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Why Thanksgiving Changes Everything

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 22, 2009
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Scripture Reference: Exodus 16, Romans 8:28, Philippians 4:4—7, 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Selected highlights from this sermon

Complaining is a national pastime. Everyone complains about everything. Thankfulness gives us a new perspective. Unless we pray with thanksgiving, we cannot find peace.

Through thanksgiving, we affirm the power of God.  While it is not popular, we thank God that He is working in the midst of both good and bad things. By thanksgiving, we also affirm the wisdom of God. In His providence, God has a plan which we must trust entirely.  Avoiding anxiety and exhibiting patience, we rejoice when it seems impossible, because we have a hidden source of strength in God. While everyone else is tied up in knots, we can have peace through thanksgiving!

We’re so glad that you have gathered together here today, and my theme is Why Thanksgiving Changes Everything. At the end of this message I intend, with God’s help, that you would leave here today with an entirely different perspective of your problem, your need, and wherever you are at, because thanksgiving changes everything.

All of us know that for the most part we are complaining people. Complaining is a national pastime. We complain about the economy. We complain about circumstances, and our health, and most of all, we complain about others who aren’t nearly as good as we are. And they are complaining about us. Complain. Complain. Complain.

How do we change that? One way might be for us to find someone who is worse off than we are, and that’s not difficult. Do you remember the old line: “I complained because I didn’t have any shoes until I met someone who didn’t have feet, and that ended my complaining.”

You are in a situation where you are perhaps looking for work and you can’t find any, and you are frustrated and you are tired. And then you are watching television and you see that a tidal wave has come and washed away a village, and you are looking at some children who are newly orphaned. Their mother and father are dead, and they are weeping, and you say to yourself, “You know, maybe I still have lots to thank God for.” That’s one way to become thankful, but the biblical way is quite different. What the Bible teaches is that we need the faith to believe that there is a plan, and even in the midst of darkness, there is some light, and therefore we can be thankful because the Bible says, “In everything give thanks.”

First of all, a word of introduction regarding the meaning of the word thanksgiving. Thanksgiving and praise are often used interchangeably in Scripture. “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.” But there is this difference. Usually when we think of praise we think of us doing it together, and we think of praising the attributes of God—His faithfulness and so forth. Usually thanksgiving has more to do with the specificity of our circumstances, what it is that we are enduring and the situations that we find, and it is oftentimes very individual. We individually give thanks.

Now my text today is found in Philippians 4. I want you to turn to it for these few moments. I want us to see how our perspective can be changed if we understand what Paul is saying here. Remember he’s not in very good circumstances. He’s in prison in Rome, and he’s writing an epistle of joy. But in Philippians 4:4 he says: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and then in case you didn’t get it (sometimes we as preachers are criticized for repetition but God wants us to repeat because He knows we need it) Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known unto everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything (Wow!) but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.”

Three words in verse 6: “In everything by prayer (that is the general way in which we voice our requests to the Lord) and supplication...” Now that word speaks about you spilling out your soul to God. Hebrews 5:7 says that when Jesus was in Gethsemane that He poured out His soul with prayer and supplication. That’s when you are desperate, and all of us should be desperate because only desperate people pray, and that’s when you spill it all out to God with supplication. But you add thanksgiving, and the reason for that is because thanksgiving is a much broader theme in Scripture, and if you don’t add the thanksgiving, very probably no peace will come to your heart.

Now in order for us to understand thanksgiving I think I need to spend a few moments giving what I would consider the theology of thanksgiving, and then we’ll see how it changes our perspective.

The theology of thanksgiving. You see thanksgiving honors God because through thanksgiving we are affirming the power of God. See most Christians look at it this way. “I will thank God for the good things but not the bad things that happen to me. I will thank God when I am promoted, but I will not thank Him when I am demoted. When I walk out of that office and I’m told that my job is over, I’m not going to thank God for that. I’m going to thank Him if the boss says, ‘You are promoted.’”

So what we do is we say, “I thank Him for the promotions but not the demotions. I thank Him for health, but I will not thank Him for cancer. I thank Him for good relationships, but I will not thank Him for difficult relationships.” And so what we do is we have this theory of thanksgiving that we thank God only for good things. Well that’s not biblical.

We don’t thank God for only good things. George Matheson, who was a Scottish pastor, was blind. Imagine being blind and he is taught by his sister, actually, who read all of his books, and so he went to university and he became a pastor. Basically, he memorized his sermons. He memorized all of the songs in the hymnal and wrote some himself. He said that he was rebuked when he began to realize that he thanked God for his roses, but he didn’t think God for his thorns. He thanked God for the good things, but not the blindness. And then he began to realize that he needed to thank God for that too because he says, “It was my tears that brought me to God.” And it was he who wrote,

Oh, love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee,
I give you back the life I owe
And in your ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

He thanked God also for the blindness.

