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The Great Gratitude Experiment

In and through Christ, our hearts can sing with radical gratitude and blessing.


There's a theme in the Bible that appears in several different places. Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

He also says, "Make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:19-20). To the church at Colossae, he talks about this theme three different times in one brief passage:

And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:15-17).

So we're going to train for gratitude, and you can start right now. Did you notice when you came in and got a bulletin that it's blank? Open it up now if you would, and get out a pen or pencil. This is deliberate. We're going to try an exercise in this sermon, because sometimes during a sermon your mind will drift. Today the idea is to let your mind drift toward gratitude.

Here are a few categories to help. Maybe there are individuals God will bring to your mind: a family member, or a coworker, or a teacher. Or an experience: getting to go to school or work or travel. Or a time when you were suffering and God comforted you. Think of a small gift: an encouraging word from somebody, a phone call, a text, a good night's sleep, food you love to eat. Maybe this gift is life-changing: faith, the Bible, the death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit as a guide, spiritual gifts, or your church community.

I have a few hypotheses I want to share with you about gratitude. I will share with you the basis for these hypotheses but I want you to test them. See if they prove true in your lives. Through the message, God will nudge you with something you're grateful for. When he does, just take that pen out and write it down. By the end of this message you'll have wonderful words to look at, and we'll talk to God about it.

Gratitude flows from God's presence.

My first hypothesis this week is: More gratitude will not come from more acquisitions, but from more awareness of God's presence and God's goodness. Today, I don't want to talk about the therapeutic benefits of gratitude. There are a lot of them, and they're important. But today I specifically want to talk about Christian gratitude, Jesus-shaped gratitude. This type of gratitude starts with a new worldview.

A wonderful Christian writer named Robert Roberts once said there's a uniquely Christian framework for gratitude. (By the way, do you think it would be hard to be grateful if your name was Robert Roberts? Why would his parents give him that name?) But it's important to know what gratitude is: the perception of the good. You cannot manufacture gratitude by willpower, even though a lot of people try.

Gratitude is a byproduct of a way of seeing things, of a certain worldview, and it always involves three factors. These factors come from the old Latin word bene, which means "good." Gratitude always involves three benes.

First, gratitude involves benefit. In order for me to be grateful, I have to receive a gift. I must perceive it's a good thing for me to receive. I must find it favorable. The Bible has a lot to say about this. Psalm 103 says, "Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things."

Now you should all be writing stuff down right now, because God does all this. Don't forget the benefits. Our lives are filled with benefits from God. We're blind to them most of the time. Gratitude requires that we recognize them and know they're good.

The second factor of gratitude is a benefactor. Benevolence means "to will the good." Benefactor—which is related to our word for factory—means "one who does good." To be grateful, you must believe not just that benefits are coming your way, but that they don't come at random or by accident. They come from somebody. And you must believe this benefactor has good intentions towards you.

If I'm to be a grateful person, I must believe that about God. The writers of the Bible are convinced they have a great benefactor. James says this fabulous statement: "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights." This is an expression of his goodness. A good God exists, and he's always giving to us.

There's a third element that contributes to gratitude. There has to be a benefit, and a benefactor, and there has to be a beneficiary: one who receives the good. That's you. You are the beneficiary of the benefits of a God who has your best interests at heart. The beneficiary has a crucial facet: For there to be gratitude, beneficiaries must believe they are receiving something they did not earn, merit, or deserve.

Gratitude grows in humility.

Gratitude always involves a posture of humility. If I believe I am owed something, I will not be thankful for it because I think I'm entitled to it. If you just give me a car for no reason at all, I'll be overwhelmed with gratitude. I'll say, "Thank you! I can't believe how good you are to me." If I pay the fair market value for the car, when you hand me the keys, I would say, "That's fine. Okay," but I won't say, "Thank you for this incredible gift. I'm overwhelmed," because I bought it. I'm owed it.

The sinful human race is naturally entitled: we believe our gifts rightfully belong to us. The more we think we're entitled to, the less we will be grateful for. We wonder, Why do people who keep getting more and more, show less and less gratitude? The bigger our sense of entitlement, the smaller our sense of gratitude.

My sinful mind can convince me I'm entitled to anything I want, and if I don't get something I want, other people must be messing up. They owe me, and they ought to pay me. This has led to a proliferation of lawsuits: when we don't get something we really want, we sue somebody.

Our San Francisco Giants were sued a few years ago for passing out Father's Day gifts to men only. A psychology professor sued for sexual harassment because of the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party. A psychic was awarded $986,000 when a doctor's CAT scan impaired her psychic abilities. You have to wonder about this third one: If she really was a psychic, shouldn't she have known not to go to that doctor in the first place?

