"Count your blessings, name them one by one...Count your many blessings, see what God has done."
I grew up singing this song and was always slightly skeptical about how simple it made gratitude sound. Even at that age I knew there was a difference between knowing I had many things to be thankful for, and being thankful for them. Talk about counting, I could rattle off a list of blessings I had without necessarily feeling more grateful for them--like saying grace and knowing that though you were grudgingly 'thankful' for food so you didn't have to starve, you weren't thankful for oatmeal all the same.
Thanksgiving, however, is something we are commanded to do in the Bible, because God knows it's something we need to do--something we have to be reminded to do, sometimes.
It's hard to be thankful when your mind is full of things that need to be done. It's like trying to pray with a to-do list for the day in front of you.
I've never seen the correlation between busyness and the challenge of gratefulness before, but looking at it in this way totally makes sense--having actually experienced how hard it is to do devotions with a hundred things on your mind.
We always say that we have so many things to be grateful for (and we usually use the word 'blessings' when we say that) but the truth is that we struggle to actually feel this gratitude we talk so loudly about.
Of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17, I find it interesting how they were healed halfway on their way to the high priest. Perhaps it was a test of faith, to see if they were willing to start on the journey even before they had been healed. At any rate, the actual healing happened when they had already left Christ. After the initial rejoicing died down, the nine were all focused on finishing the journey, following the right protocol and getting officially declared cleansed as soon as possible. Get to the temple, find high priest, and a hundred other things they wanted to do and could do now they were clean, was probably buzzing in their minds nonstop.
Only one realized that he owed so much to the man they'd left behind, and that they hadn't even thanked Him. And that he might not get the chance again.
And he turned back.
He stopped long enough to realize that though the official cleansing was important, and that his whole life had been given back to him, with all the possibilities and opportunities that meant, it could wait. He stopped to consider the implications, not just the consequences of the miracle which had just happened.
Gratitude doesn't come in instant formulas, like noodles or coffee.
Contrary to being achievement-oriented--even for the right things, as in this case--thankfulness requires that we stop and reflect. One of the reasons God knows that we need to be commanded to be thankful, reminded to be thankful; all too often we're headlong in our schedule, our goals, our duties and responsibilities, even our emotions.
Thankfulness is realizing what we are, and who God is.
'And He gave them their request, but sent leaness into their souls.'
The Israelites lusted for better food to the point that they became unable to see anything beyond their desires. We know that food became their idol because we see how they became blind to God's promises and to the past proof of His power and providence; though the very manna that kept them alive and which they were complaining about ought to have reminded them of it. They were led into greed as well as unbelief. Even when God promised to give them their request--not just for one day, but for a whole month--they stockpiled far more than they needed, unable to understand that a God who was able to provide all this was also able to keep His word.
God gave them what they wanted. And it was the opposite of what they though it would be. Instead of fulfilment, 'leaness.' Instead of life, death. Aren't all idols the same? They are not what we need. They leave us, ultimately, unfulfilled and only hungrier for that vague something we yearn for, which we glimpse in glorious sunsets, in a strain of music, in the feelings evoked so intensely and confusedly by fleeting images. The danger of desires morphing into idols is that too easily we start to see them as the solution to all our problems; the lie that 'if only I had ___ I would be happy.' I write this wistfully because like you, I grapple with discontent, with unfulfilled dreams and desires that sometimes grip me till it aches. I wonder with some trepidation whether my dreams have become idols, if my ambitions are blinders. I write this without judging the Israelites because it frightens me how easily I too could have behaved in the same way, in my own version of their situation, however foolish theirs may seem now to me.
'Your gentleness has made me great.' I am still finding new ways to understand this fascinating phrase from Psalm 18:35. Perhaps sometimes this gentleness manifests itself when God denies us what we want, forcing us--so to speak--to seek a harder, more abstract, more complex, but more real satisfaction and fulfilment in Himself. The same lesson, learnt less poignantly through discontent perhaps, but with less emotional havoc than if it had been learnt through disappointment and disillusion. Perhaps one way He is gentle with us is when He keeps us from the destructiveness of our desires.
Ungrateful is an ugly word.
