Be ye thankful–Col 3:15
In the Midst of Adversity
The people to whom this was addressed were mostly people in very humble circumstances. Many of them would have been slaves. Their lot at the best was not a pleasant lot. Their privileges were as few as their enjoyments. And always in a heathen city to be a Christian aggravated everything. Yet the singular thing is that when the apostle wrote them, in such letters as this to the Colossians, he never seems to have offered them his sympathy. When death enters any of our homes, the mourners receive many kind letters. I have often wondered what fashion of a letter the apostle would have written in such circumstances. That it would have been exquisitely gracious we may take for granted from all we know of him, but unquestionably its leading theme would have been praise. The truest sympathy sometimes is not pity. The truest sympathy sometimes is encouragement. The hand that helps is the hand that points the way to new fidelity and service. And so the apostle never hesitates, even when writing to Colossian slaves, to urge them to the grace of thankfulness.
Paul’s Thankful Spirit
In doing so he of course was calling them to what he himself practiced so magnificently. Perhaps there never was a more thankful heart than the heart of the Apostle Paul. Would you know, asks William Law the mystic, would you know who is the greatest saint? It is not the man who prays most or who does most. It is the man who is most thankful. And certainly, tried by such a test, you might search the annals of the Christian church and not discover a greater saint than Paul. You have but to think of him in the prison of Philippi singing praises there to God at midnight to see how he had practiced what he preached when he urged the Colossians to thankfulness.
Thankfulness Rarer than We Think
And so I should like to dwell a little upon that most important Christian duty, and I begin by saying that true thankfulness is probably harder and rarer than we think. All of us abhor ingratitude. We speak of it in the severest terms. I have heard people, Christian people, say they could forgive anything except ingratitude. And yet as life goes on, we often find that the sins which are hardest to forgive are the sins which are easiest to commit. On one occasion our Savior healed ten lepers. He healed them all and healed them equally. Yet of the ten, only one came back and showed himself a grateful man. And we might question without any cynicism whether among all of us who name the Name of Christ today, even one in ten is truly grateful. Doubtless all these ten, while cursed as lepers, had thought that it would be heaven to be healed. They had pictured it and dreamed of it, and in their dreams had Worshiped their deliverer. But among all the hours that come to us to test us and to reveal our hearts, there are few hours more penetrative than the hour in which we get all that we want. The thing we coveted was one thing. When we get it is another thing. It was so easily given. It cost so little. And, after all, did we not deserve it? Indeed, when we look around upon our fellows and see how many have got far more than we, is there any cause for gratitude at all? No doubt such thoughts were in the lepers’ hearts. No doubt they were in the Colossians’ hearts. And he must be strangely ignorant of his own heart who has never been conscious of that quiet revulsion. And that is why, over and over again as if calling us to what is rare and difficult, the Gospel exhorts you and me to be thankful.
Thankfulness in Unique and Routine Circumstances
Of course, in times of special mercy, thankfulness is an instinctive feeling. There are hours when it is natural to weep and hours when it is natural to cry “Thank God.” When a child is rescued from a burning house, when a man is rescued from a watery grave, when the crisis is past and the light of life comes back as in a fever or from the surgeon’s knife, then in a rush of feeling from the depths pure and fervent gratitude is born. And God, who may have been long ignored, is recognized again in that glad moment as He who woundeth and yet His hands make whole. Christian friend, all such hours are good: but in any life such hours come very seldom. And it is not the rare hours that show the man: it is the common hours of common years. It takes far more than one exciting moment to tell you that anyone is really brave. And it takes far more than any tragic moment to tell you that anyone is really thankful. To be thankful in the sense of Scripture is to be thankful every ordinary day. It is to bear our routine burdens cheerfully, to meet our common sorrows without murmuring. It is so to feel the hand of God in everything, so to acknowledge the ordering of His love that for us there is nothing common or unclean. He who is rarely clean is not a clean man, and he who is rarely thankful is not a thankful man. The very joy and power of this great grace lie in the fact that it is universal. And that was what mightily impressed the world when the Christian Gospel began to spread abroad; it was the wonderful gladness of it all.