Now I’m not saying we should thank God for evil. Last week, because I spoke on abuse, several couples came (at least two) and said, “Our children are in an abusive relationship (maybe in an abusive marriage relationship).” We don’t say, “Boy, we thank God for that.” What we do though is we thank God that even in the midst of this, He’s going to give wisdom; He’s going to give strength; His grace and His mercy is going to come, and like an elastic band, be strong enough to cover the need. And we believe that even here we shall see the redemptive grace of God. That’s the way you give thanks when you are confronted with an issue such as that. So what thanksgiving does is it extols first of all the power of God, but also the wisdom of God. It means that we believe that God does what is best.

Now here’s a challenge. Have you ever wished that you had God’s power? Have you ever said to yourself, “I wish I had God’s power for 24 hours? What changes I would make in this world. I would eradicate hunger. I would take care of evil.” Imagine being God for 24 hours. That’s what we say to ourselves. But here’s something for you to think about. If, in addition to having all of God’s power, you also had God’s wisdom: you would leave things as they are. Now that takes a lot of faith to believe, but “Oh the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out.” If you believe in the God of the Bible, you believe that there is a plan. God does not do evil, but God is using evil for an eternal perspective, and that leads me to the third attribute, namely His providence.

Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said that there is a destiny [divinity] that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we may [will]? In order words, we have some wiggle room within the destiny, but at the end of the day, there is an overriding destiny that shapes our ends. But we don’t have to take it from Shakespeare. We have to take it from God who works all things after the council of His own will. Wow! You believe that there is a hidden plan. Now we don’t know all the details for sure, but we don’t have to know the details to know that God knows what He is doing. Just because we don’t know what the hidden plan is and all of God’s purposes, doesn’t mean that there can’t be any. And one of the things that you cannot do is to say that God doesn’t care. And we know that that’s not an option because when Jesus died on the cross on behalf of sinners and for us, when Jesus did that, we know that God cares, but we go on believing, even though we do not see clearly what His purposes are.

 Now, do you understand why “whoso offers praise glorifies Me?” What we are saying when we praise God is: we are thanking Him for His power. We are thanking Him for His wisdom. We are thanking Him for His providence and for His goodness and all of that.

Now think with me. The sixteenth chapter of Exodus. Don’t turn to it because you know the story. The Israelites are there in the desert and they are complaining. They don’t like the desert heat. They don’t like the food, you know, and later on, they are going to complain again because they get the same thing—manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for dinner, and then, you know, “Let’s have a bedtime snack.” “Well, how about some manna?” (laughter) So they are complaining.

And what does God say to Moses? God says that they are not complaining against you, their complaints are against Me. Why? God’s power led them into the wilderness. It was according to His wisdom, according to His goodness, according to His intentions. They were there by the will of God.

And you today—you sought God. He gave you the job that you have and your vocation. He put you in this situation that you are in. And you are complaining, and God is saying, “It’s not just against your circumstances. I led you into these circumstances. Your complaint,” God says, “is against Me.”

And that’s why the Bible says, “In everything give thanks for this is the will of God concerning you.” For this is the will of God. We give thanks to God. And so what we understand is that our complaining, our rebellion is really against God.

Well, does this mean that we simply collapse into a kind of fatalism, a kind of passivism that says, “Well, whatever will be will be?” No. Do you remember that prayer that says, “O Lord, help me to change the things I can, and to accept the things that I can’t, and to know the difference?” That’s a paraphrase of a very important prayer that we ought to pray. We change what we can, but when you are in circumstances that you can’t change, when there’s nothing that you can do about those circumstances, you accept them. But don’t accept them from your boss. Don’t accept them from your mate. You accept them from God because God is powerful, God is wise, and God is good. And you believe Him. And that’s why it says, “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me.”

Now, praise honors God, but look at what it does for us. Now your Bibles are open to the text here. You’ll notice it says (and I can’t help but begin at the beginning of the section that we read): “Rejoice in the Lord always.” That’s positive. You rejoice not because of what has happened to you necessarily. You don’t rejoice in the pain and the hard things. They are not the source of your joy. In fact, as we mentioned, they are oftentimes the source of our complaint. But rather what you do is you rejoice in the Lord.

Now if you are here today and you are investigating Christianity, or maybe you are a visitor or maybe you are a regular attendee, but you do not know Jesus personally (you may be religious, but you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ), you can’t understand that phrase because it is only when we know Him personally, when we can come into His presence and connect with Him, and we know that we are connecting with Him because He has forgiven our sins and we belong to Him forever—it is in that set of circumstances that we rejoice in the Lord. We rejoice in who He is. And we rejoice at times when rejoicing seems to be the last thing in the world. We as Christians should be like an oasis in the desert.

