Just over 400 years ago a group of refugees boarded a cramped merchant ship and began a treacherous trip across the Atlantic Ocean from England to a new land. While these pilgrims were not the first people to journey to New England, they did so with a special purpose that had not motivated prior business ventures: they sought religious freedom. Although these Pilgrims did not face the level of persecution first-century Christians endured, they were the victims of mockery, prejudiced investigations, and constant criticism. They feared being swallowed by a changing world and ceasing to exist. So they risked everything and set sail for the new world.
Around 2,200 years before the Pilgrims fled Europe, a mighty kingdom fell to a worldwide power. The nation of Judah faced the might of the Babylonian Empire, and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of God’s people were taken into captivity, and the nation entered a dark period in its history. While the date of its writing is uncertain, many believe that Psalm 107 was written to describe this period of suffering and to express thanksgiving to God for his deliverance. In 538 BC, undoubtedly prompted by God, the Babylonian ruler, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission to return to Judah and rebuild.
Though the Pilgrims and the Jewish captives were separated by more than two millennia, their struggles for faith and freedom were remarkably similar. In fact, Governor William Bradford, who led the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, alluded to Psalm 107 time and again, as its words so accurately described the dangers they faced:
Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business on great waters;
They have seen the works of the LORD,
And His wonders in the deep.
For He spoke and raised a stormy wind,
Which lifted the waves of the sea . . .
He caused the storm to be still,
So that the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they were quiet,
So He guided them to their desired harbor. (Psalm 107:23-30)
Likewise, their gratefulness to God mirrored that of God’s people, and they praised God and gave thanks in 1621 at their first harvest gathering, officially remembering his kindness at a Thanksgiving Day celebration two years later.
When we consider stories like these – examples of God’s faithfulness during times of extreme hardship – we can easily understand why some would write worship songs and others would host a feast in response. Most likely, we have each experienced God’s gracious deliverance or undeserved blessing at some point in our lives and praised him for it. After all, when God intervenes in miraculous ways, there is no other appropriate reaction but worship. We easily embrace Paul’s instructions to “give thanks in all circumstances” when the present circumstances are enjoyable. (1 Thess. 5:18 ESV)
After all, when God intervenes in miraculous ways, there is no other appropriate reaction but worship.
The challenge comes, however, when we must embrace the charge of grateful living when life is difficult or painful and we don’t see God at work. C. S. Lewis noted, “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is ‘good,’ because it is good, if ‘bad’ because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”1 Perhaps a thankful heart is even more difficult to maintain when life is predictable and mundane because in those moments we don’t even have the prompting of hardship to remind us of God’s presence.
Nevertheless, the call to grateful living remains for Christians, so how do we achieve it in all circumstances? How do we keep our hearts filled with joy and our minds assured that God is good and praiseworthy? I believe the answer begins with contemplating the nature and implications of God’s grace.
We can best understand God’s grace by seeing it in two distinct categories: Common Grace and Special Grace.
Common grace is the grace of God that prompts him to bless individuals and the world as a whole. For example, God causes the Earth to continue spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun at the exact right speed to maintain his beautiful creation, and all life on Earth benefits from his oversight. Furthermore, as an expression of his common grace, God has enabled all people to make good, moral choices and contribute to the betterment of society, despite being enslaved to sin in our natural state. God also chooses to bless us, though not necessarily in equal measure, with financial wealth, health and long life, and friendship. He even delivers entire nations from captivity and gives others safe passage to a land where they may freely pursue the practice of their faith.
Furthermore, as an expression of his common grace, God has enabled all people to make good, moral choices and contribute to the betterment of society, despite being enslaved to sin in our natural state.
Examples of God’s common grace expressed to all people are virtually endless. It’s worth noting that common grace also includes God’s choice to restrain evil in the world by preventing nations and individuals from descending even further into sin. Perhaps the greatest display of God’s common grace is that people are allowed the opportunity to live a single day when their sin is so offensive that it requires death as payment. God would be fully justified to require the immediate death of every person as soon as he or she first sins. In his kindness, he doesn’t. While all of the blessings of God’s common grace are temporary, bound to this life, were God to remove his hand of common grace, the earthly results would be disastrous.
Not all of the results of God’s grace are momentary, however, as some are eternal. Also known as saving grace, special grace is God’s kindness toward people that leads to salvation. While Christians debate the extent to which God exercises sovereignty over the application of salvation, we must all agree that God alone carried out the work that made salvation possible. The Father designed the means of salvation, the Son went to the cross, and the Holy Spirit applies salvation to us, enabling us to believe and making us new creations. Our role is to respond to the offer of salvation when we hear the gospel proclaimed. Had God not seen fit to offer salvation from sins, our greatest cause for praise would be earthly blessings, which, though wonderful, will never last.
The Right Response to God’s Grace
Perhaps the best lesson to learn from this short study of God’s grace is that we all have much to be thankful for, even when we aren’t aware of just how gracious God has been to us. As Jerry Bridges commented, “Thankfulness to God is a recognition that God in His goodness and faithfulness has provided for us and cared for us, both physically and spiritually. It is a recognition that we are totally dependent upon Him; that all that we are and have comes from God.”2 Stated simply, God has been gracious to us, and while his common grace makes life more enjoyable for everyone, his special grace makes eternal life possible for those who receive salvation. If you are a Christian, you have no doubt been the recipient of both expressions of God’s grace time and time again, and the only appropriate response is thankfulness.
Nurturing a Thankful Heart in Ourselves and Our Children
If thankfulness is the right response to God’s unfathomable generosity and grace, we should make sure we practice thankfulness and teach our children to do the same. Here are a few practical solutions for nurturing a thankful heart.
- As a family, take stock of how God has blessed you through his common grace. While our physical blessings are fewer in some seasons of life than in others, for the most part, we live lives of abundance. We should always make certain that we connect life’s blessings to God and ensure our children know that he is the source of all good things. Consider leading your spouse and children to make a list of your family’s earthly blessings, and then trace how each of these blessings ultimately can be attributed to God.
- Meditate on the gospel daily and teach it to your children. One of the great errors of the Christian life is to consider the gospel as something that only the unsaved and new believers benefit from reviewing. In reality, there is no greater subject to consider, no deeper topic to explore, and no more meaningful and transformational truth on which to meditate than the gospel. Spend time contemplating it each day and discussing it with your children. While they may hear the gospel at church, as their parent, God has tasked you alone with making the gospel a part of everyday life for your family.
- Pray together. Prayer is the method by which we communicate our needs to God, but, more importantly, God aligns us to his will and conforms us to the character of Christ during times of prayer. Accordingly, we should pray with our children, expressing thanks to God for all things in all circumstances. When we model gratefulness in prayer, we teach our children that God is approachable, reliable, and fully invested in our lives, and we submit to the changes he wants to make in us.
- Lead your family to give sacrificially in response to God’s faithfulness. God entrusts us with physical blessings with the intent that we are good stewards of them. It’s best to consider any financial wealth we have as God’s money which he has entrusted to us to use for purposes that honor him. With that in mind, talk with your family about how God could be leading you to invest in Kingdom purposes, either by giving to your local church or to a parachurch ministry that is making a difference in the world.
Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Academic Dean at Oak Valley College in Rialto, CA, & serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges & seminaries. He, his wife, & their four children live in Southern California.