Meditating on God’s grace and mercies gives birth to gratitude, and gratitude to love. This pattern is seen in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, which are filled with praise and thanksgiving. Prominent among them is the group called the Hallel, or Psalms of praise, Hallel being a name given by Jews to Psalms 113–118. They are recited at most of the principal Jewish festivals including the Passover meal, and may have been the hymn sung by Christ and the Apostles after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30).1
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is prominent among writers who constantly give thanks to God. He instructed the believers in Thessalonica to ‘rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Here Paul plainly states God’s will for every believer: ‘give thanks in everything’. To be thankful in everything we shall need, both before and during prayer, to watch continually for opportunities to give thanks. Paul advised the believers in Colossae to ‘devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving’ (Colossians 4:2, NASB). The Greek word (gregoreuo) translated ‘keeping alert’ carries the idea ‘to watch, or to refrain from sleep’. This is the word our Lord used three times in the garden when He told His disciples to keep awake so that they would not enter into temptation (Matthew 26:38,40-41).
There is a danger that praying without being alert to the responsibility of thanksgiving could lead to selfish requests.
James speaks of this when he explains to his readers why their prayers have not been granted: ‘you ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures’ (James 4:3). Prayer coupled with the watchful eye of thanksgiving will help preserve us from selfish requests and unanswered prayers.
Pitting anxiety against prayer and thanksgiving, Paul urges his readers to ‘Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God' (Philippians 4:6). In Christian experience, anxiety and prayer are two great opposing forces. Anxiety keeps us focused on our uncertainties; thanksgiving keeps us focused on God’s certainties. Thanksgiving, coupled with prayer and petition, is the antidote to anxiety.
Even in times of distress we are called to be thankful.
The apostle Paul certainly had reason to be anxious. In the city of Philippi, he and his companion Silas were arrested, falsely accused, had their backs beaten with rods, and were then thrown into the inner prison, their feet fettered in stocks. Their circumstances looked grim and the outcome uncertain. How did they react? The midnight hour found them praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). They were doing exactly what Paul later exhorted the believers in Philippi to do: to be ‘anxious for nothing but by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God' (Philippians 4:6). The subsequent verse spells out the likely outcome Paul and Silas experienced in prison: ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.’ Requests accompanied by thanksgiving are the safeguard against anxiety, allowing the peace of God to guard our hearts and minds.
It is not only personal blessings for which we should be thankful. The apostle Paul overflowed with thanksgiving to God for others. Writing to believers in Ephesus and Colossae, he tells them that he did not cease giving thanks for them because he had heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints (Ephesians 1:15,16; Colossians 1:3,4). He thanked God for the Philippian believers and their participation in gospel work (Philippians 1:3). Again, he thanked God for the Thessalonian Christians, specifically for their ‘work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ', and also that they had received the word of God ‘not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God' (1 Thessalonians 1:2,3; 2:13).
It is noteworthy that Paul’s thanksgiving aligned with his prayer requests. Faith in Christ Jesus, love for the saints, participation in the gospel, work of faith, labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, receiving the preached word as from God – all these prayer requests had been answered, with the result that gratitude filled his heart, overflowing in thanksgiving to God.
Thanksgiving in prayer is the will of God for every believer. We are to keep alert and watchful in thanksgiving when we pray. Thanksgiving in prayer will help preserve us both from selfish requests and from anxiety. Thanksgiving in prayer acknowledges the blessings we have received, but it doesn’t stop there; it also gives thanks for answered prayer in the blessing of others. The more we contemplate who God is and the grace and mercy we have received, the more gratitude will develop in our hearts, which in turn will overflow in thanksgiving to God.
Unworthy our thanksgiving,
Our service stained with sin,
Except as Thou art living,
Our Priest, to bear it in;
In every act of worship,
In every loving deed,
Our thoughts around Thee centre,
As meeting all our need.
(Mary Bowly Peters)
(Believers Hymn Book 306)
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church