Even before I studied King Lear, I had a horror of being ungrateful. My parents taught me to say thank you to people who gave me things or were kind to me. I very naturally adapted the Chinese mindset of being deeply responsive to other people's generosity as well. (''oh thank you thank you...aiyo I feel so paiseh...don't need lah...aiya thank you..." Growing up included hearing these and other catchphrases of what I called 'polite quarrels'--over who paid the bill. )
Discontent, however, doesn't seem quite so serious. It's easy to be discontented without offending anyone, without anyone realizing, even. Now, though, years later and as a Christian, I see that discontent and ingratitude can be linked, and can have a significant effect on your spiritual life.
Search the Scriptures for Psalm 106 came down pretty heavily on the OT Israelites for their sins of ingratitude and discontent, or the 'despising of God's blessing.'
I used to have a rather low opinion of the OT Israelites as a kid, reading the Bible with the mindset of an experienced storybook reader who knew what to expect, where it was foreshadowed, and how it would happen. Would those people never learn? Didn't they at least remember their history? And AGAIN it happened for the number what time...Sheesh.
I changed my opinion when I realized that the Israelites' behaviour, silly as it might seem, was really a reminder of how I too behaved--less obviously, perhaps, but basically the same mistakes...
I too, was guilty of discontent and ingratitude. It was so easy to discount what God had done in the past, which had felt so real and convicting then, to focus on the present dissatisfaction. But that was then...things were simpler then. I didn't have this desire then...or I had that then.
The Israelites' discontent and ingratitude reflected a subtle but sinful sense of entitlement, an indication that after experiencing God's goodness they had adopted the drink-machine mentality towards Him and His blessings. They wanted Coke--but not just any Coke--Coke Zero. They speculated that the machine was surely spoilt when their canned drink seemed to be taking too long to arrive; grumbled that they'd wasted their money.
Discontent and ingratitude disregarded the past and elevated the NOW--specifically their skewed opinion of what they needed NOW. It caused them to judge God based on a feeling rather than a track record.
Discontent and ingratitude ate away at their faith, that foundation of their covenant relationship with God.
Discontent and ingratitude means we are unwilling to trust Him for the now, and ungrateful for the past.
And faith, as we know, is not based on circumstances but on our knowledge of the nature of God--as we learn from His Word, and from our experience.
What are you praying hardest to God for now?
We've all had searing, heart-cry desires weigh on our souls. Tear up our insides. Hollow us out in an anguish of wanting. Drive us desperate as nothing seems to be changing, to be happening, as we ask God yet again to grant us our desire, feverish with impatience.
I've had desires, all right. I didn't want them to come between me and God, to become something which embittered me and alienated me, which dulled my awareness of His goodness. But on the other hand, they weren't wrong--right?
Hebrews 13:5-6 was maybe the last place I expected to find guidance. It didn't mention patience, or God's wisdom, or even trust. But it dealt with the heart of the matter nevertheless.
I realize, reading it for Search the Scriptures, that it was a very simple guideline.
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will never leave you nor forsake you.'
Christians, of all people, should be at once the most content and the most hopeful. Their reason for being content is an ultimate and complete one, because we believe that our God is the source and essence of all goodness and power--and we know that He is with us. Hebrews 13 reminds us that Christ Himself has promised to be with us, to never leave us nor forsake us, and that with this most important need met, we have all we need to be content.
On the other hand, this reason for our contentment is also the reason for our hope. We believe that God can do great things in this fallen world, and since He is all-powerful and all-good, we have the best reason to hope for the best. What Hebrews 13 warned was the line between hope and covetousness.
Covetousness is basically understood as a 'strong desire, especially for material possessions.' It usually has the implication of greed, that you already have, but desire more. It suggests a restless discontent and a one-minded drive to fulfill a desire--not a need.
Our hope should be balanced by our contentment, so that we desire things not because of self-gratification. Our desires are based on a foundation of contentment with what we have in Christ, and what God has given us. Our desires are shaped by our desire for God's glory and our trust in God's goodness. Our desires should not arise from discontent with our current situation but desire for increase in God's glory, increase in what pleases God.
Hopeful, but contented.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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