Some days if we are all being honest we will admit that it’s difficult to feel grateful. Yet other times, we’re so moved filled with gratitude we can’t help but feel joy and optimism. These two very different emotions are usually based on circumstances.
But what if we intentionally choose to be grateful in spite of our circumstance?
Researchers describe gratitude as a personality strength: the ability to be keenly aware of the good things that happen and never take them for granted. It’s been shown that individuals who exhibit and express the most gratitude are happier, healthier and more energetic. Grateful people report fewer symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and they spend more time being active. Also, the more a person is inclined to feel grateful, the less likely they are to feel lonely, stressed, anxious and depressed.
All of that sounds great! But… easier said than done. Have you noticed that most things in life worth doing are not done easily? Teddy Roosevelt once said,
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. . . . I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.
It’s not easy to get a college degree. It’s not easy to develop and maintain a healthy marriage and friendships. It’s not easy to raise children. It’s not easy to keep that job and give your best day in and day out. It’s not always easy to be grateful.
Gratitude is a choice we all have the ability to make. Love is an act of the will. Joy is an act of the will. Peace is an act of the will. Patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all choices we make in spite of the world around us and the feelings inside us. We see that all these choices are good and are choices we ought to make. Galatians 5:22-23 says,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
We must choose to believe, even when doubts flood our soul. We must choose to give thanks, even when our heart doesn’t feel grateful. We must choose to worship, even when our voice doesn’t want to sing. We must choose to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we would prefer to serve ourselves.
Joshua 24:15 says,
And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
How about today, we choose to live out 1 Thessalonians 5:18,
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Regardless of what you face right now, choose to give thanks to the Lord for all He has done. Give thanks for His love that surpasses any and every circumstance. Psalm 106:1 says,
Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
Gratitude unlocks the door to a heart of contentment, for contentment is never found in abundance alone. Contentment flows from the abundance of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11,
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
There’s an old Chinese Proverb that says,
When you drink from the stream, remember the spring.
We live in a country abounding in resources, prosperity, and freedom. And yet we also experience political divisiveness, violence, a slumbering church, and natural disasters such as the horrific fires in California leaving a wake of death and destruction.
What causes us to rise above the chaos and celebrate the blessings is to “remember the spring” from which we drink. Lets remember the spring of Christ’s love, sacrifice, and honor that granted us freedom from sin. Galatians 5:1 says,
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
John 4:14 says,
But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
If you drink the water of life, remember the spring of His love that never runs dry. As has been said many times, “Freedom is never free.” Our national freedom came at the cost of many lives. Our spiritual freedom came at the cost of the life of One.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
What are you grateful for today? Let us be grateful for the freedom we have in Christ. And if we drink from the stream of freedom, let us remember the spring from which that freedom flows.
How do you view your church? Is your church like a cruise ship or a battleship?
A Disney cruise is great, isn’t it? You enter a whole new world of fantasy and fun. A world centered around you and your experience while you are on the ship. You escape the demands and pressures of the real world, and for the time you are there you have no real obligations. Cruise ships are the mecca of consumerism where you are surrounded with food, shows, activities, pools, and entertainment. You don’t go on a cruise to contribute. In fact, you go to do the opposite. You go to consume. You don’t go on a cruise to make a difference, but instead to be impressed and “wowed.”
Unfortunately this is how many Christians approach church: to consume more than contribute, and to be impressed more than challenged.
Just recently my wife and I got to tour the USS Lexington that is off the coast of Corpus Christi. That thing is huge! It has a flight deck that is 910 feet long and is 196 feet wide! The carrier was commissioned in 1943, and it set more records than any other Essex Class carrier in the history of naval aviation. The ship was the oldest working carrier in the United States Navy when decommissioned in 1991. This carrier participated in nearly every major operation in the Pacific Theater od WWII and spent a total of 21 months in combat. The Japanese reported the USS Lexington sunk no less than four times! Yet, each time she returned to fight again, leading the Japanese to nickname her “The Blue Ghost.”
