Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Today, I was irritated. Circumstances were not smiling upon me, and everything seemed to go wrong, causing me to start the day tired, irritable, and frustrated. It’s funny how that big problems aren’t the things that usually weigh us down. It is the little things. The things that feel like sand in our shoes.

During my morning commute, I usually listen to the Bible on audio. It is a time that I normally enjoy, but today I didn’t want to listen to the Bible. I felt irritated and wasn’t in a spiritual mood. I felt compelled to listen anyway, so I thought, “I’ll do it. But I know I won’t get anything out of it.”

I was wrong. During the course of listening, I heard Psalm 50, and I was struck by something I heard at the end of the chapter. Psalm 50:14-15

14 Offer to God thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me."

The passage is talking about how Israel was focused on offering sacrifices to God, and the Lord asks what man can give that he doesn’t already own. The Lord spends several verses stressing that our religious acts, sacrifices, and offerings mean nothing in themselves. But then in verse 14, God tells us to offer to God thanksgiving. This is the sacrifice God desires. In fact, it is the only sacrifice that really means anything. Without a thankful heart, righteous acts and sacrifices are merely vain rituals. Keeping the law and commandments may restrain our lives, but the only action that truly touches the heart of God is an offering of thanksgiving.

Ironically, this is the sacrifice that cost us the least, but carries the greatest value. Thirty-nine times the Bible uses the phrase, “give thanks,” including 1 Thessalonians 5:18

18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

How many times have we asked God to show us his will? Of all the things that we imagine as the will of God, he chose to specifically direct us to give thanks – in everything. Ah, therein is the problem. That nasty little word, ‘everything’. It would be easy to thank God for my job, my house, family, possessions, health, and any number of things we consider to be a blessing, but everything?

I certainly didn’t feel very thankful. I began to muse on this command and think about all the things in life. Does God really want us to be thankful in what irritates us? Then I thought on an example from the Old Testament. As Israel wandered through the desert, God sheltered them from the heat of the scorching sun, gave the light at night. He gave them streams of water in the desert, and manna from heaven. When they tired of manna, God sent quail. And this is after God broke the will of Pharaoh and freed them from 400 years of slavery. Slavery was a burden so heavy, they couldn’t bare it and cried to the Lord for deliverance.

All the miracles and benevolence of God was laid out in their midst, and what did they do? Did they sing to God with a thankful heart? They did when God first destroyed the army pursuing them, but in a matter of days, they forgot and began to focus on the things that irritated them. Then they focused on the things they didn’t have. This people, who begged God for deliverance, actually started forming a party to return to Egypt to go back into bondage. The things they didn’t like blinded them to God’s goodness, and blinded them to the very pain they left behind. They actually thought it would be better to be beaten by taskmasters and make bricks for no reward than to follow God. Oh, the absurdity of human nature.

The truth is that they were not thankful because they were focusing on what they didn’t have and what they didn’t like, and could not see the goodness of God right before their eyes. Their thankless hearts were blinded to the loving-kindness of God.

As I mused, I began to realize that I struggle with the same things. Why can’t I be thankful in all things? It is because I allow the things that I don’t like to blind me to the loving-kindness of God that fills my life. Like Israel, I find myself murmuring and questioning God. As if, I somehow know better than he does. The truth is that my role is to fulfill the will of God in my life by being thankful in all things. That means taking my eyes off what bothers me, and placing it on the Lord as I look for his hand in all things.

Since I know the Bible says that all things work together for my good within God’s purpose, and are foreordained by God to shape me into his image, I have to decide whether to walk by faith, or by sight. God declared that we are to walk by faith, and if we draw back, he has no pleasure in our lives.

So why does God allow seemingly meaningless things to irritate me? How could something that has no apparent value and only serves as an irritant be for my good? I may never know, but after thinking about it, I found a couple of things to consider.

One. Have you ever met someone who has had everything given to them and has only known a life of ease? I’ve known men who have scratched and clawed their way into a successful business and have become rich. Yet, their children have never experienced what it feels like to have nothing, and they expect everything. Often the second generation feels like life owes them everything. Their character is tissue thin and they become spoiled by luxury. A spoiled child looks at everything from the perspective of how it makes them feel. If they want it, they think they have a right to it. If they don’t like something, they feel violated when they don’t get their way.