In a Christian framework, ingratitude is not just a psychological problem. It's not just an impoverishment of my emotional experience. It's a sin. Paul says it's the hallmark of a life opposed to God. If you're a parent, you don't want to raise an ungrateful child.

Speaking about people living a life opposed to God, Paul says, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile." They perceived themselves to be entitled, to be owed. They didn't see themselves as grateful receivers of grace every moment.

The Bible's word for ingratitude is grumbling. Paul says that grumbling is the quintessential mindset of life without God. Have you ever heard of a church person grumbling? You can be lured away from God by grumbling quicker than almost anything else. God takes this quite seriously.

Paul heard about a spirit of complaint in the church at Corinth, so he wrote to them about how Israel grumbled at Mount Sinai. God was so good to the Israelites. He gave them freedom, took care of them, gave them the Ten Commandments, led them to the Promised Land, but they just grumbled in response. They were not grateful. Paul says to the church at Corinth, "And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel." How many of you who have grumbled are a little worried right now?

Gratitude leads to a life of blessing.

Jesus knew what it was like to live in gratitude. His way of life can teach us how to run a great experiment. Every devout Jewish person was devoted to two daily forms of prayer. One was called the Shema, from the first word in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength," because he is our great benefactor. They would pray that every day.

Then the other form of prayer was called the 18, or its complete title: the 18 benedictions (there's that little word again). Again, if you break benediction up, diction means "words" or "speech." Good words. In Hebrew, a benediction was any prayer that began with the word bless. To bless is to speak good to somebody else. They always wanted to speak good, to bless, to thank God, and they would do this constantly.

In the morning when they woke up, they would pray the 18. "Blessed are you, God." At night before they went to bed, they would pray the 18. "Blessed are you, God." In the middle of the day, they would pause and pray the 18. "Blessed are you, Lord, who abundantly forgives."

Then they would enrich that simple phrase. Rabbis would teach their followers how to expand on it. "Blessed are you, Lord, who heals the sick." They'd remember, I have a body and I've been sick and God is the one who's behind my health. "Blessed are you who sustains the living and raises the dead." I have a hope.

They were training for gratitude. They loved doing this, because the good life involves gratitude. And gratitude doesn't come when you get more stuff. That's the insane folly of our day. Gratitude comes when you see reality: all benefits come from a wonderful benefactor, of which I am the grace-given beneficiary.

They would pray the 18 an extra time on the Sabbath. They didn't have to work on the Sabbath. So they thanked God. These benedictions were also called the Amidah, which means standing, because they were to be said standing up. If you pray while you're sitting down, you might fall asleep, so they would stand up to pray. Rabban Gamaliel said, "Every day a man is to pray the 18 benedictions."

They discussed the best way to say them. Rabbis would say, "Never say the 18 when you're on a donkey," because being up high could make you feel a little proud or self-sufficient. It's humbling to come down, to be down to earth when you thank God. So don't say the benedictions on a donkey.

They would regularly gather at the temple to pray the 18. You can see this between the lines in a lot of the New Testament. Acts 3 says, "One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer at three in the afternoon." That's the time when they would gather to pray the 18. They would do it at the temple because the temple was the reminder, the expression of God's presence. The temple represented a return to Eden. God's plan is for the "with God" life to be realized as a human project on earth. The temple was a little picture of that. So people would gather there to say the 18.

If you couldn't go there, you were to turn your body toward the Holy of Holies, where God's presence was expressed. They would remember his presence in their midst. Rabbis would write about what to do if you were directionally challenged and didn't know what direction of the Holy of Holies. "One who is sitting on a ship must turn his heart in the direction of the Holy of Holies." Because life with God is a life of giving thanks to him.

Every rabbi would teach his disciples, his talmidim, how to pray the 18 in their own way. When Jesus' disciples asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray," they were asking him to do precisely this. "How should we pray? What's our way of praying the 18, of blessing God?" The Lord's Prayer is the 18 in summary form. Sometime rabbis used to talk about how to pray the 18 in summary form, and other times in expanded form. "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed [blessed] be your name."

The early church would pray the Lord's Prayer three times every day. It was the 18 for the early church. But gratitude did not stop with the 18. Every meal was an occasion to express gratitude. Food was not eaten until people stopped and remembered it was a gift. They didn't just inhale it the way we often do now. A rabbi said, "A man must not taste anything until he has blessed it." They weren't so much blessing the food. They were blessing God who gave it. Whenever we bless the food, we should actually bless God.

