Monday, 10 August 2009

Giving Thanks - Responding to God's Checed

Psalm 107 is an exhortation to give thanks to God, for who He is and what He has done. It begins; “Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good!” Whatever happens in life – God is good. And every good and perfect gift is from above, James 1.17; from a good God. This is who He is – good. His essential nature is good and His desire for His creation is to do good things. Redemption is part of God’s goodness toward a broken world. The pain and suffering of the cross is also the triumph of God’s goodness over evil. But then we are told why, “For His mercy endures forever”. This word mercy is the Hebrew word Checed. It is translated as mercy 149 times, Kindness 40 times, loving-kindness 30 times, goodness 12 times and kindly 5 times. God’s mercy, kindness and goodness endures forever – because it’s an expression of who He is.

But here’s the crunch; “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy....” vs2. The redeemed, you and me, are meant to speak out thanks to God for His goodness – who He is, and His acts of power that save and deliver us – what He has done. The Psalmist calls these acts of power, “His wonderful works to the children of men”, in vs. 8, 15, 21 and 31. Four times in these same verses he expresses his desire that the redeemed would give thanks to the Lord – “Oh that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” Remember the ‘men’ at the beginning of the verse are the redeemed of verse 2, you and me. We are the ones here being encouraged to give thanks. God’s acts of deliverance are worth celebrating and speaking out.

Ex 15 gives us a great model for doing this. The first 20 verses of this chapter are the Song of Moses. It is a song sung after the children of Israel were delivered from Pharaoh’s armies. They did so with exuberant praise and thanksgiving. It is a song that exalts the greatness of God in triumphing over His enemies. And Miriam and the other maidens danced and played tambourines as part of the celebration. The whole community took time to tell God how great He is. Imagine the scene. Right by the Red Sea they sang, they danced, they joyfully celebrated God’s deliverance. It was a prophetic song that will also be sung again according to Rev 15.3, along with the song of the Lamb. They took time to say thank you in praise to God – right in the wilderness where God was the only audience who could appreciate it.

Verse 22 stands at the hearts of the psalm. “Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving and declare His works with rejoicing (literally, ‘joyful singing’ in the Hebrew)”. Thanksgiving is a sacrifice that is accepted by God because it is at the heart of all appreciation. When Jesus healed ten lepers only one returned to give thanks, Luke 17.11-19. Jesus was astonished. “Where there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Where there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Jesus expected more! All ten experienced healing but only one made the sacrifice of thanksgiving by returning to Jesus. Notice that he did this with a ‘loud voice’, Luke 17.15. And Jesus didn’t stop him. We are to declare His works with rejoicing – with joyful singing. How loud are you prepared to be in your appreciation for what God has done? The Psalmist tells us: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so”!

Four sections make up these encouragements to offer thanksgiving; vs. 4-9; 10-16; 17-22; 23-32. Each section begins with a dilemma or distressing situation, then the people cry to God for deliverance and this is followed by an exhortation to give thanks for answered prayer. Four typical life situations are mentioned, they wandered – vs4; they rebelled – vs11; they transgressed – vs17; they were at their wits’ end – vs27. Sound familiar? Most of us have experienced all those things and the distress it brings. Sometimes we wander from the truth, sometimes we rebel against what we know, sometimes we transgress (or cross boundaries we should be honouring) and sometimes we are simply at our wits’ end. But what is important to understand is that God is still ready to move on our behalf when we cry out to Him. “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses”. This phrase is repeated in verses 6, 13, 19 and 28. Four times no less! Whatever the reason for the anguish they were in, they cried out and God heard and responded. Verse 28 is written in the present tense just to emphasise that God can do now what He did then.

And each time God responds to their cry He sends an answer that is appropriate for their need. For those wandering, He led them forth by the right way, vs. 7. For those in rebellion to God’s word who found themselves bound in affliction and irons, He broke their chains in pieces, vs14. For those who transgressed and came near to death He sent His word and healed them, vs20. Finally for those at their wits’ end, He guides them to their desired haven, vs30. And so we come to the Psalmists ongoing exhortation; “Oh that men (the redeemed) would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men”.

