BookTrends: Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy
By: Nancy Leigh DeMoss|Published: November 25, 2009 4:55 PM
It was nearly midnight on Friday, September 7, 1860, before the Lady Elgin eased into the waters of Lake Michigan on its overnight return trip from Chicago to Milwaukee.
The evening’s activities had ended with dinner, dancing, and a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas. And though the wind and spitting rain threatened ominous weather, causing the captain to ponder delaying the voyage till morning, the decision was finally made to heave anchor.
Spirits remained high among the partygoers long into the night, as the spacious salons on board the Lady Elgin buzzed with music and dancing. It was sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 in the morning, while the band was still playing, that a tremendous jarring shook the entire vessel, shattering the oil lamps and sending passengers into a darkened, rolling panic.
Augusta, a 130-foot schooner loaded with lumber and hurtling recklessly at full sail in the high wind, had struck Lady Elgin’s left rear side.
It should have been a somewhat glancing blow, the much smaller Augusta getting the worst of the accident. In fact, the crew of thee steamer waved Augusta on, sure that the schooner was in greater need of haste toward the shoreline. But within half an hour, the boilers and engine had broken through the weakened bottom of the steamer, further rupturing the hull. The great ship was shivering off in pieces.
Lady Elgin was sinking.
For six hours, survivors floated on lifeboats and other bits of wreckage while lightning crackled across the sky, illuminating the horror. The northerly winds and furious surf drove the larger part of them backward toward a high bluff near Evanston, Illinois. Local residents and farmers, waking up to the sight of wailing men and women scattered across the water, ran for help, trying to organize a rescue party.
Among those recruited was Edward Spencer, a seminary student from nearby Northwestern University, who had grown up along the Mississippi River and new how to handle himself in the water. Tying a long rope around his waist and diving into the choppy waters of western Lake Michigan, he pulled victim after victim to shore, struggling hard against the ferocious undertow that was claiming the last strength of many along the cliff walls, so tantalizingly close to safety.
While lunging and heaving with one person after another under his strong arm, the sharp edges of floating debris grazed his head and body. Again and again he returned to the shore with another survivor, along with bloodied face and aching muscles.
But gathering strength and breath around a campfire, he would spot another person thrashing weakly in the surf. Tossing off the blanket that was conserving his body temperature, he hazarded out into the deeps again, muscles tensing and cramping as he strained against the current.
Eventually, of the thirty victims who survived along the water’s edge in Evanston that day, seventeen of them would owe their lives to Edward Spencer’s heroic efforts.
But although his bravery would be the beginning of a new life for many, it became the end of a dream for the young seminarian. Never quite able to recover from the physical toll of that fateful day, he was forced to abandon his schooling, his livelihood, and his dreams of becoming a pastor and scholar. Some remember him being nearly paralyzed the rest of his life, often confined to a wheelchair.
And though his valor would at times be recalled in newspaper accounts and other general tributes, when asked by a reporter what he most recalled about the rescue, he replied, “Only this: of the seventeen people I saved, not one of them ever thanked me.”
Was that too much to expect?
Lessons from a Leper
Perhaps the most graphic illustration of ingratitude found in the Bible is Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, found in Luke 17. You remember that these men who attracted Jesus’ attention as He entered an unnamed village somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, “stood at a distance” as they called to Him (v.12). They “lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’” (v. 13).
So here, in the light of what we saw in the last chapter, we have a living picture of both guilt and grace, of human need and God’s mercy.
Leprosy, you probably know, is symbolic of sin in Scripture—not that these men had sinned any more gravely than anyone else, but this infectious skin disease caused people to act and suffer in ways that illustrate the nature and consequences of sin. Being ceremonially defiled, for example, they were forced to live outside the village, separated from those who were able to walk around freely. In addition, the wasting evidence of leprosy on their limbs and facial features pictured the inward, often invisible scarring caused by sin’s ravages on the human heart and spirit.
Therefore, when Jesus initiated their healing, sending them to the priests where the miraculous reversal of their condition could be officially and publically certified, in the verses that follow, you would expect to see the third leg of our gospel trio.