As Psalm 24 says, "The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof." Everything is a gift. They were so serious about gratitude that certain rabbis believed if you forgot to bless God for his great gift of food, you had to go back to where you ate your meal and thank him there so you wouldn't forget the next time. If you were on the road, you couldn't thank him on the road. You had to go all the way back to the location of your meal. It was a way of saying, "I'm going to remember to do this."

Have you ever been to In-N-Out Burger? How can you not be grateful to God when there's an In-N-Out Burger in the world? If we still held this belief today, and you realized you forgot to give thanks, you would have to drive back to In-N-Out Burger. If somebody is at your table, you'd make them get up. You'd sit down there and say, "O God, thank you."

Rabbis would argue about how much time someone had in which to return to give thanks. They said, "You have to do that before the food is digested out of your body," because they were people of gratitude. Every different item of food had to receive its own unique blessing. You bless God for the bread, and then when the figs come out, you bless him for the figs. Then when the wine comes out, you bless him for the wine. Then if you're lucky enough to have meat, you bless him for the meat.

The general principle that they lived by was to bless God for every gift. The rabbis said, "He who enjoys anything from creation, which is without blessing, commits misuse." It's a form of theft. And this all marked Jesus' life. Again, we see this between the lines in the New Testament. At the Last Supper we're told, "When they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it." Later during the same meal: "Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks …"

In our day, if we pray at all over a meal we do it real quick, kind of perfunctory at the beginning. Not Jesus. He did what any devout Israelite would do. Every time another item of food came, he'd say, "God, this is from you too. I get to have this? Thank you!" Gratitude wasn't just at mealtime and the 18 benedictions. They had blessings for everything.

They had a blessing for a lamp, because to have light in the world is such a gift. We could be living in darkness, but God said, "Let there be light." So they'd say, "Bless you God, the Father of all lights." They had blessings for seeing a comet. They had a blessing for looking at the ocean. Aren't you glad God made the ocean? I'm glad God placed me near the ocean. I could be living some place like Chicago where God puts people when he's mad at them, far away from the ocean. So I resonate with their prayer, "Bless you, God, for making the ocean."

They had blessings for visiting a holy place, blessings for rain, blessings for completing a home. No occasion was too menial. Disciples would follow their rabbis around all the time, because they never knew when he would say another blessing, and they wanted to know, How do I bless God for that?

There are stories of them following the rabbi around when he went into the bushes to go to the bathroom, because they would want to know, Is there going to be a blessing? And there was one. Rabbi Abayei said, "Blessed are you, O Lord, who has formed man in wisdom, and created in him many orifices and many cavities."

Now that may sound strange or even coarse to you and me, but it's a funny thing when one of those orifices or cavities isn't working well. Life gets a little miserable, doesn't it? Don't you wish it would work well then? And the rabbis would say, "Shame on you for thinking you are so proper that any part of your existence is too undignified to thank the God who thought it up. Shame on you for thinking there is something unspiritual, something not worth thanking God for, about any part of our bodies."

Gratitude arises in imperfection.

In particular we're to bless God for people—all people. The life with God has a lot to do with people. We should thank God for people we get along with easily. And people who are hard for us to get along with. "Thank you, God."

Here is a second hypothesis for this week: Life with God will help me learn to be grateful for imperfect people and imperfect circumstances. Our job is not to try to feel grateful as so many people do. Gratitude is the byproduct of a spiritual reality. As we train ourselves to live in this reality, our job is to place our minds in the presence of God, and to surrender our will. Then we will remember and pray, God, you're right here, and we don't carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Thank you, God, that we get to be alive. Thank you that we have bodies. Thank you for this world. Thank you for Jesus.

If I wait for perfect people and perfect circumstances to be grateful, I will have to wait a long time. Rabbis talked about this too. A rabbi said, "One is obligated to say a benediction over evil as well as a benediction over good." Why? Because evil is a good thing? Suffering is a good thing? No, of course not. Those are bad things, and God is at work to one day overcome and overturn them.

The rabbi said that one is obligated to say a benediction at all times because we are always in danger of being thankful only when good things come our way. When we do that, our threshold for gratitude gets higher and higher, and we become ungrateful people. Being transformed by God means learning to see ways in which God is at work, even in bad situations. "For I know that in all things God is at work for good."

The rabbi said, "Only God knows for sure what will turn out to produce good." A lot of times I'll go through something hard, painful, bad, and I'll wish I didn't have to go through it. Then I'll look back on it and say, "O God, I'm so grateful I didn't miss that."