So why is it that we are so good at calling out to God when we have a desperate need but less committed to expressing our gratitude to His deliverance through heartfelt praise and thanksgiving? Here are my top three reasons. It’s a very personal list but experience leads me to believe that it has universal application.

1. Self-centredness. It’s a strange thing how self-centred the human heart is. Having raised six children I can remember how often we would teach our kids to say please and thank you. Somehow those simple disciplines help to deliver us from a preoccupation with our own wants and needs. Thanksgiving recognises that someone else has made an effort on our behalf; an effort that usually involves a combination of time, energy, money and sacrifice. Thanksgiving delivers a death blow to self-centredness because it places someone else in the centre. Often those who are overindulged develop an attitude where they expect things to be done for them. They are spoilt. Only a regular dose of thankfulness for those around them will deliver these people from their self-centred focus.

2. Pride. This is a biggy. Some people carry on in life with a feeling of being invincible. They see themselves as better than others. Then things go wrong and they call on God for help. He delivers them and then they quickly forget how vulnerable they were in those moments of need. Like Psalm 106.21 says; “They forgot God their Saviour who had done great things in Egypt”. Rom 1.21 says, “....although they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful....” Knowing God is one thing, but choosing to glorify Him is another. Notice how close the refusal to be thankful is to those who refuse to glorify God. The Psalmist says, "He who offers praise glorifies Me”, Ps 50.23. Thanksgiving is ultimately an act of humility. It acknowledges we can’t do it alone. Paul was in danger of pride in his life, so God gave him a thorn in the flesh. It is not important to know what it was. What is important is that it created a new dependence on God in Paul – and for this he was thankful, 2Cor 12.7-10. He even boasted in this new found dependency on God.

3. Emotionally driven. These are the folk who often say ‘I don’t feel like praising God today’. They have no problem worshipping but they are emotionally driven. When they feel good they do it but when troubled times come, they wear their emotions on their sleeve. You only have to look at them to know exactly how they feel. The concept of the ‘sacrifice’ of praise is foreign to them. Emotionally driven believers are immature believers. Like young children they respond quickly to how they feel. There is a higher way. It involves acknowledging how you feel but then making a decision to thank and praise God, pushing past one’s feelings. As Paul teaches us, “ everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”, 1Thess 5.17. God’s will is that we give thanks in every situation, not necessarily for every situation. And there is a difference. In times of trouble we connect with God. This is what Joseph was able to do. And despite the hardships he endured he came into his destiny. At the end of it all he could see that what his brothers intended as evil, God meant it for good – to save many people, Gen 50.20.

Here’s a challenge to help you cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving. Take a day this week where you set apart the whole day to do nothing but express thanksgiving; to God and to those around you. Refrain from complaining or gripping for a whole day. If someone cuts you up in the car on the way to work – bless them and let it go. If someone lets you down choose to believe it was circumstances beyond their control and thank God for the opportunity to develop patience. Make a list of all the good things in your life at this time, health, friends, a job, whatever. And consciously thank God for each one. Then make a list of all the things God has done for you this year. Read over it and lavish appreciation on the Lord for His goodness to you in all these areas. Try doing it at the top of your voice!

And when you walk into church on Sunday it won’t be so hard to recall all His goodness to you. You will have prepared your heart and worship will flow, heartfelt, enthusiastic, loud and carefree. As Psalm 107.32 says, “Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, and praise Him in the company of the elders”. The Psalm closes with a wonderful thought. “Whoever is wise will observe these things and they will understand the loving-kindness (checed) of the Lord”, Psalm 107.43. Are you wise? Do you want to be? Do you want to grow in understanding of God’s unfailing mercy, kindness and goodness? Not just being a recipient of checed but understanding this aspect of God’s character? Then give yourself to this challenge I’ve laid down and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised!