Before that day, I never really understood how important it is to give thanks. I remember it vividly: cross country skiing on the shores of the Gulf of Finland in St. Petersburg. I was at a retreat for training and edification with other international missionaries. The sun glistened off the snow-covered pine branches as we made our way along the beach. I had never skied before, and I was loving this.
When we returned to the lodge, another guy and I said, “That was rad!” (A little hint to the decade this took place). And then an Armenian-American woman said, “Yes, praise Jesus that he created all this that we could ski around in.”
It was a nice sentiment. My reaction? Why are you over-spiritualizing this fun event?
The woman’s words haunted me as I went to our next meeting. Why didn’t I thank God? Ephesians 5:20, about giving thanks to God for everything, came to mind. I remembered as a child hearing that and thinking every time, “How can I give God thanks for everything? What if my dog dies? What if someone in my family gets hurt? How can I thank him for that?” I was always drawn to the “what-ifs” rather than being obedient. There were so many things to be thankful for that I wasn’t lifting up to God.
So, as I sat there, I decided to practice giving thanks. I started thanking God for everything—literally everything. Big things and small things. I thanked him that I could be in the room with other missionaries from other countries worshipping him. I thanked God that I had a chair to sit in and the ability to sit and stand.
I went downstairs for lunch and thanked God for the liver (yuck). I thanked him for a fork and knife to use to eat. I looked outside and saw the falling snow and thanked him for that. Then I thanked him that I could be inside in the warmth. Whatever I saw, I thanked God for it.
When I returned back to Rostov where I lived, I walked down the street thanking God for the gloomy faced Russians that passed me—they never seemed happy on the street. And at that moment I began to see people and life differently. I had an unusual peace and an abnormal joy. My faith grew by leaps and bounds because I saw just how much God has blessed me, and so I knew I could trust him with the tough stuff.
That was a transformative lesson. It was interesting that as time went on I started to see how much the topic of thanksgiving permeates Scripture. It’s everywhere! I encourage you to read Romans 1:18-32. It says how depraved mankind became when God gave them over to their sinfulness. All sorts of sin increased, and in verse 21 we see that this happened because they “did not honor God or give him thanks.” Wow!
You see, when we thank God we are humbling ourselves. We are saying that we acknowledge that it doesn’t come from us, but from him. And we know from James 4:6 that God gives grace (empowerment) to the humble, but opposes the proud, as he did in the Romans 1 passage.
Well, years went by and I became a high school teacher at a private Christian school. One evening I went to bed tense with stress. I thought that a good night’s rest would take care of it. But I woke up in the morning still tense. I thought a nice warm shower would do the trick. Nope. Nothing helped, and I realized I couldn’t go to school and minister to kids in this state.
So, I knelt down with my Bible. The verse in Philippians 4 about being anxious for nothing came to mind, so I turned there. As I re-read the passage (4:4-7), I noticed that we are called to pray with thanksgiving. There it was again! So, I repeated the experiment I did back in Russia and began thanking God for every little thing. And then I prayed, “God, I can’t go to school like this. Lift my burden.” And I physically felt the anxiety go away. I felt lighter. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding came over me, and I was ready to minister.
My encouragement to you is to try this thanksgiving experiment. For a week, just focus on giving thanks. Be in continual dialogue with God, thanking him for everything you can think of, no matter how small. I’d love to hear your testimony after you do it. Please email me at email@example.com.
Jeremy Matlock is pastor of adult discipleship and assimilation at Hillsboro (Kan.) MB Church.