Gratitude in Everything: Recovering from the Hopelessness of Thanklessness
“When gratitude dies on the altar of a man’s heart, that man is well-nigh hopeless.”
Dr. Bob Sr. had a way of stating his thoughts with a note of finality, a pithy mode of expression that was both pointed and potent for the listener and reader. Though I never actually heard him preach in person, I have read his sermons and, like all BJU students and faculty, have read his famous “chapel sayings” in the classrooms where they hang on campus.
If ever one of those sayings had a “haunting” quality, it is this one. Though I can “mull it over” somewhat analytically in writing, I assure you it has “worked me over” many times before today, as I’ve labored through a day, conscience-stricken over the barrenness of my own ungrateful heart, thinking, “What is wrong with me? How can I be so lacking in appreciation for all that God has done for me?”
This chapel saying, which captures the essence of so many statements in Scripture about being thankful, has often caused me to face myself and confess my bitter, complaining spirit at the throne of my longsuffering God. Sometimes, while trying to keep a smile and a cheerful disposition, I have found myself seething like a volcano ready to erupt with anger and frustration over what I felt was an injustice that had been done me, or something I thought was an unforgivable oversight by someone who should have known better, or an expectation unmet by someone I thought I deserved better from. Looking back, I’m not proud of those moments, but having them has sobered me about the importance of true thanksgiving of heart, all the time, as has Dr. Bob’s view that a man who is ungrateful is in trouble—he is “well-nigh hopeless.”
But why would he conclude that a person without gratitude is a person that is well-nigh hopeless? Isn’t that a little extreme, really? Well the answer to those questions is the answer to another deeper question. What makes a person ungrateful? It is the answer to this question which plums the depths of the hopelessness of the ingrate.
a self-centered heart
People who lack gratitude are blinded by self-deception. An ungrateful person thinks he is better than he is and for that reason he deserves for everything to go just as he prefers it, always. There is a sense of entitlement in him which says, “I have a right to have what I want, the way I want it, when I want it, or I will just refuse to be satisfied at all.” This spirit is a veritable formula for misery in this life. A person with this attitude will find himself quickly without hope, because life will not go his way always, and he will find himself unable to focus on anything except what does not meet his unrealistic and unreasonable expectations. He will be constantly disillusioned and ungrateful about his lot in life, all the while grumbling and complaining about what he thinks he deserves and doesn’t have. He certainly will find little joy in what God decides he actually needs. This spirit of self-deception leads to another symptom of ingratitude and a source of even greater dissatisfaction.
A self-dependent heart
Within the heart of every man, both regenerate and unregenerate, there lurks this other determined enemy of gratitude—covetousness. Paul called this idolatry (Eph. 5:5). It is the worship of acquisition. This false philosophy of life states, “The more I acquire, the happier and more grateful I will be.” What the person wants to acquire is not the issue. Rather, he feels he must have more or different than what he has presently, whether that be another car, another piece of property, a better job, nicer clothing, a greater accumulation of investments, another house, or even a different spouse. The fire of gratitude on the altar of his heart lies smoldering, extinguished by this icy flood of covetousness. Rather than all he is and has being sacrificed as a sweet-smelling burnt offering to Christ and His cause, he is bent on gathering more “stuff” for no purpose but his own insatiable greed and illusive satisfaction. Like all the cancers of sin in the human soul, this spirit may remain undetectable for years only to suddenly spread with a viciousness throughout the heart with deadly effect, especially when left unchecked by repentance and obedience. In the end the soul is left withered, unsatisfied and ungrateful, sure that just “a little bit more” will make him truly happy and truly thankful.
Arrogant selfishness on one hand and greed on the other causes a person to look in all the wrong places for satisfaction in this life, primarily either himself or what he can gather. This is what makes him “well-nigh hopeless.” A self-centered, self-dependent life bent on accumulation is a spiritually powerless life, one lacking the grace of God. Only the humble Christian who realizes what he does not deserve but has received by the favor of God, and who grasps what he really needs, the grace of God to live for the glory of God, has a life filled with overflowing satisfaction.
from greed to gratitude
Rather than considering additional causes of ingratitude, these thoughts are better ended by looking at the inverse—a much better and brighter view. A fuller and more discerning appreciation of what we have been given is a secret to that sense of privilege and joy which is the true essence of Christian gratitude, the spirit of all true followers of Christ. How often I have observed truly grateful Christians who live in ill health or physical deprivation. They have learned to lower their expectations and their requirements in this life physically and materially and have decided that what they have in the Lord spiritually is really all that matters.
How strange that a shocking event of near total loss is often what is takes to awaken us to what we have in a relationship with our wives, our husbands, or our children. Perhaps a renewed vision of hell and how close each of us was to it as a place of permanent suffering and separation from God might awaken in us as a sense of the privilege we enjoy in our relationship with Christ. Doomed criminals abound in gratitude toward the governor who pardons them. Terminal patients overflow with thanks toward the physician who finds their cure. An oppressed people are filled with praise for their liberators. The mature, productive adult feels great gratitude toward the teacher that showed him what he could become and led him down the path of development. A grown child wishes he could somehow repay the tenderness, the patience, the sacrifice of his devoted parents. In Christ we have the One who pardons, heals, redeems, liberates, teaches, and lovingly cares for us like a father. We are lost sheep, found, returned, protected, and cared for by our Shepherd. We are priests and princes, serving under the Prince of Peace and the Great High Priest. We are ambassadors of the greatest King and bring a message of good news to a sad world and light to those in darkness. We are children whose afflictions are only meant to improve us, whose walk through the dark valley is tenderly guided, and for whom death is a door that opens to an unending life.
More and more, day by day, we are meant to be surprised by what we have in Him, revealed through His word, comprehended by His Spirit. So perhaps with bowed head, bended knee, brimming eyes, a humbled and full heart, we can say together with quivering lips, “Thank you, Lord, thank you” —words that are the will of God in everything (1 Thess. 5:18). When we do, our hearts become an altar and on it burns the great spiritual offering—thanksgiving to God. And thanks be to God, we are not “well-nigh hopeless.”
Steve Hankins (PhD) is the former Dean of BJU Seminary. In addition to teaching, he now devotes time to authoring books and articles and to representing the seminary around the country and the world.