An attitude of gratitude

Psalm 50

11 March 2007

Fifield Christian Fellowship

Morning service


What are the most important Christian disciplines?

We might consider prayer, Bible reading, giving, fasting, worship, confession and a number of others. Now, I don't think there is necessarily a right answer to that question, but the discipline I want to make a case for this morning is thanksgiving. The christian discipline of giving thanks to God. I want to do this from Psalm 50. It might not be immediately obvious how I'm going to make my case, but I hope it will be clear by the end.

I'm going to read the Psalm in three sections, and it would be very helpful if you had a Bible to hand. I'll start with verses 1-6, the Lord comes to judge his people.

The Lord comes to judge his people

[read vv. 1-6]

The Psalm opens majestically with three of the names of God in quick succession: The Mighty One, God, The LordrefEl Elohim Yahweh. Wake-up! The boss is coming: we'd better pay attention! The Lord is about to address creation, and he summons it, heavens and earth, into his presence.

In the next verses a great judgement scene is set up until we find in verse four who he is about to judge. And it is a surprise! Although the heavens and earth have been summoned, they are not the ones under his spotlight. Look at verse 4: He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his peopleref.

And that's how it is with God — he always judges his people first, because his people are supposed to be setting the standard for the rest. God's people — those to whom he has revealed himself — ought to know better than anyone how to please him.

From the fund manager given millions of pounds to invest to the teenager entrusted with the keys to the family car, privilege brings responsibility. God's people have the highest privilege in the world — how are they going to use it?

Well, The rest of the psalm shows us two abuses for which God judges his people and one way to avoid them both.

First, in verses seven to fifteen, we find those who are engaging in ritual, rather than relationship with God.

Ritual rather than relationship [v.7-15]

[read vv. 7-15]

In verse 7 we find that all is not right between God and his people as he "testifies" against them.

But God is not upset with them because they are slack in their religious activities. On the contrary, verse 8 I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before meref. These are busy and devoted religious people, offering God sacrifice after sacrifice.

But all these sacrifices are unwanted gifts. The Lord says in verse 9, I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pensref. He already owns it all! All the animals, all the cattle, all the birds, they are all his already. What's the point of the people offering yet another sacrifice?

Some years ago I went to visit my grandfather who at that time was living in Canada. Before I went I asked around the relatives what I should take as a present for him. The unanimous answer was some pairs of socks with checks on, and a box of crystallised ginger. As it happened, I didn't end up taking either of these, which was probably just as well. During my stay he showed me his chest of drawers. One drawer was completely full with checked socks, and the next with boxes of crystallised ginger. He very nicely asked me if I could think of a way to get people to send him something else instead.

It's a funny story, but it's also slightly sad, because it speaks of a distance in the relationship. My grandfather was a long way away, and we, his family, simply didn't know him well enough to choose him appropriate gifts.

And so it was for these people and God. They brought him sacrifices, but he wanted their hearts. They brought him ritual, but he wanted relationship. The people had got it back to front.

You see, they had somehow got the idea that God depended on their activity in sacrificing to him. This is the point that the Lord is making in verse 12 If I were hungry I would not tell youref. God does not need us! Even if he could be hungry, he would not turn to us.

The people had lost themselves in activity, frantically feeding this God who does not need to be fed, and completely neglecting relationship with him. They were busy bringing him gifts, but they'd completely forgotten to love him.

And that's the first danger to avoid. Are we so busy trying to please God, that we find that we don't really know God?

If we believe that our standing with God depends in any way on the quantity of our own efforts, then we are falling into exactly the same trap as they did. God requires not ritual, but relationship.

Why do we give money? Do we think that God is more concerned with the money or with the heart that gives it? He certainly doesn't need the money.

Why do we come to church? Do we think God is pleased to see us here because we made the effort to come? He doesn't need us, you know, but he does want us to know him.

Why do we say our prayers? Simply because that's what we have always done? He doesn't need our prayers, you know, but he does want our hearts. Relationship is what matters to God, not ritual, however sophisticated and energetic the ritual may be.

What does God tell them to do about it? What do you give to a God who has everything? Verse 14, Sacrifice thank-offerings to Godref. Finally, as promised, we get to thanksgiving.

Giving thanks to God is the antidote to formalism. It is what moves us away from ritual, and back to relationship.

Thanksgiving puts us back into right relationship with God because at the heart of thankfulness to God is the acknowledgement that we are totally dependent on him, not he on us. As verse 15 puts it: we are to simply call on him; it is he who delivers us.

So, the first group of people God judges are those who engage in ritual rather than relationship — and the antidote they need is to exercise thankfulness. The second, in verse 16 to 23 are those who engage in wickedness rather than worship.

Wickedness rather than worship [v.16-23]

[read vv. 16-23]

In these verses we find God turning his attention to those who are engaged in wickedness rather than worship.

Note that he is still talking to those who, at least nominally, belong to his people, and those who have an outward form of religion. What right have you he says in verse 16 to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?ref.

These people had a form of religion. They were in the temple; they participated in its worship. They are in the churches; they call themselves Christians and recite the creed and sing the songs and join in the prayers. But, if the first group of people we looked at had hearts that are cold to God, this second group have hearts that are actually hostile towards him.

These people won't listen to God, verse 17, you hate my instruction and cast my words behind youref, and they are happy to break the commandments: they are thieves, adulterers and slanderers.