But… what was amazing to me was touring the insides of the boat. The carrier housed roughly 3,000 sailors during WWII and the lower decks of the boat were like a city. It has eating and sleeping quarters, medical and dental facilities, a post office, chapel, etc… During the time this carrier was in service every soldier and sailor aboard the ship you would have a job. No exceptions. Every person on that carrier had a task to accomplish every single day.
I say all of that to make this point… many Christians view the church like a cruise ship more than a battle ship. On a cruise ship, the guests pay money for services, and the hired staff takes care of them. On a battle ship, those on board are commissioned, assigned specific tasks, equipped, and well trained, and when they enter into battle, everyone has a role, and they know what to do. We’ve lost the sense of the call to battle.
The church isn’t a cruise liner. A cruise is great for a vacation, but that’s not where you live life, raise your children, or find your greatest sense of fulfillment. Chocolate cake is nice as an occasional dessert, but if that’s all you eat, you start to feel unwell and malnourished. In the same way, if our Christian experience is just about consuming the productions that come from a stage or pulpit, we will become spiritually weak and malnourished.
It’s time to awaken our spirits to a revolution of the high demand of discipleship and servanthood. The church needs to be a battleship where we are preparing for, and engaging in, spiritual battles between ideas and worldviews, and where all of eternity hangs in the balance. In Mark 8:35 Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. This is a high calling which requires the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and all of the spiritual tools we have been granted access to. In Ephesians 6:10-17 the Apostle Paul wrote,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
So, the next time you enter a church building, see it as a battleship, and notice how that changes your attitude and perspective of why you’re there.
Today I was having a conversation with a college student in a grassy area outside the community college here in town. While we were conversing several children ran around playing tag and rolling in the grass. At first, it became annoying and distracting from the conversation that was taking place… but then a question began to nag in my mind. That question was: How are you doing with your playtime?
I couldn’t shake it? The question seemed silly! I’m an adult… I don’t “play.” But as I have thought about it all day the idea has started to unfold and I think there is an underlying importance within that simple question.
How are you doing with your playtime?
Not sure you should even have a playtime? Are you too grown up and mature for downtime, rest, and even… play? Well, maybe this is part of what you’re missing in life, and you like me are beginning to pay the price for the mindset of false productivity.
Research conducted by Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute for Play, reveals that a lack of downtime leads to lower work productivity, social isolation, and even depression. In “Dare to Lead” Brown says,
The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression
Through extensive studies, Dr. Brown and his institute have discovered that play increases empathy, creativity and innovation. It actually impacts our brain waves by creating a “cool down” from the frenetic pace of synapses permitting neurons to pass electrical or chemical signals to other neurons.
So in layman’s terms… if you want to be more productive at work, become intentional about cultivating play and sleep!
Dr. Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, puts it this way,
We have to let go of exhaustion, busyness, and productivity as status symbols and measures of self-worth. We are impressing no one.
Practically speaking, this means many of us need to make some lifestyle and mindset changes. We need to establish boundaries by shutting off email and social media at a set time in order to focus on our families and our spiritual and emotional health. We need to stop celebrating people who work eighty-hours per week and stop bragging about how we’re tethered to our work responsibilities, as though that somehow makes us important.
Are you living at an unsustainable pace? If so… you are opening yourself up to some dangerous side effects of depression, anxiety, and burnout. And you are continuing to feed a culture of workaholic competitiveness in which no one wins.
Jesus’ solution was simple. In Mark 6:31 He said,
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.
Go with Jesus. Find a quiet place. Get some rest for your own sake!
Sometimes I am woke up at night with the worries and schedule of tomorrow. Sometimes I can’t “shut off my brain” as I try to think through a problem at work or in my life… sometimes they are even problems I have created in my mind or things I have no control over! Sometimes I find the joy leaking out and depression and anxiety rushing in to take its place. When these things happen, I realize that my work place and life pace has overtaken my faith, and I need to go away with Jesus, find a quiet place, and get some rest. And sometimes that even includes… play.
Do you have dreams? Goals? Aspirations for your life?