Guilt encountered by grace should have issued forth in profound gratitude.
And yet, like those pulled to safety by Edward Spencer, gratitude remained hard to come by for the healed lepers. Some were probably (understandably) in a rush to get home to tell their family. Some were probably in a state of exuberant shock. Some perhaps went looking for Jesus later, but by that time had let the window for locating Him slip by.
You see, ingratitude is not always a calloused, who-cares shrugging of the shoulders. Sometimes it’s just fourth or fifth on a list we never get around to following through on.
But for one of the healed lepers, gratitude was his first, immediate reaction to grace. Before running off at a dead sprint to do all the things he’d been missing during his years as an outcast, he returned from his appointment with the priest to say thanks to his Rescuer.
He didn’t care who heard him. He didn’t care how dusty the ground was at Jesus’ feet. He didn’t care where the others had gone or that he was there all by himself, his exuberant display making him look foolish to onlookers. All he wanted was to thank Him. Nothing mattered more. Before anything else, “Thank You, Lord!”
So when Jesus asked, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vv. 17-18), the shame of ingratitude weighted heavily in the air, countered only by the loud, joyful words of one man’s thanks, the fragrance of a grateful heart scenting the village streets.
Jesus’ next words, directed to the grateful Samaritan, were even more precious than those that had originally brought about physical healing for the whole lot of outcasts: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (v. 19). Not just cured of his chronic physical condition, but secured with spiritual salvation.
The other nine returned to lives they thought they’d lost forever. They reunited with friends, with parents, with children. I’m sure they never forgot the day when their long, waking nightmare was miraculously transformed into a dream come true.
But unless they found their way to Jesus at a later time—in an event not recorded in the biblical accounts—they were left to enjoy their new life with at least this one caveat of emptiness: They may have come close to having everything restored to them, but they had not come close to Jesus.
Thanks for Nothing
There is something especially distasteful and repulsive about this sin when we see it in others—especially when we’re the ones whose generosity or sacrifice has gone unrecognized. Jesus, for example, had every reason to be annoyed at those who had received everything they ever wanted from Him, yet couldn’t be bothered to say “thank you!”
And yet how often do we neglect to return thanks for a kindness done, a duty performed, or a step saved—while being oblivious to our ingratitude? Gradually, subtly, we become desensitized, as layers of entitlement and resentment wrap themselves around our hearts, until thankfulness is all but gone from our lives and lips.
It isn’t hard for it to happen...even in the most precious of relationships.
Many years ago, for example, I began giving a 30-day encouragement challenge to wives. I encourage them to confront ingratitude and cultivate a thankful spirit in their marriage with two simple steps:
It’s amazing—and eye-opening—how difficult some wives have found this simple exercise to be.
One listener to our Revive Our Hearts broadcast said, “I made the commitment yesterday, but I’ve blown it already. I need mega-help. What attracted me to my husband of forty-two years was his quiet strength. But now, his being so quiet and easygoing drives me crazy.” The hard work of holding back criticism and expressing gratitude proves to be almost impossible for some women.
Thankfully, many women have been willing to make the effort. Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of women who had taken this challenge. Many have been shocked to discover the extent of their ungrateful, critical spirit.
One woman wrote to say, “When I began this challenge, I thought I only spoke negatively to or about my husband once in a while. It was surprising to me how often thoughts came to my mind that I had to work at not letting pass through my lips. I’ve grown so accustomed to thinking a lot of bad things about him and then just blurting them out. This challenge has changed the way I communicate with my husband.”
Ah, the difficult but rewarding walk from griping to gratitude!
Another wrote, “We’ve been married for forty years, and after listening to your message today, I realize that I have slowly let this practice of saying words of appreciation to my husband slip over the past few years. Starting today, I want to raise that level back up. As a matter of fact,” she said, “he’s out mowing the lawn as I’m writing this email, and as soon as he comes in, I’m going to compliment him on how nice the yard looks. It’s a hot day and he’s working so hard to make it look good.”
