Monday, February 01, 2010

Being grateful and being ourselves

Last month I posted a couple messages based on instruction I had given to my family on the subject of gratefulness (see Time to be Grateful and On Talking Fish and Grateful Hearts). Since I'm going to be giving up blogging for the season of Lent, I want to hurry and upload a few more posts on this important subject.

How to Arouse God’s Anger in One Easy Step

If you want to arouse the anger of God, one very easy way to do it is to grumble. In Numbers 11:1 we read, “Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused.

At our house we have this verse written on the wall of the dining room, since it is during meal times that our children are most tempted to grumble.

We don’t tend to think of grumbling as a very serious sin. We do it all the time, often without even thinking about it. Compared to other serious sins like idolatry, immorality, theft and murder, grumbling seems quite trivial.

But this just shows how far out of alignment our thinking is from God’s Word. According to the Bible, grumbling is no small matter. When we complain – even over small things like being tired or the taste of the dinner - we risk arousing the anger of God.

In the tenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, when Paul is exhorting Christians not to imitate Israel, he mentions the fact their sin of complaining along with their idolatry and fornication.

It may still be true that grumbling is not as bad as idolatry. But that is rather like saying that having a pile of rotting bread in your garden is better than having rats running around your back yard. If the rotting bread is not cleared up, sooner or later the rats are going to find their way to it.

Similarly, if we fail to clean up our grumbling hearts, sooner or later we will have more serious sins to repent of. This is because grumbling leads into the worship of idols as surely as rotting bread leads to rats.

Consider: do you think the children of Israel would have started worshiping the golden calf if they hadn’t first started grumbling against God and Moses? If they had remained grateful for all that God had done in bringing them out of Egypt, providing for them in the wilderness and finally leading them into the promised land, do you think they would have so quickly turned to other gods once Joshua was dead?

I don’t think so.

One of the reasons why the Old Testament constantly tells and retells the story of the Exodus is so that the people of God would have the kind of gratefulness that is a hedge against the worship of idols. God knew that His people couldn’t be grateful to Him and worship idols at the same time. The two just don’t go together. The temptation to worship the creation rather than the creator is a sin peculiar to those whose hearts have ceased being thankful to God for His marvellous gifts and works. Paul makes this very point in Romans 1:20-21: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened."

It Isn’t Enough Not to Grumble

The opposite of grumbling is gratefulness. But that doesn’t mean that the way to be grateful is simply not to grumble. Hot is the opposite of cold, but that doesn’t mean that a cup of water that isn’t cold is therefore hot (it might be room temperature, for example). Similarly, it isn’t enough to merely master the art of not complaining. We have to also let the Holy Spirit work gratefulness into our hearts.

With enough will power, anyone can learn not to grumble. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our hearts are grateful. A person might master the art of not complaining and still have a heart that is as gloomy as ever.
Now don’t get me wrong. Training ourselves not to grumble is an important first step. But the problem is that unless our grumpiness is actually replaced with gratefulness, it is very hard not to slip back into the old habits of complaining.

What If I don’t Feel Grateful?

“But,” someone might object, “I just don’t feel grateful. How can I make my heart grateful if it isn’t? I could pretend to be grateful, but it wouldn’t be sincere.”
Well, to start with, only the Lord can work gratefulness into our hearts. Left to ourselves, we would all spiral into increasing depths of gloominess. But that doesn’t mean we should just sit back wait for God to zap a dose of gratefulness into our hearts. On the contrary, if you want to have a grateful rather than a grumbling heart, that is a sure sign that the Lord is already at work within you.
As in everything else, the Lord accomplishes His work through means. In our lives, He uses our own effort and choices as the means for accomplishing his purposes in us. The Lord could have chosen to do it another way. He could have chosen to inject us with a 12 month supply of sanctification every January 1st at 12:00 AM. I must confess, sometimes I find myself wishing that Christian growth was that easy. But it is not. The Lord has ordained that our own effort, struggle and self-control would be the means by which we grow in godliness.

And here’s the important part: we can choose to make godly choices even when we don’t feel particularly godly. This includes the decision to be grateful. Simply pretending to be grateful, even if we are not, is a powerful way to actually become grateful. This is because the Lord designed our bodies in such a way that when we project certain attitudes (when, for example, we say positive things or make a conscious effort to smile), and when we do this over a long period of time, it begins to actually change the way we feel.

If you don’t believe me, try this little test. Set the timer for an hour, and try to frown and look miserable the entire time. When it goes off, I guarantee that you will feel grumpy. Then try it the other way round. Spend an hour smiling and pretending that you are happy. I guarantee that after only ten minutes of this, you will begin to notice a marked difference in your attitude. After an hour, you will probably also notice a difference in those around you. Joy and gladness are contagious, both to those around us and to ourselves.

So it doesn’t matter if our cheerfulness and gratefulness isn’t sincere. All too often there lurks in modern thinking the heresy that there is some virtue in what we call “being ourselves,” or being true and sincere to how we really feel. But more often than not, this is a vice rather than a virtue. C.S. Lewis made this point with remarkable clarity in his essay, “The Sermon and the Lunch.” Lewis recalled being invited to a vicar’s house for dinner, and the stark contrast there was between the vicar’s behavior in public vs. his behavior with his own family. Outside his own house he behaved with ordinary courtesy – a courtesy which the members of his immediate family did not receive. The vicar justified his behavior with the comment, “It is [at home] that we appear as we really are: it is there that we can fling aside the disguises and be ourselves.” After criticizing this idea, Lewis wrote,

If a man can’t be comfortable and unguarded, can’t take his easy and ‘be himself’ in his own house, where can he? That is, I confess, the trouble. The answer is an alarming one. There is nowhere this side of heaven where one can safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God.

Because gratefulness is more than just a feeling, the Lord can command His people to be grateful. In Nehemiah 8, after governor Nehemiah read and explained the law of God to the people, he commanded them not to mourn but to be grateful.
Nehemiah the governor, along with Ezra the priest and scholar and the Levites who were teaching the people, said to all the people, "This day is holy to GOD, your God. Don't weep and carry on." They said this because all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.

He continued, "Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don't have anything: This day is holy to God. Don't feel bad. The joy of the LORD is your strength!"

Nehemiah wasn’t just commanding the people to be joyful in a vacuum. He knew they had a lot to be grateful for. God had brought them back from Babylon and He had given them back the law. If God’s people had a reason to rejoice then, to turn from sorrow to celebration, how much more do we have a reason to rejoice every day. Through our Savoir Jesus Christ, we too have been led out of exile and we too have been given the oracles of God. We have every reason to be the most joyful, grateful people on earth. Praise the Lord!

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