The Mossi tribesmen of French West Africa express gratitude by saying, “My head is in the dirt.” This comes from the Mossi custom of showing thanks by bowing low before another and actually pressing one’s head into the dirt. For these Africans thanksgiving dictates humility before the person to whom one is indebted.
In another African dialect, the Karre, the expression for thankfulness is “to sit down on the ground before” another. A thankful Karre will go to the home of his benefactor and sit on the ground before his hut. No word need be spoken; his silent vigil signifies his gratitude. The man who is thankful to God, therefore, sits before God to enjoy his presence. He is never satisfied merely to tip his hat to God as he passes; gratitude demands that he seek God’s presence and fellowship.
The Hebrew people best expressed their thanksgiving to the Lord in song. They knew that the gracious benefits of God are a cause for joy and exuberant worship. The Psalms, the hymnbook of the Bible, are filled with these expressions of joyous thanksgiving.
A typical Hebrew song of thanksgiving declares,
I bless the holy name of God with all my heart. Yes, I will bless the Lord and not forget the glorious things he does for me. He forgives all my sins. He heals me.… He is merciful and tender toward those who don’t deserve it; he is slow to get angry and full of kindness and love.… He has not punished us as we deserve for our sins, for his mercy toward those who fear and honor him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth [Ps. 103:1–3, 8, 10, 11, Living Bible].
The thought central to these words of gratitude is one that we greatly need to remember. It is that the Lord has dealt with us out of divine love and not as we deserve. This sense of undeserved favor is the wellspring of all thanksgiving. If God had given us only what we had a right to expect, we would be very poor indeed.
Unless a person realizes that he has received something he hasn’t deserved, he is not likely to be really thankful. When I buy an item in a store and pay the full price for it, I seldom feel real gratitude. When I receive a paycheck for which I worked long and hard, I say “thank you,” but my words don’t ring with the same enthusiasm with which I express gratitude to someone who has given me an unearned and unexpected gift.
The basis for my thanksgiving toward God is the knowledge that he has given me not what I deserved but more, much more. When I begin to feel that I have earned what God has given, I have ceased being truly thankful.
In the face of such undeserved abundance, I can only stand in awe before my eternal benefactor. My feeble words of gratitude seem so small. I can’t explain his mercy, but neither can I deny it. In my more honest moments, I must confess with Shakespeare, “Begger that I am, I am even poor in thanks.”
Perhaps I must begin with the prayer of George Herbert,
Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise.
I need the warning Moses gave the Hebrew people as they approached the Promised Land:
When the Lord brings you into the land with great cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant, and when you eat and are full, then take heed lest you forget the Lord [Deut. 6:10–12].
Our land is one of affluence and prosperity, but to whom does the credit belong? What about our own lives? What do we deserve, really deserve?
Henry Smith Leiper points up American affluence with some startling statistics. Imagine that we could compress the world’s population into one town of 1,000 people, keeping proportions right. In this town there would be only sixty Americans. These sixty Americans would receive half the income of the entire town. They would have an average life expectancy of seventy years; the other 940 persons would have less than forty years. The sixty Americans would own fifteen times as much per person as all of their neighbors. They would eat 72 per cent more than the maximum food requirements; many of the 940 other people would go to bed hungry every night. Of fifty-three telephones in the town, Americans would have twenty-eight. The lowest income group among the Americans would be better off by far than the average of the other townsmen. The sixty Americans and about 200 others representing Western Europe and a few classes in South America, South Africa, Australia, and Japan would be relatively well off. The other 75 per cent would be poor.
Like many other people, I have a tendency to look about at the things I have and attribute it all to my own achievement. But who of us can rightly claim to deserve to share in such vast affluence? What gives me a right to take for granted comfort, prosperity, and security, when much of my world knows nothing about it?
Why was I born at this particular time in the history of the world? Why was I born white instead of red, yellow, or black? Why was I born in a spotless delivery room in an American hospital instead of in a steaming shelter in the dank jungle of the Amazon or in a mud hut in Africa? Why do I have the privilege of going to school with capable instructors while millions around the world, without even a school book, sit or squat on a dirt floor listening to a missionary as their only hope of learning anything? How does it happen that my children are tucked into a warm bed with clean, white sheets when millions of babies lie in their own filth and vomit while flies swarm over their bodies? Why can I sit down to a warm meal whenever I want to, and eat too much, when millions of my fellow men are never free from the sharp, gnawing pangs of hunger?
Do I deserve to share in such wealth? By what right? Why me and not the other millions? Why was I born in a land that I didn’t build, to share in prosperity that I didn’t create, to enjoy freedom that I didn’t establish? Why an American sitting comfortably in a warm house and not an Indian squatting in a dark alley of Calcutta shivering from the cold and rummaging through a garbage heap for something to eat? Or a Cambodian huddling in the rubble of what was once my home, searching for the charred body of my baby? Why is my home safe while those of thousands are flooded, bombed, or burned? Why can I tranquilly know my child is safe while another father must chase the rats away from his baby’s crib?
Do I deserve it? By what right? Have I earned it? Have you?
In such a world, I can only stop and weakly stammer, “You have given so much to me Lord. Just one more thing—a grateful heart!”
Surrounded with physical and material blessings, I easily forget that God’s greatest gifts to me lie in another realm. The greatest gift is not riches but redemption through the blood of Jesus, not food but forgiveness, not safety but a Saviour!
And again the wellspring of gratitude is knowing that I didn’t deserve it. I haven’t earned it, nor can I. I can claim no rights; I can only receive his grace.
C. S. Lewis illustrated this beautifully in his book The Great Divorce. In this satire about men and divine judgment Lewis describes two types of people. One group he refers to as “ghosts.” The “ghosts” were those who were separated from God and left empty and incomplete. Those who were redeemed through Christ were “solid people.” They were whole persons, fulfilled and satisfied by God.
Lewis takes us on an imaginary journey with a busload of “ghosts” who make an excursion from hell to heaven. There they meet the citizens of heaven, “the solid people.” One very Big Ghost is astonished to find in heaven a man who on earth was tried and executed as a murderer. He becomes very angry. “What I would like to know,” he explodes, “is what you are here for, as pleased as Punch. You, a murderer! While I’ve been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigsty all these years.” The “solid person” tries to explain that he has been forgiven, that both he and the man he murdered have been reconciled at the judgment seat of God, but the Big Ghost will have none of it. What he considers the injustice of the situation staggers him.
“My rights!” he shouts. “I’ve got to have my rights the same as you, see!”
“Oh, no,” the “solid person” assures him. “It’s not as bad as that. I haven’t got my rights or I wouldn’t be here. You will not get yours either. You will get something far better.”
As the Apostle Paul reminds us,
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of our deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3–5).
Thank God he has not given me what I deserve but something better: his love—himself!
An old hymn asks:
O Lord of heaven and earth and sea,
To thee all praise and glory be;
How shall we show our love to thee,
Who givest all?
O Lord, what can to thee be given,
Who givest all?
Perhaps the question is more than we can answer. Perhaps we can only stop and humbly pray, “Lord, you’ve given so much to me. Give one thing more—a grateful heart!”
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