So the rabbi said, "We bless God all the time, giving thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you." The grateful life with God is the best opportunity ever offered to the human race. That's the great experiment God is running even now. He asks, "How much will this man, this woman, allow me to carry during an hour of suffering?" If we don't answer this question well, we will miss the reason for our lives.

We owe our ultimate gratitude for God's ultimate gift. The Book of Common Prayer says, "Almighty God, Father of all mercies …" all the benefits, all mercies, "… we your unworthy servants …" That phrase grates in our culture. We don't want to use it. But if I think of myself as the entitled master, I'll never be grateful. I'll miss out on God's desire for my life. I'm a creature and I'm a sinner. "… we your unworthy servants do give you most humble and hearty thanks. We bless you for our creation, our preservation, all the blessings of this life, but above all, for your inestimable love in the redemption of our world by our Lord Jesus Christ."

We're glad for our friends, for our house and our cars, for money, for success when it comes our way, for our jobs if we have them, but their absence does not prevent us from being grateful for God's greatest gift. So above all, followers of Jesus, in plenty and in need, in palaces and in prison, thank God for his gift of Jesus: his matchless life, his unrivaled teachings, his sacrificial death, his triumphant resurrection. "Blessed are you, O Lord."


Here are a couple of experiments on being with God in gratitude. Our overall goal is to increase the number of moments we are aware of and surrendered to God.

A gratitude letter

The first experiment is to write a "gratitude letter." Think of somebody who has impacted your life for good, somebody who've you known for quite awhile: a friend, a mentor, an encourager, somebody without whom you'd be a different person. Then take your time, and write them a letter telling why you are grateful to God for them. Aim for around 300 words. Make it substantial. You might go through a few drafts of it. I did that this last week. When I thought of the person I wanted to write to, I got so excited, and I wrote down a bunch of ideas, then I went through different drafts and edited it. You want to make it sing.

Then if you can, call them up and say you want to meet with them face to face. Don't tell them why. When you get there, pull out your letter and read it to them word for word slowly and look them right in the eye. Tell them, "This is why I'm grateful to God for you." You might want to have a laminated copy to give to them.

But before you do this, I have a couple of clarifying rules: You can't do this to someone who could benefit you financially. You should have no mixed motives with this. It cannot be someone you are hoping to date who does not want to date you. That just wouldn't be wise. It's best if you can choose to give it to somebody that will be surprised by it.

I did it this week, and for me and for the other person, we will never forget it. It was such a huge gift. I was in tears. It's kind of private, so I won't go into the details, but I will cherish that expression of love as long as I live. I guarantee if you do this with God, you'll be more joyful than if you don't do it this week.

Your own benedictions

A second experiment is to pray your own benedictions. Starting with 18 might be overwhelming. So each night before you go to sleep, write down four blessings for which you are grateful to God. You might want to use the form, "Blessed are you, O Lord." That's what ancient Israelites would use for a benediction. For example, "Blessed are you, O Lord, who gave me this friend I love."

Again, your job is not to try to feel grateful. On Wednesday morning this week, I was grumpy. Do you ever wake up grumpy? There are two kinds of people in the world: people who love to wake up in the morning, and people who hate people who love to wake up in the morning.

It was one of those mornings when I didn't want to wake up, so I started going through the previous day, thinking, I got to exercise, and I love to have a body. What a gift that is. I got to learn. I love learning. I got to travel some place. People in other centuries never got to do that and they would have given anything to travel like I did.

By the time I got to the end of this day, I was thinking, I got to live that day? Are you kidding me? And today I get another day? So I prayed, "Oh thank you, God! What an unbelievably good God you are to think of this world, and a life, and a body, and Jesus above all." Pretty soon I was just overwhelmed with gratitude.

It doesn't always happen that way. It's not about feeling gratitude. My job is to show up and remember and see and thank. So try those two experiments. Write a letter of gratitude, and do your own benedictions when you wake up and when you go to bed this week. I guarantee you will be grateful if you do.

How can we not pray? Would you bow your heads right now? Take that little sheet of paper. I'm not even going to talk right now. Take those words and this is now your benefactor. This is the great God who loves you. Your heart might just be full and singing. It might not. It doesn't matter. This is your moment to say, "Thank you" to him. Would you do that right now? "Thank you, God. Blessed are you, O Lord."

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Gratitude flows from God's presence.

II. Gratitude grows in humility.

III. Gratitude leads to a life of blessing.

IV. Gratitude arises in imperfection.