I’ve been in a desert. I’ve been in the Sinai Peninsula many years ago. You go day after day, and then suddenly you see some trees, and because you see trees you know that there is an oasis there because there must be hidden streams feeding that clump of trees. And there are hidden streams. In the very same way, your circumstances at work and in the office are just like everybody else’s, but you are not overcome by them. You don’t complain like the others. Why? It’s because you have a hidden source of strength and faith, and you rejoice in the Lord always. That’s what the text says.

Now then also it says, “Let your reasonableness be known unto all men.” We could also use the word patience. Let your patience be known to all men, because, you see, you don’t always have to get your way. You don’t always have to win. The stress is off because you have inner resources. You know God, and so as a result of that, you can be patient.

And then you’ll notice it says, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Wow! I have to read that again. Does it say that? It does. “Don’t be anxious about anything.” You say, “Anything?” I don’t know. I’m just reading the text. It includes your circumstances, your health, your relationship, and your future. That’s what the text says.

And then it says, “With prayer and supplication and appreciation (thanksgiving) let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding...” It doesn’t make sense. You should be tied up in a knot just like everyone else. You should be filled with anxiety like all of the people of the world should be filled with anxiety, and you are not. So it surpasses all understanding, and Paul says, “It may keep your heart and your mind in Jesus Christ.” It guards actually. That’s the word. It guards it.

Now you’ve seen, I’m sure...Perhaps you’ve been in cities that have walls, and that’s the imagery that’s here. And in Europe today there are still some cities like that, even though they have outgrown their walls. The walls are oftentimes there, and they would have sentries of soldiers that were looking out for what? For enemies. They were guarding the place that the peace of the city might be maintained. And they were guarding it against enemies. How does giving thanks to God with prayers and supplication, but with does it guard our mind? From what does it guard our mind? It guards it from the enemies of the mind. And the enemies are fear, dread because of the future, anger because of circumstances and injustices, guilt that can destroy you if you don’t take care of it. And then accept God’s forgiveness and God’s peace. And so what happens is the peace of God acts as a guard to keep us from all of the things that want to disrupt us in the midst of circumstances that we can’t control, that break in upon us without warning and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And notice the thoroughness of it all. I love it. It says, “He will keep your hearts so that you may feel the right things and not feel the wrong things, and your mind so that you might not think of the wrong things. And there you are as a bird nestled in the barrel of a cannon with your nest, surrounded by circumstances that you do not understand and you can’t control, but you are at peace.

I remember going through a trial in which my peace was disrupted—hugely disrupted. But the verse that kept coming back to me is this: “Thou will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.” And this is what I discovered. What I discovered was that if I gave thanks to God for what was happening, even though what was happening was, I believe, unjust, as long as I was giving thanks, peace came. But giving thanks was difficult because of the unpredictability of God. Just because you are trusting God doesn’t mean that you know how it’s going to turn out. That’s why the Apostle Paul here doesn’t say that you pray and supplicate and give thanks to God, and whatever it is you ask God for He’ll give you. That’s not in the text. He’s going to give you peace, but He’s not necessarily going to give you what you ask for. And this unpredictability of God can destroy us, and as a result of that we can find ourselves filled with fear and anger and all of those other things that erode the soul.

But the bottom line is: when we give thanks, we are affirming the sovereignty of God. We are affirming the wisdom of God. We are affirming, as we’ve learned, the goodness of God, and in that, it changes our entire perspective. It changes everything. If you’re going through a trial, the first thing you ought to do (the first thing) is to bow and say, “Thank You, Father, for this,” and then live that way. 

Now, a couple of practical observations here. Number one, do you know what? If you are a complainer, and you know there are some people who are...I don’t want to pick on women, but I do remember one who said, “Pastor, if I gave myself to God like you’re speaking about, and got rid of all of my anger, and all of my complaining, my problem is I’d have nothing to think about all day.” (laughter) Some of you, it is in your DNA. It is part of who you are. It’s your personal identity. Complain, complain, complain.

We can take care of that right here. I’m serious. Here’s what you do. Every time you hear a complaint come out of your mouth, ask the Holy Spirit to rebuke you and you turn it into a praise. Always do that. Everything that happens. You don’t like the food? Remember Israel in the desert. It’s God who says, “You are complaining against Me. This is what I gave you. If you don’t like it, hey, don’t complain. You are complaining against Me.” Now, what you need to do is, every time you want to complain, even about the weather in Chicago, and that’s coming, what you say is, “Lord, thank You,” and then you fill in the blank.

