How God Revealed the Ingratitude of My Own Heart
November 22, 2007
“Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.” (Romans 1:21 NLT).
This is not the sort of verse that is likely to make you feel happy on Thanksgiving Day. It is more like the anti-Thanksgiving verse. Not too many people will read this verse before carving their turkey and sharing a big meal together.
It’s not as if other translations give you any help or solace either. It’s pretty bleak no matter how you translate these words. The real problem here is that Paul is talking about all of us, the whole human race, not just some “pagan” part of it that never goes to church and doesn’t read the Bible. He makes that pretty clear by saying, “Yes, they knew God.” That has to include all the Baptists and Methodists and Catholics and Lutherans and Orthodox and all the Brethren and the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians and all the what-have-yous that fill up the Yellow Pages. It certainly includes me. Whoever else Paul has in mind, he’s definitely including all the religious types in his list.
Whenever we study Romans 1:18-32 we usually do it under some such heading as “the Condemnation of the Gentiles,” and we trace Paul’s argument this way:
1) God’s wrath is revealed against the whole human race because we are all born with an innate knowledge of God which we willfully suppress (v. 18).
2) God has made himself plain to all men so that they are without excuse (vv. 19-20).
3) By turning away from God, we turned to idolatry (vv. 21-23).
4) Result # 1: Moral Impurity (vv. 24-25).
5) Result # 2: Dishonorable Passions (vv. 26-27).
6) Result # 3: Total Social Breakdown (vv. 28-32).
Those three results can be clearly seen in verses 24, 26 and 28 in the repeated phrase “God gave them up” which speaks of a judicial act of God whereby he hands man over to the natural consequences of his own disobedience. Paul’s burden in this passage is to show that the whole human race is now under God’s wrath, justly deserving of his punishment, and that we are all “without excuse” in the eyes of God (v. 20).
As I said, it’s not a pretty picture, and virtually every evangelical preacher has used this passage to paint a portrait of a rebel world gone far astray from God. Paul paints his portrait in the blackest terms possible because he later wishes to show the glories of the gospel of Christ set against the backdrop of human sin.
A Closer Look at Verse 21
But tucked in there is a verse I had not really considered until a few months ago. It’s the verse I mentioned at the start of the sermon. That particular verse explains a key stage in humanity’s turn from the true God to idolatry. Let me quote it again: “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused” (NLT).
Just to be fair, I’ll give it in several other translations:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (NIV).
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (NASB).
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (ESV).
This is one of those occasions where the translations all say the same thing.
They knew God.
They did not honor God.
They did not give thanks to God.
Their thinking became futile.
Their hearts were darkened.
That means the problem with the human race is not a lack of knowledge. The deeper problem is ignoring the knowledge we already have. Truth always demands a response. No one can be neutral in the spiritual arena.
Paul goes on to spell out what happens when we become indifferent to spiritual truth:
1. We refuse to glorify God.
2. We refuse to give thanks to God.
At this point it is helpful to recall Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Truth demands a response, and the truth about God demands that we the creatures glorify him as the great Creator. When we don’t, we fail in the great purpose for which we were created.
It didn’t start with us. It started in the dim mists of the earliest days of the human race when Adam and Eve willfully rebelled against God. They should have glorified God by obeying him, but they didn’t. That was and is the chief sin of the human race. From Eden to your hometown a bent toward disobedience has entered our spiritual genetic code.
Spurgeon on the Unthankful Man
But it was this one little phrase that burned into my mind. “They did not give thanks.” When Charles Spurgeon preached on this verse, he offered this comment:
I cannot say anything much worse of a man than that he is not thankful to those who have been his benefactors; and when you say that he is not thankful to God, you have said about the worst thing you can say of him.
In typical 19th-century fashion, he goes on to show how God is treated by unthankful creatures:
He is despised.
His day is ignored.
His book is neglected.
His Son is refused.
His deliverances are forgotten.
