preacher John Warburton recounts how God upon one occasion delivered him and his family—poor and penniless as they were—from being sent to the workhouse because of an unpaid debt. On the very day it was needed, the exact amount was provided for him to repay the entire debt.
Immediately afterward, Warburton went to the chapel in order to spend consecrated time giving thanks to God for his miraculous and timely deliverance… yet he found that all he could think about was how God could have given him just a little bit more! He candidly writes:
“I walked to and fro, begging and crying for a thankful heart; but could no more thank God feelingly for the deliverance than I could make a world. And I began to find my heart as hard as the nether millstone, so that I found that thankfulness was a gift that cometh down from above. And I am confident that thankfulness is as much the gift of God as every deliverance is” (emphasis added).
Although God later overwhelmed his soul with sincere gratitude, Warburton’s experience taught him the lesson that only God can, and only God does, deliver us from the power of any and every sin.
Gratitude is a Miracle
We see just how amazing the gift of gratitude is when we consider the unlikely circumstances and places in which we find people practicing it. It is truly supernatural.
For instance, we find thanksgiving dinners in the oddest places in the Bible. Paul—on his way to be tried in court, in the middle of a storm at sea, and about to be shipwrecked—sits down to a meager meal and “took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat” (Acts 27:35).
Jesus, in all three gospel accounts of the loaves and fishes feeding 5,000, gives thanks for the few loaves and fishes that He does have. Amazing! He is facing overwhelming need, with severely inadequate resources, and yet He is giving thanks. This scene is so striking and remarkable that John later refers to the site as “the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23). It’s as if John was just as impressed by the giving of thanks as he was by the eating of bread!
Again, Jesus, in every account of the Lord’s Supper, gives thanks before partaking of it. Knowing that this bread and wine symbolize the excruciating death He will soon die on the cross, Jesus nonetheless thanks God for it.
We even find people who are being corrected for their sins offering up thanks to God: Jonah, in the belly of the fish after being thrown overboard, prays: “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Indeed, salvation from any and every wayward path is of the Lord.
Gratitude is a Command
Because it is good for our souls, and glorifying to God, we see that a grateful spirit is modeled for us and commanded from us throughout the Bible. The fact that we can only give thanks to God by the enabling grace of God does not negate our responsibility; rather, it should drive us to God in prayer for the mercy and grace needed.
And just as Jonah reminds us, although salvation is entirely “of the Lord,” it should be your settled determination that “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving.”
The writer of Hebrews calls us to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name.” We cannot praise God without thanking God. That is the clear implication of this verse. The praise to which we are called must be continual; and it must consist, at the very least, of our lips giving thanks.
And, most importantly, it is only praise when it is by Jesus and to His name. When you come to God in prayer, what percentage of the time do you spend in thanksgiving? What is the first thing you usually say to God in prayer? Is it “Please…” or is it “Thank you…”? Is it petition or is it gratitude which you most often bring to God?
There is certainly nothing wrong with making our needs and desires known to God in prayer. However, we cannot properly praise God unless we also bring with us conscious, grateful words of praise to His name, for all He has done — including giving us a heart to thank Him in the first place.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Romans 5:8-9)