I sure hope so! A life without dreams would have a rather bleak outlook. Or dreams, goals, and aspirations may look a little different, or more realistic, now than they did when we children. But… we have dreams nonetheless.
So… let me ask you. How do you turn a dream into reality? One step at a time.
My wife, Alaina, had a dream to be a Doctor and to help people through medicine. For the past few years she has been walking through that journey and she can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and the accomplishment of her dream. It hasn’t been easy! It hasn’t been quick! There have been times where she has been overwhelmed… but her dream has been her determination and she has never stopped pursuing it. One step at a time.
Just like my wife, we all have dreams, vision, aspirations, goals, and desires… but for some of us the real issue comes down to our determination.
No dream, vision, aspiration, goal, or desire comes to fruition without taking the first step.
God promised the Israelites they would inherit the land of Canaan. The promise was first made to Abraham. Genesis 15:18-21 says,
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
What an awesome promise! But… the problem was, as you can notice from the Scripture above, there were people and obstacles in the way. To receive the blessing of their promise coming to fruition the Israelites had to step across the Jordan into the land of unknown. They had to face obstacles and overcome them in God’s power. They had to take responsibility and put the rubber to the road.
Alaina would not be in her 4th year of medical school right now had she not gone through the application process. Professional athletes wouldn’t be in the positions they are in without putting in the work required. Skilled musicians had to work and hone their craft to make the music we all enjoy.
Every dream is made up of small steps that propel you to see it come to reality.
I wish I could shout from a mountaintop so that all would hear, “YOU may be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling your dream! Not your parents. Not your education. Not your finances. Not where you are from. Not your boss. Take responsibility! Stop whining, blaming, fearing, dreading, and step into the future God has for you.”
Seek help. Don’t go it alone. Find a mentor. Develop a plan. Create a timeline. And then… take the first step. You’ve heard it said before,
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I like the way Tony Evans puts it in his book Kingdom Man,
God’s activity in your life is tied to your footsteps.
Listen, you will have doubts, you will have naysayers, you will face obstacles, but you must push through them by a strength that transcends your perceived limitations. What was the Source of strength for the Israelites to step across the Jordan? Joshua 1:9 unveils that strength with a command,
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
God with us, Emmanuel, is the Source of strength to start moving our feet and taking those steps.
I’m sure at times Alaina has been discouraged and had doubts. We all have! But… if she hadn’t pushed through those doubts and taken her first steps, she would not be where she is currently.
So… let me ask you? What’s holding you back from fulfilling your dream? Maybe it’s not something or someone around you. Maybe it’s something inside you. Pray, seek the Lord, and then start moving your feet.
Most of us have probably witnessed and kid opening a gift that they didn’t care for. It’s hilarious and mortifying all at the same time. It’s like an accident that you can’t seem to peel your eyes off of. I’m sure that many of you with kids try to condition or prep them beforehand by reminding them not to say that they don’t like the present or that it isn’t something that they wanted or need.
In fact, many of us have received presents from well intentioned loved ones that we do not want or need… but the gifts God gives us are different. They are just what we need! Some of his gifts we acknowledge right away and thank him for it. Whether it’s the good news about a expected child, a job promotion, or a beautiful sunset, we respond with joy and gratitude. Yet there are other gifts He gives that we don’t recognize as good gifts. They don’t come wrapped exquisitely, or even at a time we expect. In fact, we might not realize that God is the sender of the gift at all.
These are gifts that only over time do we look back and see them for what they are.
When I first unwrapped the gift of anxiety in my life, I was not thrilled… I was not grateful. I did not smile and say, “Alright! Just what I’ve always wanted!” But like Joseph, looking back, I can see how God has used something that people see as bad for my ultimate good and development. We see this idea demonstrated in the life of Joseph. Joseph went from beloved son, to slave, to royalty, all for God’s glory and purpose! Genesis 50:20 says,
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Though there is nothing good about anxiety, God had used it for my good. He had used it to draw me deeper into his grace, He used it to strip me of self-reliance and self-righteousness, He has humbled me through it, He used it to show me my great need for Jesus and to turn me toward him, He has used it to show me I am not in control, He has used it to show me the true source of my peace and joy.
