Thankfulness Changes a Person

The following are notes from a teaching I gave on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 to a group of some really cool college students. It’s been edited slightly to be readable and make sense here in print, but it’s still missing some of the finer bits (and discussion points) I expounded on during my teaching.

It is necessary to be thankful.

Tonight, I’m going to speak to you about how a spirit of thankfulness could literally change your entire perspective on life. I’m living proof of just how powerful an air of thankfulness is, and if you’ll listen to everything I have to say tonight I guarantee you will leave here with a fresh set of eyes.

I have five key points that I’d like us to discuss tonight, the very first is an important realization you need to make:

1. You have the power to change things…

You are an adult; a fully grown man or woman.

I know many of you don’t realize this yet. If you haven’t, it’s likely because you think you’re “just a student” or, more likely, because we live in a society that is regularly increasing the gap between what we consider to be childhood and adulthood. But, believe me when I say this, you are a fully grown adult. This isn’t something you will be someday at some discernible point in the future, I mean today, right now, you’re an adult, and you have a lot of responsibilities.

Not only that, you are also exceedingly blessed, you are incredibly loved, and you have immeasurable power.

So, the question is, how will you use this power and these resources you have been given? And, what the heck does any of this have to do with thankfulness?

A couple of weeks ago I shared an important lesson with our leadership team. We were discussing the dangerous, quicksand-like traps of gossip and even the unintentionally harmful things we broadcast to the world. The solution is a pretty simple one, I suggested that we:

2. Broadcast Only Good News…

Now, before you stop listening and write this off as terrible advice: please realize I don’t mean that you should internalize your struggles and never mourn. It is imperative that you share your burdens with others. If you ever choose to struggle in isolation, whatever the reason, you’re an idiot.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Brian, Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 that we shouldn’t call people idiots.” Well, I can call you an idiot, because I are one. Just trust me on this: share your burdens with the people you care about and you’ll soon find yourself with more friends than burdens.

Okay, so, what do I mean by “only broadcast good news?” I mean that you should stop broadcasting negative news…

  • Don’t talk about celebrity garbage (or talk about them at all, for that matter)
  • Don’t share disheartening stories or statuses via Facebook
  • Don’t spread the negativity you’ve been fed by other sources
  • Don’t waste your life sharing something that isn’t uplifting someone in some way

It’s a simple check, really. Before you share something just ask yourself, “is this uplifting to someone in some way?” if the answer is yes, share it, if not, don’t. Done deal!

Negative news can usually be boiled down to F.U.D. What’s F.U.D.? Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt — or, in other words, worry — which poisons our ability to be thankful.

Jesus warns us against how poisonous worrying can be in Matthew 7:

25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

Besides broadcasting only good news, I also want to challenge you to:

3. Be Thankful in Every Circumstance…

I know that “just be thankful” is woefully inadequate advice. That’s why I’m not telling you to “just be thankful”. Thankfulness in a vacuum is not true thankfulness.

Lets pause and think about that one for a moment: thankfulness in a vacuum is not true thankfulness.

If we were to compartmentalize our lives, and isolate those things we are thankful for from the things we are not, how thankful can we really be?

My lovely wife reminded me last night that Thankfulness isn’t just a statement, it’s an action.

So, when you pluck out something abstract and say, “I’m thankful for school” in one breath and in another say, “I can’t wait to go on break, I hate all of this homework and my professor just isn’t cut out for teaching.” … well, I’m just not convinced you’re actually thankful.

Your sense of gratitude should move you.

It should be so powerful that it inspires you, that it propels you towards action. When you’re truly thankful for something, you’re thankful even in spite of it’s negative qualities. You’re able to say “I’m thankful for school” without hastily qualifying it with “but, I really wish I had less homework…” (Pro-tip: if you have to add “but” to a sentence that start’s with “i’m thankful”, you’re not actually thankful)

When you’re thankful in every circumstance you force yourself to be present in the moment. It serves as a reminder as to why you’re in your current situation (your purpose, goals, desires, choices, etc). Furthermore, it helps you to broadcast good news.

This next point, out of all the others, might be the most instrumental in helping you dramatically improve your life. It’s a small point that I’ve personally been practicing for a number of years, and if I trace back all the threads that have helped lead me to where I am today, I can tell you that it was this focus that completely reshaped my entire way of living.

4. Lead with Thankfulness…

Every time I talk to God I lead with something I’m thankful for, without exception. The events of the day, my present circumstance, the things that are on my mind, all of it falls second to my expression of gratitude to our Creator for blessing me beyond the limits of my own comprehension.

I’m sure this next bit will sound unbelievable – and I’m afraid you won’t be able to fully understand it until you’ve tried this yourself – but, in my experience, I’ve found that the more I’m thankful, the more I have to be thankful for.

Leading with thankfulness in prayer helps refocus the conversation. It puts me in a proper state of mind to approach our incredible, powerful, merciful, benevolent, gracious creator. It reminds me that nothing I have is entirely of my own accord (though I took initiative, everything is a blessing from God).

The book of Job, if you’ve never read it, is a poetic tale of a man named Job whom God allows to be tempted and tortured by the devil. God knows that Job is a righteous man and that he can take it. Throughout the story he’s essentially stripped of everything: family, friends, food, farms, you name it. At one point he even gets covered in boils so that the very fiber of his being is put on-edge.

