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Only the Grateful Believe

Thankfulness is the evidence of deep faith.

Thankfulness is difficult for most of us. An elementary school teacher was trying to teach thankfulness to her students, so she asked them to write down all the things they could think of that they were thankful for. She walked up and down the aisles as the students wrote these things down.

She was impressed when she came to Chad's desk because at the top of his list was the word glasses. She said, "Chad, I'm so happy to see you're thankful for your glasses. Why are you thankful for them?"

He said, "Well, they keep the boys from hitting me and the girls from kissing me."

Not a bad reason to be thankful. What are you thankful for today? Helen Keller was blind and deaf from her earliest years, and experienced life in a dark and small way at times. Yet she said this: "I have often thought that it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind and deaf for a few days at some time early in adult life. The darkness would make them more appreciative of sight; silence would teach them the joys of sound."

Thankfulness doesn't always come naturally for us. The dock worker-turned-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, put it this way: "The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings."

Sometimes we're like the little boy who came home from a birthday party. His mom met him at the door, and asked, "How was it?" He showed her all of his candy and trinkets and souvenirs. She said, "Wow! Did you say, 'thank you?'" "Well," he said, "I was going to, but when I was in line at the door and the girl ahead of me said, 'Thank you' to the woman, the woman told her, 'Oh, don't mention it.' So I didn't."

We're here today because we did stop to think and thank. We're here because we want to thank God and to fill the baskets the angels are taking to heaven today with songs and grateful prayers and declarations of what God has done for us.

The tragedy of Psalm 22

When I'm in the mood for thankfulness, I recall one of my favorite hymns:

Amid the thronging worshipers,
Jehovah will I bless.
Before my brethren gathered there
His name will I confess.
Come praise him, all ye that fear the Lord,
Ye children of his grace.
With reverence, sound his glories forth
And bow before his face.

That song takes those glorious words at the end of Psalm 22, the joyful part, and makes them the rousing chorus of praise and thankfulness; but it totally ignores the first two-thirds of the psalm, which alternate between tragedy and thankfulness.

When we read the psalm, the words bring to mind pictures of Jesus on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Those images just keep on coming. Verse 6: "I am scorned by men and despised by all the people." Verses 7 and 8: "All who see me mock me. They hurl insults, shaking their heads. 'He trusts in the Lord. Let the Lord rescue him.'"

Verse 14 says, "I am poured out like water. All my joints are out of joint." You can see Jesus hanging on the cross with those nails tearing into his flesh and his shoulders being pulled out their sockets. Your hear verse 15, "My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth." Of the few things that Jesus said on the cross, one of the most horrible was this: "I thirst." When the soldiers argued over who would take Jesus' clothes home with him, the Gospel writers thought of Psalm 22:18: "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."

That's the horrible part of Psalm 22, the psalm of pain and tragedy that ends with words of thankfulness after a lot of suffering has taken place. In our own lives, just like the hymn writer, we'd like to cut Psalm 22 into two different sections. We want to sing the songs of thankfulness, when we're in the mood for it, even though that may be seldom.

We don't want to sing the first twenty-one verses of Psalm 22. In times of prosperity, when things are going our way, we might take time to sing that prayer of thanks. But in the bad times, all we know is that ringing cry of David, of Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

A man in another city used to go to church, but then his business partner ran away with his wife. Now he says, "Thanksgiving? That's not something I can celebrate." A family lost a son and a brother tragically, and it shook their faith. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?" No thanksgiving for them this year.

That's often the way it is for us. It's one or the other. The good or the bad. Thankfulness or curses. The wails of verses 1–21 or the laughter of verses 22–31. We have a hard time keeping Psalm 22 together.

It may appear as if only those who believe in God are truly thankful—they're the only ones who have the capacity for it. Mary Ann Vincent once wrote that, "the atheist's most embarrassing moment is when he feels profoundly thankful for something, but can't find anyone to thank for it."