The Apostle Paul wrote about suffering as being a gift in his letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 1:29 he wrote,
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.
The word “granted” here means “gifted.” It has been gifted to us to not only believe but to also suffer. We’ll take the gift of salvation any day, but the gift of suffering, that’s another matter. That might be a gift we don’t want and definitely didn’t ask for! That’s the kind of gift that is certainly not received with open arms.
But as James, Paul, and Peter point out, suffering is a gift that is intended for our good. Though the particular trial we experience is not good in and of itself, it is used by God for his glory and our ultimate spiritual good. Because it is in our trials that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. James 1:2-4 says,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
If you never knew or experienced darkness, you would not know how to appreciate the light.
Suffering is to be expected in the life of a Christ follower, therefor we should not be surprised by it. When we suffer, in whatever form it takes, we are following in the steps of Christ. 1 Peter 2:21 says,
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
But we have the hope that joy lies on the other side of suffering! Eternity with Christ awaits us. And what we experience now can’t even be compared with what is to come. Romans 8:18 says,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
If we are in Christ, may we accept all God’s gifts with open hands, whether they are what we asked for or not. And in due time, as we look back and see what God has done, may we return thanks to him, rejoicing in his work of sanctification as he prepares us for that wondrous day when faith will be sight and all our hopes will be revealed.
Romans 5:1-5 says,
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
How many of us have ever had to speak to a travel agent to get some information on an upcoming trip? You sit in their office, they tell you about places they themselves haven’t been, they show you a bunch of brochures, and they describe the wonderful packages they could put together and how much they would cost you.
One time while on vacation in Arizona with my family we took a guided jeep tour. Our guide met us with the jeep, gave us useful information about the area, and then drove us through the streets, back roads, and mountains of beautiful Sedona. He didn’t just sit in an office and describe the scenery; he drove us through to see the scenery himself!
Travel agents give us information. Tour guides lead us to a destination.
Spiritually speaking, which of those two has helped you grow the most? The agent who tells you what to do, or the guide who shows you what to do? As a pastor, one of my main concerns is that I tell people how to grow spiritually more than show them how to grow spiritually, and I believe many Christians sit back and do the same.
In your Christian life, you can be a spiritual travel agent or a spiritual tour guide. Travel agents sit in climate-controlled buildings and tell people where to go, how to get there, and what to do when they arrive. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the modern way we do church? Tour guides lace up their shoes and trek alongside you. It’s definitely not always comfortable. It can be risky and messy, but ultimately very rewarding.
Heather Zempel author of Big Change Small Groups puts it this way,
We can’t just talk about prayer . . . we’ve got to do it with people. We can’t just complete a workbook on serving our community; we’ve got to get out there and do it. We can’t just explain to someone, we’ve got to do it alongside them.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1 the Apostle Paul wrote,
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Do you live your life in such a way that you want others to follow? Are you committed to following Christ, so that others can follow you?
The way I learned how to ride a bike was my dad showing me. The way I learned how to pray was by my parents modeling it for me. The way I learned to preach was not just by reading books on homiletics but by actually preaching and having teachers help guide me.
Don’t be a travel agent Christian who just sits in a church building and tells people what to do. Be a tour-guide Christian who walks with others and shows people what to do!
Let’s follow the lead of the greatest Tour Guide who ever lived when he said in John 13:15,
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Lets get up off the pew, exit the building, and get to guiding!
If you are like me you regularly think about how you can live a better life. How you can be a better person, a better spouse, parent, and friend. I know I want to appear to be kinder and wiser, more disciplined, generous, and thoughtful. I want people to see me as a better man, leader, preacher, and writer.
But am I willing to do the hard work of actually becoming these things?
Theodore Roosevelt once said,
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.