This is evident in the lives of children, but it is prevalent in our lives as well. It’s human nature. As Christians, when we are blessed by God, we’ll begin to expect God to answer every expectation unless something changes in our hearts. When I don’t get my way, my first response is to react negatively. Instead of thanking God, I murmur. There must be a conscious effort to turn my eyes off the things I don’t appreciate and focus on the love of God as I acknowledge his wisdom, and thank him for his work in my life.

I talked about those who have never needed, but also consider those who have lacked. When someone has gone through a difficult time, they quickly recognize good and appreciate what they have been given. During the Cold War era, a Soviet ambassador came to America and was given a tour of the sites we consider part of our national pride. Nothing impressed her until she walked into a grocery store. The woman broke down in tears when she saw the full shelves, wide selections, and people shopping and taking whatever they wanted. When is the last time you walked in a grocery store and felt moved by all that we have available to us? It has been such a common blessing that it never crosses our minds.

Two. The things we don’t like can force us to look for what is good. In many ways, it is a test of our faithfulness. Let’s go back to our example of Israel. After God showed his mighty works and promised the people that they would inherit the land promised to Abraham, he sent twelve spies into the land. God told them they would find a fruitful land, flowing with milk and honey.

The twelve men returned and declared that the land was exactly as God had promised it, but the people there were too strong and the challenges too great. They turned back from the promise of God because they couldn’t accept the test of their faith. Their faith was overthrown by giants in the land, but we are overthrown by gnats buzzing around our heads.

Every Christian struggles with this to one degree or another, but I am trying to learn from the example of Numbers 14:27-29

27 "How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me.
28 "Say to them, 'As I live,' says the LORD, 'just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you:
29 'The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above.

Fortunately, we don’t face the danger of dying in a literal desert, yet many Christians are dying in a desert of a fruitless Christian life. We dry up and die inside because we can’t see the blessings of the Lord and his perfect plan in our lives. The only thing we notice is what causes us to complain, and since our lives are foreordained by the Lord (Romans 8:28-30), our complaint is against him.

God will allow things that bother me to irritate me in order to see if I trust him and will do his will – offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving in all things. So, through Psalm 50 I realized that I was falling into the same trap that has plagued humanity from the beginning. Before me was a choice – give thanks and choose to lift up a thankful heart to the Lord so I can walk in his promises, or toss my own irritable human nature in his face, and complain about the handful of things that aren’t going my way. As real as my problems may seem to be, they are still filtered through the hand of God.

I found what I already knew to be true. When I began to thank him, the buzzing gnats grew faint and had no power to irritate me. Song of Solomon says to catch the little foxes that spoil the vines and rob from us the tender grapes. That is a murmuring spirit. Like a fox that steals the fruit, murmuring steals the joy of salvation and the blessings of the Lord. A fruitful life cannot coexist with a murmuring spirit.

The command to have a thankful heart is a price that will cost you nothing, but gain everything. I say nothing, but that’s because I consider pity parties as nothing. All God is asking me to do is give up what darkens my soul and lift my eyes to the light of his loving-kindness. Understanding this adds new meaning to Psalm 36:7-9

7 How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.
8 They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.
9 For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light

The light that opens our eyes comes when we trust in the Lord and submit ourselves under the shadow of his wings. A place, by the way, where distrust and unthankfulness aren’t welcomed. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem. He said, “How I longed to gather you under my wings as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not come.”

I realized that I must heed the same voice, or refuse the shelter and promises of God. He calls for me to come with a thankful heart, drink and be refreshed from his river, and be satisfied with his abundance. Why then should I cling to the things that rob me of this pleasure? What an amazing God we serve. He asks me to sacrifice my murmuring attitude and replace it with thankfulness. A thankful heart itself changes my life, but it doesn’t end there. As I thank him, the Lord draws me to the river of his pleasures – the place where blessings and promises flow directly from his throne.

Eddie Snipes

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