It really is surprising how easily ingratitude can worm its way into our habit patterns.
But actually, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because ingratitude is the taproot out of which grows a host of other sins. And if we don’t put the axe to that root, we provide Satan with a wide, vacant lot on which to set up his little shop of horrors in our hearts.
Do you think I might be overstating the case a bit?
Well, when you think of the first chapter of Romans, what comes to mind? You may remember that in the opening paragraphs of this letter Paul talks about the “wrath of God” being revealed against the “unrighteousness of men” (v. 18). He lists “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice” (v. 29), and a horde of other sins, including homosexual perversion and its acceptance and approval in a culture—just about every awful thing you can imagine.
But what is the beginning point of this vast array of vile activities? What starts people (and civilizations) down this path toward ever more serious sin? The answer is found in verse 21: “Although they knew god, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” That seemingly insignificant, innocuous matter of ingratitude turns out to be at the fountainhead of all the other evils listed in this chapter!
There’s really no end to what can grow from the root of ingratitude. “An ungrateful person,” Dr. D. James Kennedy pointed out regarding this passage in Romans, “is only one step away from getting his or her needs met in illegitimate ways.”
Do you see how serious this sin of ingratitude is? Remember how we talked in chapter 1 about the low rating some Christians place on gratitude, how it’s often overlooked while we focus on “more essential” character traits? The fact is, when we give in to whining, murmuring, and complaining—not honoring God or giving thanks to Him (Romans 1:21)—we embark on a destructive slide that can take us down to depths we could never had imagined going.
Truly, ingratitude is our first step away from God.
You may wonder if I’m making too much of this. But I assure you, this is not a light matter. Ingratitude is one of our enemy’s most lethal weapons. Our homes and churches are suffering dreadfully from its effects. Our entire society, in fact, is feeling the fallout. So much can be traced back to this root of ingratitude. So we must guard our hearts against it as every turn, watching for the telltale signs, feelings, and attitudes that can set it off in us; things such as:
Unrealistic expectations. We can start to expect a lot—from life, from work, from others in general—until no matter what we’re receiving in terms of blessing, it’s never as much as we were hoping for. Needing God but not always wanting God, we expect others to take the place of God in our lives, depending on them to guide our decisions, to love us continuously and unconditionally, to provide us emotionally, physically, socially, totally. And when they disappoint us—which inevitably happens—rather than being grateful for God’s unchanging love and His faithfulness in meeting our needs, those unfulfilled expectations easily turn to resentment that poisons our hearts and relationships.
Forgetfulness. God warned the Israelites to be careful after they entered the Promised Land, not to forget the One who had rescued them from brutal slavery under the Egyptian taskmasters and had brought them into this good land. “Remember” is a key word in the book of Deuteronomy:
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand” (5:15).
“Remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all
“Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness” (8:2).
“Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (8:17-18).
But the children of
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18).
“They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (Psalm 78:11).
“They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in
Forgetfulness and ingratitude go hand in hand. They forgot to thank God for His deliverance, His faithfulness, His provision, His protection, and His miracles on their behalf.
We must never forget that “he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). We must remember that he has faithfully met our needs and sustained us by His grace.
To forget is not only to invite ingratitude but (as God told the ancient Hebrews in Deuteronomy 8:19) to “perish”—to watch a little of us die every day when we could be experiencing abundant life.
Entitlement. I was interacting about this book with a friend in his eighties who has faithfully walked with and served the Lord for most of his life. In an email exchange he identified one of the most basic issues associated with ingratitude:
In my own life I find that a default position, hidden beneath the surface, is an ever-present “entitlement” attitude. This, more than any other single thing I can identify, is my biggest problem.
When we take simple blessings for granted as if they were owed to us, or conversely, when we start to think that our house, our car, our wardrobe, or our general station in life is beneath what we deserve, ingratitude finds all the oxygen it needs to thrive.