Then warming to his topic, he remarks on how we tend to ignore God’s providences:
Why, look at some of you! You never missed a meal in your lives. When you went to the table, there was always something on it. You never had to lose a night’s rest for want of a bed. Some of you, from your childhood, have had all that heart could wish. If God has treated you so, while many are crushed with poverty, should he not have some gratitude from you? You had a good mother; you had a tender father; you have gone from one form of relationship to another with increasing comfort. You are spared, and your mother is spared; your wife and children are spared.
Indeed, God has made your path very smooth. Some of you are getting on in business, while other men are failing; some of you have every comfort at home, while others have been widowed, and their children have fallen, one after the other. Will you never be grateful? Hard, hard heart, wilt thou never break? Will any mercy bend thee? I do appeal to some here, whose path has been so full of mercies, that they ought to think of God, and turn to him with sincere repentance and faith.
Then he says even more than this:
But one says, “I have had good luck.” What can be worse than that? Here is unthankfulness to God indeed, when you ascribe his good gifts to “good luck.” “Well, you know, but I have been a very hard-working man.” I know you have, but who gave you this strength for your work? “I have a good supply of brains while others do not.” Did you make your own brains? Do you not feel that any man who talks about his own wisdom, and his own wit, writes “FOOL” across his forehead in capital letters? We owe everything to God; shall we not give God nothing? Shall we have no gratitude to him from whom all our blessings have come?
I wonder how many of us this Thanksgiving morning should have the word “FOOL” tattooed on our own forehead for taking God’s blessings for granted?
Two Signs of an Ungrateful Heart
In another sermon on the same verse Spurgeon says, “I fear there are thousands who call themselves Christians, who are not thankful, and yet they never thought themselves very guilty on that account.” He points out that we express this ungratefulness in at least two distinct ways:
1) First, we receive from God’s hand daily blessings without ever giving thought as to where they come from. God’s mercies are new every morning—life and breath and health and friends and food and clothing and the kindness of others and a job to go to and money enough to meet our needs—all of it comes every day and it is as if we run to the back door and let in those blessings because we are afraid to let them in through the front door. We receive all that God has given, but we don’t acknowledge the Giver.
2) Second, we grumble about what we don’t have. If it is manna, we wish we had quail. If it is cereal, we complain because we want eggs. If our black suit is not ready, we complain because we have to wear brown. If we have $500, we complain because we do not have $1000. If we have $1000, we grumble that it is not $5000. If we do not have cancer, we complain about our arthritis. If we have a car, we wish we had another one. We dream of a better job because we could be doing so much better than we are now. Complaining, one supposes, goes back to Adam who told Eve that the fig leaves made him itch.
I meant to say how God revealed the ingratitude of my own heart, and that I will now proceed to do. God did it in a way most unexpected and one that, frankly, embarrasses me to speak of it, but I am determined to rid my soul of this vice and so I say plainly what God has done for me. In the last two years the Lord has in his mercy led us in paths that are quite different from anything we have traveled in the past. For 27 years I served as pastor of three different churches—one in Los Angeles, one in Dallas, and one in Chicago. Of those congregations I wish only to remark that they were filled with good and kind people who graciously listened to me speak week after week. All three churches were very generous toward us. For more than sixteen years I served a congregation in a Chicago suburb. When in God’s timing that ministry came to an end, Marlene and I announced that we were moving to Tupelo, Mississippi, there to seek God’s will, sensing deep within a new call of God upon our lives. And so we set off to follow the Lord as best we could. Like Abraham of old, we went out, not knowing where we were going. And I don’t think we found it any easier than it must have been for Abraham to leave the known for the unknown. But be that as it may, we learned along the way that God’s plans and ours are rarely the same.
Here is one fact that I have never mentioned until now. For a full year we went without a salary of any kind. This came at a certain point after the kind provision of the church in Oak Park came to an end. When I say that we had no salary, I mean quite literally that for a year we had no regular or stated income of any kind. We lived off the land, so to speak. Of that year I wish to say two things very plainly. First, that was not part of my plan at all. I never envisioned a moment when we would be without a salary. That’s the sort of thing you venture to do when you are young and full of vigor and just starting out. I had no such desire and no such plan. But God’s plans and ours are rarely the same. So it came to pass that for twelve months we lived from day to day and week to week, waiting upon the Lord. Second, God never failed us, not even one time. We saw things happen that seemed to us to be miraculous answers to prayer. God’s provision came down from heaven just when it was most needed. Never too much but always just enough, and always in the nick of time. And this we did not see clearly until the year was finished, and we tabulated our income and saw that God had provided all our needs, some of them in ways that simply astounded us. If you will, we had “missionary-type” answers to prayers that had never happened during all those years when we had a regular paycheck.