Throughout the book, and this is the lesser-talked-about portion, Job complains and whines a lot. I can’t blame him, of course, I’m just putting it out there so you realized he didn’t take this punishment lying down. He certainly goes to bat for God when those closest to him begin to doubt his righteousness and even God’s sovereignty, but his conversation between those moments is punctuated with complaints and questions directed towards the Creator. Eventually God answers back and puts Job in his place

Job 38 starts with this:

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that questions my wisdom
with such ignorant words?
3 Brace yourself like a man,
because I have some questions for you,
and you must answer them.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know so much.
5 Who determined its dimensions
and stretched out the surveying line?
6 What supports its foundations,
and who laid its cornerstone
7 as the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Who kept the sea inside its boundaries
as it burst from the womb,
9 and as I clothed it with clouds
and wrapped it in thick darkness?
10 For I locked it behind barred gates,
limiting its shores.
11 I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come.
Here your proud waves must stop!’

It underscores that there is nothing I could give to or do for God that wasn’t already given to or done for me. It also helps me highlight other things that I’m thankful for, and as a result my prayers tend to be punctuated with thanksgiving.

I want to challenge you tonight to open your times of prayer with a word of thanks. I don’t want you to stop there, though. Don’t only lead with thanks when you talk to God, do so when you talk to others, too. Open your conversations with whatever is on your mind that has left you feeling thankful and see how it transforms your interactions.

5. You have a lot to be thankful for…

Last week AJ presented a lot of insightful truths about grace, justice, power and influence. One of the things he said is a perfect signpost for what I have to say tonight “Even as a college student, you have more wealth and resources at your fingertips than most of the entire rest of the world.”

You’re a poor college kid, right? You don’t have a job, you can’t afford school, you’ve got more homework than you know what to do with, your parents are divorced, your friends are being pretty cold to you right now, your family is awkward or hateful or just plain difficult to be around and now you have to spend 4 whole days with them. There’s a lot of crap in your life that no one knows about, and if they knew they’d probably turn their back on you. Am I right?

Think about each of these questions for a moment:

  • How hungry are you right now? Do you know where your next meal is coming from?
  • How cold are you right now?
  • Where are you going to sleep tonight?
  • What’s going to happen when the clothes you’re wearing now get dirty?
  • If you get sick or injured, what’s going to happen to you?
  • How many people that you personally know have died in the past 48 hours?

It’s a fairly safe assumption to say that everyone in this room is not starving, we all have a warm place to sleep, we have spare clothes for when what we’re wearing gets dirty, we trust that we’ll be cared for if we get sick or injured, and we haven watched (or know) many people who have died in the last two days.

These are all incredibly real, incredibly tragic, and incredibly powerful foundations in life. If we were born into a different family, a different culture or a different region there is an exceedingly high chance that we would have answered every one of those questions differently. And yet, here we are, in privileged America concentrating on the very few negative qualities in our life instead of praising God for the innumerable positives.

As humans, we have great capacity for forgetfulness. Many of you cannot remember what you had for lunch one week ago today; I, on the other hand, cannot even remember what year it is, let alone what day it is.

This trait has made it very easy for us to forget the vast quantities of things we have to be thankful for. This is why I recommend leading with thankfulness. It’s why I recommend broadcasting only Good news. When you forget things, wouldn’t you rather forget the negative parts that don’t matter and remember the positive?

The tribes of Israel had a neat trick they used to remember things.

In Joshua 4, the Israelites have just crossed the river Jordan to be delivered into the promise land. This takes place some 40 years after they were originally supposed to enter into this space (and, if you forgot, the reason they hadn’t been able to enter into the promise land earlier is because they chose to turn away from God and go their own way). Anyhow, the chapter begins like so:

When all the people had crossed the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. 3 Tell them, ‘Take twelve stones from the very place where the priests are standing in the middle of the Jordan. Carry them out and pile them up at the place where you will camp tonight.’”

4 So Joshua called together the twelve men he had chosen—one from each of the tribes of Israel. 5 He told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder—twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.6 We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 7 Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.”

21 Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’22 Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. 24 He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.”

6. You can’t change everything…

So far we’ve covered that you are already a fully grown adult, capable of making decisions, rife with responsibilities, and you have the power to change things. I want to be clear, however, that you cannot change everything.

Free will trumps everything. You cannot change someone else’s will no more than God can control your own. Our biggest freedom in life can also be our greatest hindrance.

I can’t tell you what to do, no one can. I can only point you in the right direction, and pray that you listen closely and drink deeply the word of God.

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. This book was authored by King Solomon, who is credited as the wisest man to ever live. In it he details his pursuit for meaning and purpose by trying the best and greatest of everything. As king, he was the richest man alive and had more wealth than anyone could ever spend in a single lifetime. He built incredible palaces, had enormous vineyards, and did and tried everything. As a result he found that everything was utterly meaningless, like a passing vapor.

This sounds pretty disheartening and depressing until you cut through everything and realize that everything derives meaning from God and that all blessings come directly from God. In fact, in Ecclesiastes 2:24 he writes,

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God.

Everything becomes remarkably more meaningful and powerful once you realize that it’s a direct blessing from the creator. If you read the entire book of Ecclesiastes it also adds a very humbling perspective to life: there is nothing new under the sun, and everything that can be done/seen/bought/experienced is meaningless unless you find solace in the fact that these things are from the hand of God and they draw you nearer to Him. It’s also a healthy reminder that a simple life, centered around few distractions and requiring the most basic essentials, tends to lead to the purest and most uninterrupted joy.

Solomon, a man who owned more and experienced more than anyone, ultimately discovered that the best there was for him to experience in life was to simply enjoy food and drink and find satisfaction in work. For this, he was thankful. Because of this, he was changed.

Walking with God requires honesty and humility.
Humility breeds thankfulness.
And thankfulness changes a person.

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