Only believers are grateful? Barbara Jergenson wrote a little book that she entitled The Lord Is My Shepherd, But … . This is her prayer for Thanksgiving Day:

God, I realize the reason I have things so good is not that I'm better than other people. I have a good education and good health, a loving family, and I live in a free country. But I know that I don't have these things because I'm so worthy compared to other people in this world.
Take the refugees. They have no real homes, not much to live on. Of course, they may not have worked as hard as I or as hard as my father worked. If those refugees had something like our family's hardware business, they wouldn't have picked up and left it and gone off looking for some other place to live. You know, if a person works really hard and uses his head, he can usually come out pretty well.
Our area has never been hit by hurricanes or floods or earthquakes or anything, but again it shows how wise my grandfather was to pick this town to set up his business. I mean, if other people's ancestors chose countries that have not become as prosperous or as free as ours, or if they never got out of the old country, well, whose fault is that but their own?
And then, too, I know we really can't say you're on our side. That would be too presumptuous. But doesn't it make some difference that this is a Christian country? Don't you make the sun shine a little brighter here and the rain fall a little more regularly? Haven't we earned the right to extra blessings?
So, I thank you, God, that I have so much. I feel sorry for those around the world who have less. But that's life, isn't it?"

I know she's being facetious, but aren't those thoughts sometimes the ones that go through our minds—that only those who believe in God are truly thankful? Ours is a great nation because so many of us are Christians? Only those who have faith can be grateful?

When I look at Psalm 22, I'm beginning to understand this the other way around. Only the grateful believe. Maybe that's the theme of Psalm 22. Maybe that's what really holds the two sections of this Psalm together. Maybe it's not that believers are grateful to God, but that those who are grateful to God are the ones who truly believe him. Only those of us who are truly thankful are able to ride out the storms of life that might otherwise destroy us. Only those who have an attitude of gratitude know what it means to believe.

As we sit here this Thanksgiving morning, there are some who are celebrating their last Thanksgiving. Some of us will die, perhaps even tragically, before the next year is through. Some of us will find out that we have cancer in the next few months, and some of us will lose our businesses. Some of us will lose our spouses. Some of us will be betrayed by our friends. Some of us will pray, but all we'll be able to do is cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

And it's then that we'll need Psalm 22. Thankfulness and faith go hand in hand. According to what David says, my faith in God is not just polite thanks for goodies and trinkets that he's given me; it's actually the other way around. To him, my thankfulness is the cornerstone of my faith.

"I'm not thankful just because he's given me things," says David. "I believe in him because it's right to give him thanks even when I can't point to anything specific—even when the chips are down, even when I'm surrounded by those troubles I speak of in the first twenty-one verses."

Think, for instance, of the testimony of Job. That's what the book of Job is about. Satan says to God, "Look, Job serves you because you give him all the toys to play with. Toys first; thankfulness later. You know, if you'd take all those toys away from him, he wouldn't thank you any more; he'd curse you." So what happens? God allows those things to take place, for all the toys to be snatched away. And then comes the surprising ending, because Job loses everything, all of those toys, all of those good things, all of that prosperity and that stability of life. Disease and disaster wipe him out. Sores cling to his body. The maggots eat his flesh.

When all is gone, Job cries out to God with a prayer like that of David and Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But then he goes on. He doesn't stop there, because thankfulness is the cornerstone of his faith. Even in the middle of that tragedy, the amazing testimony of Job is this: "I will find delight in the Almighty. I will call upon God at all times" (Job 27:10).

You see the picture? It's not the thankfulness that comes on top of the toys, but the thankfulness that undergirds the faith that allows life to be lived. Guido DeBrae wrote the Belgic Confession, one of our beautiful testimonies of faith in the Christian Reformed denomination. It's in the back of our Psalter hymnals.

Guido was thrown in prison and sentenced to death because he wrote that document; eventually they hanged Guido DeBrae. It was a tough time in the history of the world and of the church. But the night before Guido went to the gallows, he wrote a moving letter to his wife. Listen to these words. He writes:

"My dear and well-beloved wife in our Lord Jesus:
Your grief and anguish are the cause of me writing you this letter. I most earnestly pray you will not be grieved beyond measure. We knew when we were married that we might not have many years together, and the Lord has graciously given us seven. Had the Lord wished us to live together longer, he could easily have caused it to be so; but such was not his pleasure. Let his good will be done. And let that be a sufficient reason.
Moreover, consider that I have not fallen into the hands of my enemies by chance, but by the providence of God, which guides and governs all things small as well as great. And all these considerations have made my heart glad and peaceful. And I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to be glad with me and to thank God, the good God, for what he is doing; for he does nothing but what is altogether good and bright.
I pray you then to be comforted in the Lord, to commit yourself and your affairs to him; for he is the husband of the widow and the father of the fatherless, and he will never leave you nor forsake you.
Goodbye, Catherine, my well-beloved. I pray my God to comfort you and give you resignation to his holy will.
Your faithful husband, Guido DeBrae

Isn't that amazing? Do you understand what goes behind that? Only the grateful believe. Only those whose hearts are already tuned to thankfulness to God for life itself can weather the storms and the tragedies we experience during our sojourn here.

Thank God for God

Joyce Kilmer put it this way: "Thank God for the bitter and ceaseless strife. Thank God for the stress and the pain of life. And, oh, thank God for God." That's it, isn't it? Thank God for God. In the end, it isn't the things that I thank him for, says David in verse 3: "You alone are holy enthroned on the praises of Israel." Thank God for God. That's where faith begins.

We have a tendency at Thanksgiving time to toss off a list of things that God has done for us for which we should be grateful. Think of the way Dear Abby puts it in the fall of every year around Thanksgiving time: "Our heavenly Father, we thank you for the food and remember the hungry. We thank you for health and remember the sick. We thank you for friends and remember the friendless. We thank you for freedom and remember the enslaved. May these remembrances stir us to service that your gifts to us may be used for others."

We can say "Amen" to a prayer like that. Today, we ought to think of those things like food, health, friends, freedom, and service. Our lives should be filled with such prayers.

But Psalm 22 takes us deeper into thankfulness than that. It goes beyond lists and says, thank God for God. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."

For when all of the lists have been crossed off and all of the blessings, like those of Job, have been withdrawn, and all of the prosperity vanishes, there's only one hope left. Says David in verse 24: "God has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one. He has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help."

In other words, thank God for God, because that is where faith begins, not where it ends. Only the grateful believe, and faith itself, which seems to soar in times of prosperity, needs the strength of thankfulness to carry it through the dark night of the soul.

Years ago, A.J Cronin, an English doctor-turned-writer, told of another doctor who often prescribed a cure for grumblers. He called it his "Thank-you cure." For patients whose major ailment was depression and frustration, the good doctor insisted that they say out loud, "Thank you," whenever there was some moment of beauty or grace or love that slipped over them. Not only that, but they were supposed to record in a notebook each separate event. That was to go on for six to eight weeks. The doctor reported a wonderful rate of cure. In most instances, the entire quality of life for his patients had changed. One of the first signs of it was that they began to pray again. Is it surprising? Not really, if it's true that only the grateful believe.

Back in Eilenberg, Germany, in 1637, the trinkets of life were all gone. Europe was at war. Eilenberg was tossed back and fourth by armies from different powers. Three times during that year it was attacked and severely damaged. When the armies left, the refugees poured in by the thousands. Disease ran rampant. Food was scarce. There was only one pastor in the entire city, a fellow named Martin Rinkard.

His journal for 1637 indicates that he conducted over 4,500 funerals that year, sometimes as many as 40 to 50 in a day. Surely no thanksgiving celebrations could be held in life like that. Death was constant, and each morning stank with disaster. But Christians still sing the song that Pastor Rinkard wrote that year. They sing it with gusto, and they sing it with faith. They sing it not because it catalogues a list of reasons for thanksgiving, but because thankfulness is all that's left. Even when the bottom drops out, my relationship with God goes beyond the thankless and becomes the source of my faith.

"Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices.
Who wondrous things has done
In whom his world rejoices.
Who from our mother's arms
Has blessed us on our way
With countless gives of love
And still is ours today."

Thank God for God. Only the grateful believe.

© Wayne Brouwer
Preaching Today Issue No. 170
A resource of Christianity Today International

Wayne Brouwer teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

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Sermon Outline:


Thankfulness is difficult for most of us.

I. We're often between tragedy and thankfulness.

II. Are only believers grateful?

III. Only the grateful believe.

IV. Thank God for God.


Thankful, even in the face of death.