Their problem is that, since they have given up listening to God, they have forgotten that he is a moral God. In verse 21 the shocking diagnosis is brought you thought I was altogether like youref.

These people have created God in their own image: morally lax; indifferent to evil.

It's shocking, isn't it, to find such wickedness amongst the people of God. It was shocking then; it is shocking today. I'm sure I don't need to labour the point, but this is not a problem that has gone away. There are plenty of churches in which wickedness is rife.

But this is not put here so that we can be judgemental: it is here as a warning to us. Don't become like them! The danger is spelt out in verse 22: if you reject God, there is no-one else who will save you.

How can we avoid falling into the same kind of wickedness ourselves? How can we make sure that we don't make God in our own image, but instead reflect his image?

Well, once again the answer the Psalmist gives is to practise the discipline of thanksgiving. Verse 23, He who sacrifices thank- offerings honours me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of Godref.

Why is thanksgiving the antidote to falling into wickedness? Because thankful people are not forgetful people. If we are practiced in thanking God, it means that we cannot forget God. Only someone who has forgotten God can be wicked in this way, so thankfulness keeps us from wickedness.

A sacrifice of thanksgiving

So we've seen two of the dangers faced by God's people: the danger of engaging in ritual rather than relationship, and the danger of engaging in wickedness rather than worship.

We may feel that these are remote issues for us, that these are only theoretical dangers for us. But if so, then we underestimate the perversity of the human heart. We have hearts that naturally incline to ritual and to wickedness, and the devil is happy with either of those, because either separates us from God very effectively. That's why it's vitally important that we are thankful people.

In the last part of the sermon, I just want to look at what that means practically: what does it mean to sacrifice a thank-offering? How do we develop an attitude of gratitude?

How to build an attitude of gratitude

We should be aware that an attitude of gratitude doesn't develop by chance. It was my daughter's third birthday last week, and people were kind enough to give her loads of presents, most of them pink, but that's forgivable I suppose. Anyway, all week we were telling her to "say thank you nicely". Why do we need to teach her? Because saying thank you doesn't come naturally.

Thanksgiving, then, is a discipline. It is something we can learn. If we leave it to chance, it's just not going to happen, and then we face the dangers described in this psalm.

That's why the Psalm describes thanksgiving as a sacrifice: verse 14, Sacrifice thank-offerings to Godref; verse 23, He who sacrifices thank-offerings honours meref.

By definition, a sacrifice requires effort, commitment and investment, on our part doesn't it? A sacrifice does not happen by accident.

So we need to work at building thanksgiving in to our daily lives. How can we do that?

One simple thing we do as a family is to say grace together before we eat. Of course it could easily become a formalistic ritual in itself. But we try to use it as a real opportunity to acknowledge God's goodness in providing for us. It's part of learning to be thankful.

Another thing we must do is to make thanks-giving a major part of our prayers. The various models of prayer that we learn all include it, like ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. Or the simpler, Sorry, Thank you, Please, good for children, good for adults! But personally I like to start my prayers with thanks. I find it helps to give me the right attitude from the outset, to find my right place before God: dependent on him for everything.

What if I don't feel like giving thanks?

But what if I don't actually feel much like giving thanks? It happens, doesn't it? Perhaps we are experiencing a really tough time in our lives; there really doesn't seem to be much to be thankful for. What are we going to do then?

Well, like any sort of exercise, the times when we least feel like it are the times when we probably need it most. That's why thanksgiving is a sacrifice, a discipline. We need to make the effort to do it, even when it's a struggle.

One elderly saint I know told me that he spends twenty minutes every day writing down the things he has to be thankful to God for; he's done it for decades. To be able to make a fresh list every day must take a depth of appreciation of God that I can only imagine, but I know that what he reads in the Bible about God at work is powerful daily fuel for thankfulness.

I have no doubt that his lists include things that don't immediately look like causes for thankfulness. Things that go wrong; things that are hard; things that challenge him and hurt him. We might not always be able to see the silver lining, but if we believe that God is sovereign — that he is in control and loves us — then everything we experience can work for our good. And that's worth thanking him for.

We need to learn to look beyond our immediate circumstances and day to day events, and see the bigger picture of what God is doing in us and through us. This is not "looking on the bright side of life"; this is not fatalism — it's deep Christian maturity.

Another elderly saint told me recently that he vividly remembers a powerful lesson in thankfulness from his childhood, growing up in Tunbridge Wells. It was one Sunday evening during the Battle of Britain. Bombs were falling all around, but as usual his family gathered round the piano to sing choruses, and he still remembers that night singing "Count your blessings one by one. Count them all, forget not one".

It sounds delusional, doesn't it? But actually his family had learnt a deep spiritual truth. It's when things are toughest that we need to give thanks the most. Look at the promises of the psalm: verses 14 and 15 Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour meref. It is the thankful who will be delivered in the day of trouble. And again in verse 23, He who sacrifices thank-offerings honours me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of Godref. It is the thankful who will eventually be saved.

It is when times are toughest that we must give thanks the most. This is the sacrifice of thanksgiving that the psalm talks about, and it will protect us from the twin dangers of ritual rather than relationship and wickedness rather than worship.

All this will be much easier if we make thankfulness to God a deeply ingrained habit throughout our lives, if we develop a daily attitude of gratitude.