One of the unseemly side-effects of all the effort and energy our society has invested in building our individual and collective self-esteem is that our culture is now rife with this super-high level of deservedness. The more affluent we are, the higher our standard of living, it seems, the more demanding and discontented we become. Be careful where you place the bar for what you can and can’t live with or without. The height of that baseline affects just about everything.
Comparison. This is more than just keeping score on who has what and being perturbed because we don’t have as much as they do. It is every bit as dangerous and deceptive for us to focus on the many sacrifices we’re making, the hard work we’re performing, the extra hours we’re putting in, comparing our level of labor and commitment with what others are investing. Any time our focus is on ourselves—even if it’s on the good things we’re doing—it keeps us from being grateful for what others are contributing. We lose our appreciation for our spouse, children, and friends, and coworkers when we constantly view them through our own shadow.
Blindness to God’s grace. We are the debtors. We are the ones who owe. The mercies of God that are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23) are not blessings we deserve but graces given by God’s loving hand to fallen creatures, those whom He has redeemed by His good pleasure. To ignore such unmerited favor or consider it God’s obligation to us is to miss out on the vision of His loveliness and glory that will sustain us through life’s battles and keep joy flowing into and out of our heart.
Ingratitude steals it all—healthy relationships, humility, contentment, enjoyment, and the sweet walk with Christ that provides our only access to abundant life.
So there is good reason why in his second letter to Timothy, Paul listed ingratitude (ungratefulness) right in the middle of such evil companions as abusiveness, heartlessness, brutishness, and treachery (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Because that’s where it belongs. Ingratitude is no less heinous a sin than these other evil traits.
In fact, so powerful is the influence exerted by ingratitude, that when we displace it with gratitude, we will likely find a multitude of other sins dislodged from our lives. Notice how Paul instructed the Ephesians: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).
When gratefulness returns, it brings with it the attending blessings and beauties of holiness.
And that’s an expectation we can live with.
Where Ingratitude Goes to Die
Paul David Tripp, writing in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, recalled a scene he had witnessed more than once on his various travels to India. But this time, for some reason known only to the Holy Spirit, the Lord struck him with the gravity of it all at a deeper level than he’d ever experienced before.
Passing through New Delhi, in one of the most horrible slums in the world, he stood transfixed before a three-year-old boy leaning against the cot of his ailing, perhaps dying, mother. The boy’s eyes were hollow, his stomach distended, his face fly-infested—the very picture of massive, helpless, noxious poverty.
The tears that streamed down Paul’s cheeks in observing this tragedy were indeed the heartfelt evidence of his compassion. He longed to sweep this boy and his mother into his arms, away from these dreaded depths of sorrow and endless need.
But it was more than mere compassion he felt. It was an awareness that neither he nor this little boy had chosen their circumstances in life. The blessings of being raised among plenty, nurtured by godly parents, educated in quality schools, and given over to Christ at a young age began to roll over him in waves, even as he did his best to comfort and console the needy pair before him.
“You cannot explain the difference between that little boy and me by anything other than the Lord,” he wrote. “Standing there in that slum, I felt all the complaints I had ever spoken as if they were a weight on my shoulders. I was filled with deeper gratitude than I think I have ever felt in my life.
Not long after he arrived back home, Paul was visiting with a church leader from
“Yes, I do,” Paul answered.
But who could really be ready for this: “You have no idea how much you have,” the man said, “and yet you always complain.”
We’d all have to agree, wouldn’t we? At many levels,
Can you? Can I?
Now would be a good time to speak to the Lord about it. If these words express your heart, join me in offering them up to Him:
Oh Lord, please forgive me for so often being forgetful of Your goodness, for acting as if I deserve anything more (or different) than what I have received, for sinfully comparing myself and my blessings with others’, for being oblivious to so many expressions of Your grace, and for allowing roots of pride and ingratitude to grow up in my heart.
Forgive me for the many times and ways I reflect negatively on Your character and Your goodness, by verbalizing discontent and murmuring to others.
Grant me a spirit of repentance and a heart that is always abounding, overflowing in gratitude toward You and others.
I’d expect He loves hearing that from us.
Excerpted from Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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