The easy way, in the long run, is the hard way. The hard way, though beset with effort, pain, and difficulty, leads to long-term ease of a life well lived in progressive maturity and spiritual growth. In Matthew 7:14 Jesus said,
The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few
I wish there was another way! I wish there was a quick fix, or an easy solution! But you and I know that’s not the case, so we set our goals and make our determinations to be different, to make forward progress, and then we hit the proverbial wall and quit. But… don’t stop working and striving to mature or you’re going to wind up joining the masses that have settled for the cycle of mediocrity with the mask of progress.
You see… appearing to be something and actually being something are two different things. Looking good isn’t the same as being good!
Sometimes I wonder if I, and maybe “we,” approach our faith in Jesus the same way we approach the other areas of our life we say we want to improve, only to not put forth the effort to actually do so. We can be very successful at practicing our religion without actually deepening our relationship with God. We can go to church, sing on the worship team, help in children’s ministry, attend a class or even teach a class and simply be engaging in spiritual activities devoid of the depth of relationship.
The same goes for me as a preacher. I can hone the skill of public speaking, know how to engage people with smiles, listening eyes, and firm handshakes. I can craft my prayers to fit any and every situation. I can exegete a text, apply sound hermeneutics, and use smart-sounding words to convince others that I know what I’m talking about. I can do all these and more and still be far from God. Religious knowledge and activities do not necessarily produce a Christ-like life.
Now, I’m not against knowledge and activities. And I’m not suggesting you should not go to church or sing on the worship team or help in children’s ministry. But what I am suggesting is that you ask yourself the same question I am asking myself: Am I actually becoming more like Jesus or am I merely appearing to be more like Jesus?
I guess there are worse things for us to appear to be, but faking it never works in the long run. I’ve heard it said before, “All glitter is not gold.” What one appears to be and who one truly is may be two different things.
One of my goals is to stop trying to appear to be someone I think would gain the approval of others, and simply be someone who aspires to follow and become more like, Jesus.
Will you join me in this?
Why would God allow the mass bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka which killed 253 people and wounded 500 others? Why would God not stop a gunman from killing one and injuring three more in a California synagogue? Why didn’t God stop the cyclones in Mozambique that have killed 38 people?
Sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe you don’t, either. There are no easy answers, are there?
Vance Havner was widely recognized as one of America’s most traveled evangelists and popular Bible conference speakers. When he lost his wife to disease, he was disconsolate. Years later, he was able to write:
When before the throne we stand in Him complete, all the riddles that puzzle us here will fall into place and we shall know in fulfillment what we now believe in faith—that all things work together for good in His eternal purpose. No longer will we cry “My God, why?” Instead, “alas” will become “Alleluia,” all question marks will be straightened into exclamation points, sorrow will change to singing, and pain will be lost in praise.
Did you notice the reference to “years later”? Even for the die-hard believer and a well-seasoned evangelist overcoming pain, grief, loss, and sorrow didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes the pain may never be fully assuaged. Many live with chronic pain or depression that affects them every… single… day.
During the Korean War, Pastor Im was torn from his family and imprisoned for years, locked in a dark cell with only a small bowl of soup to eat every day. He kept his sanity by reciting Scripture, especially John 13:7,
What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.
1 Corinthians 13:12 says,
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Like that passage says we can only see a portion of what is going on. We cannot fully know or comprehend what is taking place on a spiritual level and how things weigh in eternity. We only see through a darkened mirror, but one day we will see face to face. We only know in part, but one day we will know fully, as we are fully known!
So, how do we hold onto faith when life is so hard?
William Cowper, an eighteenth-century English poet, struggled with depression his entire life. On one of his darkest days, he hired a carriage to drive him to the Ouse River, three miles away, where he intended to kill himself. A dense fog enveloped the area, and the driver, sensing that something was wrong with his passenger, purposely lost his way only to return back to Cowper’s home. Cowper realized his life had been spared, and that same evening in 1774, at age 43, he wrote these words:
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread; And big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Believe, trust, and know that God is with you in the pain. He is with you in the struggle. He is with you in the hurt.
Isaiah 53:4 reassures us that He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and in Hebrews we are reminded that He will never leave or forsake us… even in the pain.