My Ungrateful Heart
At length the year came to an end, and God provided a partial support through our ministry that has now become full support. And for that we are very grateful. But God spoke very clearly to me and showed me something about my heart that I had never seen before. During all those years when I received a regular paycheck as a pastor, I never once stopped to give thanks to God for his provision. In particular during the years in Oak Park when the church took such good care of us, I was quick to cash those checks but did not say “Thank You” to the Lord. Never one time can I remember being grateful to God for his provision for our needs.
I am certain that I would never have seen it but for that year with no salary at all. During my years as a pastor, if you had asked me, “Are you thankful for your paycheck?” I am certain I would have answered yes because that would be the right answer and who would answer no? I would have mouthed the right words, but my heart would have said, “This is my money. I earned it. I worked hard for it. It is what is owed me for my labor.” Never would I have said those words but that was the attitude of my heart. And is that not how we are all taught to think? A paycheck is money earned. It is not a gift. We work hard for what we get paid. You do not say thank you for what is yours by virtue of many hours of hard work.
Now I never saw that at all, never realized how I had come to take for granted the generous supply of our needs by God’s people. It shames me to think of it now. But God has his ways of humbling his servants. And so during that year without a salary, if I went to preach somewhere and they gave me a small gift for preaching a sermon, I was profoundly grateful to God. Thus does God even the scales. I learned to say thank you to the Lord for his provision for what I had once taken for granted.
A few years ago if you had asked me, “Are you a grateful person?” I suppose I would have said that I am about as grateful as the next person. And from the standpoint of our text, that would be a true statement. We are all unthankful by nature because we all take for granted the goodness of the Lord. We think God owes us something when in fact he owes us nothing at all.
Every good gift comes down from the Father of lights above.
What do you have that you did not receive?
God showed me that in my own heart, I was guilty of the sin that lies at the heart of all other sins—ingratitude. When we are not thankful for what we have received, we open the door to every other sin imaginable.
The final point I wish to make is that gratitude is first and foremost a matter of the heart. It’s not about what we do or don’t do. It is the heart that must be changed. After all, we may do many good deeds and yet do them grudgingly, out of a sense of duty, or in order to win God’s favor, as if mercy is earned and not given. I have learned and am learning that gratitude is a gift first and foremost, a matter of the heart, and it flows down to us, dropping like the gentle rain from heaven. In fact, mercy and gratitude always go together. What starts as mercy in heaven ends as gratitude on earth.
And so on Thanksgiving Day 2007, I wish to give thanks to God for showing me the true state of my own heart. I pray to become more grateful for all his gifts. And I humbly ask the Lord to give me a grateful heart for all his blessings—seen and unseen, that I might take nothing for granted, and to open the eyes of my heart to appreciate
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
When Spurgeon came to the end of his sermon, he finished with these quaint words. I find them comforting to my own soul, and they make me happy early on this Thanksgiving morning.
And then, next, let us begin to be very thankful, if we have not been so before. Let us praise God for common mercies, for they prove to be uncommonly precious when they are once taken away. Bless God that you were able to walk here, and are able to walk home again. Bless God for your reason: bless him for your existence. Bless God for the means of grace, for an open Bible, for the throne of grace, for the preaching of the Word. You that are saved must lead the song. “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
Bless him for his Son. Bless him for his Spirit. Bless him for his Fatherhood. Bless him that you are his child. Bless him for what you have received. Bless him for what he has promised to give. Bless him for the past, the present, and the future. Bless him in every way, for everything, at all times, and in all places. Let all that is within you bless his holy name. Go your way rejoicing. May his Spirit help you so to do!
On that note, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving Day. Amen.