Resignation in Contrast to Thankfulness
Thankfulness, when you come to think of it, really depends upon our view of God. As is our God, so is our gratitude. If all that happens to us comes by chance, then of course no man can be grateful. Gratitude is not a duty then, for there is no one to be grateful to. Nor can gratitude ever be a duty if God be only a cold mid distant Spirit who takes no personal interest in men. Given a heaven like that, at his best two duties alone are in the power of man. The one is fortitude to face the worst, and the other is resignation in the worst. And that is why in the old pagan world the noblest gospel that was known was that of fortitude and resignation. Then came the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and resignation was swallowed up in thankfulness. And it was not because their lot was different: it was really because their God was different. They had been awakened through their Lord and Savior to a God whose name and character was Love, Love that stooped from heaven to the cross. Given such love, such individual love, life becomes a different thing at once. There is a loving purpose in its darkest hours; a loving watchfulness in all its ordering. And the moment that anyone awakes to that and with all his heart and soul believes in that, then gratitude is born. That is why Paul says in another passage, “In everything give thanks.” Not in some things of quite peculiar gladness, but in everything give thanks. For in everything there is the love of God; love is ordering and arranging everything and willeth not that any man should perish.
The Thankfulness of Jesus
The spirit of universal thankfulness was very conspicuous in Jesus Christ. You do not think of Jesus as resigned: you think of Jesus as rejoicing. There are three occasions in the life of Christ when you find Him giving thanks to God. Three times over, from the depths within, His thankfulness welled over into speech. And one has only to study these thanksgivings and all that is implied in them to realize the thankfulness of Jesus. Once He gave thanks for common things when He broke the loaves upon the mountainside. Once He gave thanks for ordinary people in that God had revealed His secret unto babes. And once in the darkest hour of His life on that night on which He was betrayed, He broke forth into such glorious thanksgiving as none who heard it ever could forget. Think of it: on that night on which He was betrayed when all He had toiled for seemed to be in vain, when the cross was waiting Him and all its agony, and the spitting and the mocking and the grave. Yet on that night we find our Savior thankful and pouring out His gratitude in prayer. My brother and sister, it is that great example that lies at the back of a command like this. We are to walk even as Jesus walked. We are to be thankful as He was. Not for the glad things only but for the shadowed things, not for the great things only but for the common things, and why, just because God is love and in love is ordering all, and all things are working together for our good.
Thankfulness–the Secret of Happiness
This grace of thankfulness diligently cultivated is one of the secrets of true happiness. It is not the happy people who are thankful. It is the thankful people who are happy. Happiness does not depend on what we have, else those who have the most would be the happiest. As a matter of fact, how often do we find that those who have the most are not the happiest? Happiness does not depend on what we have: it rather depends upon our point of view, and he who has won the thankful point of view is always on the highway of gladness. The flower that to the farmer is a weed may to the botanist be treasure trove. The rain that is so vexing to the child is just what the angler has been looking for. And so in life there are a thousand things that have an equal power to vex us or to bless us, according to our different point of view. No one who murmurs is ever really happy, and no one who worries is ever really happy. They have forgotten God and left Him out, and to leave Him out is to leave out the music. And it is only when, through Christ our Savior, we come to see His loving hand in everything that we win the thankful, grateful heart without which nobody ever can be glad. Ungrateful people are never happy people. They are always querulous and discontented. The more we are thankful for our everyday mercies, the more does life become a joyful thing. And that is why Christian life is always joyful, because everything the years may bring to us, Christ makes it possible for all who trust Him to cultivate the thankful spirit. The tiniest gift from somebody we love is of more value than many a costly offering. We take it gratefully just because love is there, and, taking it gratefully, it makes us happy. And so when we learn, as every man can learn, that God is love and that in Him we live, there is a worth in things we never saw before. The way to be glad is to be grateful, and the way to be grateful is to trust in God, to trust in Him as Jesus trusted Him on that night in which He was betrayed. Thus grows the assurance that there is no mistake, that He is watching, guiding, guarding, blessing us, which, when a man has learned, he ceases murmuring and finds that being thankful he is glad.
Thankfulness–the Source of Dedicated Service
But not only is thankfulness the spring of joy, it is also the source of dedicated service. And that is why the service of the Christian is perhaps the freest service in the world. We have all heard of the slave who after years of slavery was purchased by a stranger and set free, and how he fell at his liberator’s feet and offered him all his service for the future. And we do not need to read how that new service, offered freely from a grateful heart, was richer than all the service of the past. Once he had toiled because he had to toil, and now he toiled because he loved to toil. Once he had done his work in daily fear, and now he did it all in daily gratitude. And that swift change of motive in his heart, from the haunting terror of the lash to love, made all the difference in what he did. It made all the difference to him, and it makes all the difference to us. Service is changed down to its very depths when we realize that we have been redeemed. And when we realize that we have been redeemed, not with gold but with the blood of Christ, what can we say each morning that we awaken but “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.” My brother and sister, be ye thankful. It may be a secret you have never learned. Think of all you owe to God in Christ, you who are less than the least of all His saints. So shall there come new peace into your life, a happiness to which you are a stranger, a passion to do a little ere the night fall for Him who loved you and gave Himself for you.