I’ve given this illustration before but it is so good that you need to hear it again. I need to hear it again. Do you remember Matthew Henry who was a commentator and wrote a commentary on the whole Bible? He was robbed one night and the thief grabbed his wallet. And when Henry got home that night, he wrote in his diary four things to be thankful for. “Number one, this is the first time I’ve been robbed.” That’s good to be thankful for. “Number two, even though he took my wallet he did not take my life.” That’s something to be thankful for. “Number three, even though he took all that I had, it wasn’t much.” (laughter) And then he said most profoundly, “I thank God that it was I who was robbed and I was not the robber.” Isn’t that great? (applause)

Lisa Beamer is a name that you’ll all be familiar with. It was her husband, Todd, you remember, as the plane was going across Pennsylvania, that evidently said, “Let’s roll.” And there were some people on the plane who overcame the hijackers so that the plane went down in the fields of Pennsylvania rather than hitting the White House or some other building in Washington.

She wrote a book entitled Let’s Roll based on her experience and what her husband endured in the interviews that she gave later. She said that when Todd’s birthday came around she was very sad, and we could understand that. So she decided to take her children to a play just to do something a little bit lighthearted for Todd’s birthday. And then as she was coming home her son, David (and I don’t know how old he was but maybe 7 or 8) said to her, “Mommy, why are you so sad.” And she said, “Well, I am so sad because your daddy isn’t here so that we could celebrate his birthday together.” And David said, as only a child would, “But Mom, we can still have cake, can’t we?” (laughter)

I’m speaking today to some of you who have lost a loved one. You don’t know how you are going to go on. You miss them very deeply, and well you might. And you don’t thank God that they are gone, at least I hope that you don’t thank God that they are gone. But maybe you can still have some cake. There’s always something for which we can thank God. The Bible does not say, “For everything give thanks, but in everything give thanks.”

Best illustration. Job loses ten children. There are ten fresh graves on the hillside. Imagine that. He prays that night and says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Christians are a thankful people. They thank God. They aren’t a bunch of whiners and complainers. They thank God. Just this morning I was thinking of all of the things that I could thank God for, and I ran out of thinking about things. That I could get up in the morning, that I have clothes to wear, and that I have food to eat. I mean you just begin to praise God and you begin to realize that we have more things to thank God for, and yet, what do we do? We complain. Thanksgiving changes everything.

Also, what we need to do is to look beyond the present. This is the Christian hope. We look beyond the present to the future, and that’s why we are able to endure that which comes to us because we believe that eternity is coming, and Paul says that the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. And so no matter how hard it is, eternity is coming. Time is short and eternity is long, so we are a thankful people because we know things that perhaps other don’t: that in God’s Word has been revealed to us what God will do. And we are grateful because we have so committed ourselves to Him, we are living for His glory, and “the peace of God which passes all understanding shall keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the name Martin Rinkart doesn’t mean much to you, but he was a pastor in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s. For some time he was the only pastor in the walled city of Eilenburg in Saxony. Many people in the city were casualties of the war, or victims of hunger and illness. During the great pestilence of 1637, Rinkart ministered to the people of the city. And it is believed (catch this—I can’t get my mind around it) they conducted as many as 4,500 funerals, and sometimes as many as 40 or 50 a day. One of them was for his wife.

He was a man of frail body but heroic character. Rinkart faithfully served the people of his congregation and community there in Eilenburg from 1617 until his death in 1649. One day he wanted to write some words for his children for devotions at suppertime and these are the words that he wrote:

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

And we still sing the words. Why could he write that? He believed in a God who could be trusted, the power and goodness and wisdom, and he also believed that eternity is coming. Thanksgiving changes everything. It will lift your burdens. It will free you from anger and from fear. In everything give thanks.

Now there are some of you who need to begin at the beginning of this because you say, “Boy, this is more than I can handle.” Maybe you don’t talk to God like I’m suggesting that we as believers do. What you need to do is to thank God for something. You need to begin by thanking Him that Jesus died on the cross for sinners so that our sins could be taken away, so that we can be reconciled to God, and in that reconciliation to know Him so personally that we can thank Him and rejoice in Him, even when things go bad.

Anne Frank, and we know her story, said, “I do not think and dwell on the misery but on the glory that remains.” She was thankful in the midst of her persecution, in the midst of her story, and in the midst of her death. Thanksgiving changes everything.

Let’s pray.

Receive now, Lord God, our thanksgiving. We have nothing to say to You except thank You. Thank You for Jesus. Thank You for Your grace. Thank You for Your forgiveness. Thank You that You bear our burdens. Thank You that You care about us. Thank You that You don’t forget about us when we are going through hard times. Thank You, thank You, thank You for the reversals because when things are going bad, we thank You that for the Christian they are actually going very good because You are working them to Your purpose. Thank You, and thank You that You are trustworthy. We thank You for Your faithfulness. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


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