Praying for a thankful heart

How grateful are we? How grateful are you? Sometimes we speak, as Christians, of being grateful to God for all that He provides for us, but when things go wrong our gratitude can quickly evaporate. We forget that even in the difficult times God is still doing amazing things for us that we should be grateful for. And I don't just mean that he will bring good, ultimate good, for us out of whatever problems, sins, afflictions we are undergoing, even though that is true. I mean that even in the midst of difficulty God is still providing all we need for life, He is still preserving our faith, He is still showing mercy to us in our daily sinning.

One person who saw the deficiency of his thankfulness was the 17th Century pastor and poet, George Herbert. In one of his poems he writes that he will not let God rest "Till I a thankful heart obtain." And then he adds: "Not thankfull when it pleaseth me; as if thy blessings had spare days; but such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise." (sic).

These are truly great sentiments for a Christian to have and to pursue. A heart that beats to the tune of constant, indeed eternal, praise is a heart ready for glory. And Herbert recognises his lack. He is thankful in fits and starts. He does not see or appreciate enough the lavish grace that God bestows on His people daily. And surely we are no better than he at seeing such things? If we could see what it takes every day for God, in Christ, to sustain the universe and to preserve our lives; if we could see the half of what it takes for God, in Christ, to protect us from the onslaughts of evil and from fatal backsliding; we would be astounded and amazed and very much more grateful. The trouble is that we have come to take God's goodness to us for granted. We almost see that as His job. We forget that such goodness is an act of unmerited grace on His part. We are sinners who have turned from Him and sought to live our lives independently of Him. And we continue to do that in various ways throughout the day. When God acts in kindness to us it is most definitely not because he has to.

Herbert sees that and sees his own failure to be grateful. And he undertakes to pursue God in prayer until he gets it. His is not a one off prayer, nor is his desire for a thankful heart something he seeks only from a sense of duty. He longs for it so much that he importunes God for it. And if we are honest, we ought to be just as eager for thankfulness, but often are not.

And there is something else that Herbert's words show us. He knows that he cannot whip up the gratitude that he desires. He has no confidence in his own abilities. We have become so used to the idea that we are possessed of free will that we forget or ignore what the Bible clearly teaches about our inability to freely will the good unless God so moves our hearts to do so. Herbert's prayer is for a changed heart that he knows is beyond him in his own strength. His words reveal a total dependence on God. He knows that only God can grant him the grateful heart that he seeks.

I think that Herbert raises several challenges to us in these few words of his.

  1. Do we really believe that a constant state of gratitude is the only right response to the constant grace that God gives to us?
  2. Do we recognise that our existing gratitude is infinitely inadequate?
  3. Do we believe, as Herbert does, (and as the Bible teaches), that without God in Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5)? Have we seen that our much vaunted free will is only ever exercised against God unless God graciously frees it (Ephesians 2:1-10)? That only grace can make us even desire the good never mind do it (Philippians 2:12-13)
  4. Are we so seeking gratitude that we are willing to plead with God for it?

These are important challenges. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say that a grateful drunk does not get drunk. And I think the principle holds true for our walk with God; grateful sinners do not sin.


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