When I was 8 years old, I had an eye exam. As I tried to make out the letters on the chart, I got so many wrong that the doctor thought I was joking. But this was no joke; I was very nearsighted.
A week later, when I got my first pair of glasses, I was stunned. I could read street signs, recognize people’s faces at a distance, see far-off mountains and individual leaves on trees. I could see more clearly than ever. That’s a lot like gratitude. Gratitude is like glasses, as it helps us see the glory of God’s mercy more clearly. And therefore, because our greatest joy is seeing God’s glory, gratitude increases our joy.
Gratitude Helps Us See
For many years, I did not experience more joy in God through gratitude. I dutifully thanked God for his blessings, but because I did not understand thanksgiving, my gratitude did not help me see God’s glorious mercy, and so it did not increase my joy.
The problem was that I saw thanksgiving mostly as an obligation to be fulfilled. God had done something for me, so now I owed him gratitude. And once I had said, “Thank you,” my debt was paid, and I moved on to something else.
But that’s not how the Bible talks about thanksgiving. Consider, first, how the Bible often links thanksgiving with joy.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2)
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name! (Psalm 97:12)
Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (Psalm 107:22)
So, joy and thanksgiving are connected. But how?
We might think the connection is obvious: when we give thanks, we rejoice in what God has given. Think of the joy we feel in getting promoted, or being healed. Surely, joy in God’s gifts is part of gratitude. But it’s not the only joy of gratitude. And it’s not the greatest joy.
Gratitude’s Greatest Joy
We can discover the greatest joy of gratitude by noticing how often God’s word links thanksgiving with praise.
I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. (Psalm 35:18)
I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. (Psalm 69:30)
I was used to distinguishing thanksgiving and praise. And of course, they are different: thanksgiving does focus more on what God does, and praise on who God is. But these verses show there’s a connection. The fact that thanksgiving is linked with praise shows that thanksgiving does not ignore who God is. Thanksgiving helps us see and praise who God is. And this act of seeing and praising God is thanksgiving’s greatest joy.
How does this work?
Putting on the Glasses
Let’s say you get a promotion and want to thank God. Thankfulness starts with seeing the value and the mercy of God’s gifts.
So, you would remind yourself of the value of this promotion — maybe it’s more interesting work, higher pay, and a better career path. Then, you would ponder the mercy of this promotion — that because you are a sinner deserving only hell, this gift is an infinitely costly mercy, bought for you by Jesus’s suffering on the cross.
Then, as you thank God, recounting both the worth and the mercy of this promotion, the experience will be like putting on glasses — you see even more clearly the glory of God’s grace in Christ. And this will increase your joy in God, because beholding God’s glorious mercy is our all-satisfying joy.
So, when God calls us to give thanks, he’s not just calling us to thank him for what he’s done. He’s calling us to rejoice in who he is, as displayed in what he’s done. And that’s why Christian Hedonists love to thank God: thanking God leads to seeing more of God, and seeing more of God is our greatest joy.
Growing Toward Gratitude
How can we thank God in a way that increases our joy in God? Here are five steps.
First, ask for the Spirit’s help. The goal of thanksgiving is seeing and feeling the glory of God’s mercy, and we can’t do that without the Spirit’s work. So, ask.
Second, ponder the value of God’s gifts. Consider the value of each gift. Think about health, friends, the food in front of you. Think especially about the Savior, whose death paid for your sins and purchased fullness of joy in him forever.
Third, think about the mercy of God’s gifts. Not only do we not deserve these gifts, but because of our sin, all we deserve is God’s judgment. Ask God to help you see that, so you feel more wonder at the grace and mercy displayed in this blood-bought gift.
Fourth, do this until you see and feel more of God’s glorious mercy. Keep praying for the Spirit’s Jesus-revealing work, and keep thinking about the worth and mercy of God’s gifts, until you sense more of God’s glorious mercy in Christ.
Fifth, express your thanksgiving and joyful praise to God. Thank him for his gifts, expressing the worth of each gift and the mercy of each gift. And rejoice in how each gift displays the glory of God’s grace to you in Christ.
We all need help seeing God’s glorious mercy. And gratitude, like glasses, can help. So, for the sake of your joy in God, put on the glasses of gratitude. And see.
Steve Fuller is lead pastor of Grace Church Abu Dhabi and writes at Living by Faith.