Exercising the Thank Muscle
Giving thanks is a practice we’re not very good at, regardless of our upbringing. Sure, we say thanks, but often it is a perfunctory response. We do it because our social rules say we should, but are we truly thankful?
Take Christmas. Year after year I watch people unwrap their gifts, react, thank the giver, then go on to the next gift. It’s a rubber-stamp thanks, a necessary part of the ritual of receiving. Those of us who are parents know how quickly our children can move on to their next “need” (read: want) after receiving and giving thanks. We live in a culture of ask–thank–ask for something else. Imagine how God feels when he hears our prayers.
If you are like many North Americans, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. You probably have food to eat every day, shelter, and a few extras that might fall outside the category of “need.” Have you noticed that the more comfortable you get, the less thankful you become? This is another fact of life. We begin to think that everything we have—despite the help of many people along the way—has come through our own clever doing. We are most thankful to ourselves for our own successes. We stop thanking other people, and especially God, for all we have. When we stop thanking, our “thank muscle” atrophies and a reverse spiral commences. Thanking people becomes more and more difficult. People who exercise their thank muscle don’t just say thank you, they show their thanks—returning the favor, paying it forward, telling others of someone’s generosity. It takes effort to be truly thankful.
When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses was worried about their thank muscles. He had witnessed the Israelites forgetting God over and over again when they were wandering in the wilderness. Now they were about to enter a land of bountiful provisions. How long before the Israelites would forget where everything came from?
Moses’ call to remember and obey in Deuteronomy 8:6-18
is as much of reminder to us today as it is to the Israelites of the Old Testament:
So obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock! He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. He did all this so you would never say to yourself, “I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.” Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.
As we begin 2013, make it a New Year’s resolution to exercise your thank muscle. Everything you have today was given to you by God, and you will face him one day with the same possessions and accomplishments you had when you entered this earth—namely, nothing.
To end our time of worship today, listen to Hillsong’s “Thanksgiving Song,” the words for which could be your prayer for today: “For all that you’ve done I will thank you, for all that you’re going to do; for all that you’ve promised and all that you are is all that has carried me through.”
Ron DeBoer is a writer and educator living near Toronto.