Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace
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Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace

1 Thessalonians 5:18  (ID: 2189)

Throughout his letters, the apostle Paul exhorted believers to give thanks to God continually, regardless of their circumstances. As Alistair Begg explores 1 Thessalonians 5 and other related passages, we observe how a thankful heart springs from a Christian’s faith in a sovereign God. By trusting in God’s redeeming grace and relying on His strength to put His Word into action, we can be thankful in the midst of doubt and difficulty.

Series Containing This Sermon

Thankful Living

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26001

Sermon Transcript: Print

October 3, 1863:

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations ... are blessed whose God is the Lord … we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are [subject] to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

What a conception of who God is and his plan for the world. He says the Civil War may be nothing more than the judgment of God. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the administration suggesting that the chaos that is before us today may be an indication of the punishment and wrath of God inflicted upon us in order that we might experience the kind of national reformation necessary.

Says Lincoln,

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that [God] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who [dwells] in the heavens.

Signed Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.[1]

So, here we are this morning, not adrift on the continuum of life, but we are part and parcel of the unfolding plan and purpose of God for this people as well as for the nations of the earth. And it is right and proper for us to consider the fact that God, having redeemed a people for himself, gives to those who are his own people certain distinguishing marks in the same way that people of various races are identifiable by certain characteristics. Chinese ladies are more than often petite and very dark haired. People from Scotland, they were asking me last week after John Peebles was here, somebody said to me, “So are all the men in Scotland small?” The inference being, “We’ve only seen two of you, and you don’t amount to much. If we stuck the two of you together, you wouldn’t even make one half decent American.” That’s the kind of thing they were saying. We can live with that. We have been a beaten down people for a long time. But yeah, Scottish men by and large are fairly small. Every so often you’ll find a big ruddy one with red hair and brave enough to wear a kilt, but not many of them.

Americans are … Americans, identifiable in airports around the world by white tennis shoes and baseball caps and not much else, except lots of luggage. But in the same way that different peoples are identifiable by different factors, so the people of God, says the Bible, are going to be distinguishable by certain features. And when he writes to the Thessalonians, Paul says to them in the beginning of chapter 4, he says we were writing to you in order that you might know “how to live in order to please God,”[2] because it is the purpose of God that his people would live to please him. And as he goes on to give instructions concerning the nature of that, he points out in the portion of Scripture that we read in chapter 5 that some of the distinguishing features of those who are God’s children are these: one, in verse 16, they’re joyful people; two, in 17, they’re prayerful people; and three, in verse 18, they’re thankful people. Now this is not all that they are. It is the will of God that they should be this, it is God’s will that they might be more than this, but at least the people of God are to be distinguishable by a spirit of thankfulness because thankfulness is a mark of grace.

Now what I want to do, because it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is think with you just for a moment or two about the way in which Paul tackles this, indeed, the way in which the Bible addresses it, and I want to do so under under three words: first of all the directive, secondly the dynamic, and thirdly the doctrine.

The Directive

First of all, you will notice the directive which is here in a phrase in verse 18, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Be thankful people. The children of God should of all people be really thankful. Why? Because they have so much for which to be thankful. That is why it’s not unusual for us to turn to the pages of the Bible and find that it is speaking about thankfulness all over the place. The psalmist address it, Psalm 7:17, “I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness.” “I will give thanks to you forever,” he says, “I will give thanks to you in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you.”[3] We give thanks to you O God “for your name is near,”[4] and then as it were he turns to the gathered throng, and he says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Be thankful unto him and bless his name for the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endures to all generations.[5] So for Paul to issue this directive here is not somehow or another to introduce a new element to the Bible, but is simply to add his voice, as it were, to a great chorus that is calling for the spirit of thankfulness amongst those who name the name of Christ.

That thankfulness is a distinguishing mark of Christian faith.

In Ephesians chapter [5] he has pointed out the same thing, that thankfulness is a distinguishing mark of Christian faith. Not marked by obscenity, he says, or foolish talk or coarse joking. These things are out of place, but rather marked by thanksgiving.[6] In Colossians chapter 2 (a verse to which I’ll return in a moment) and verse 7, he talks about them “overflowing with thankfulness,” overflowing with thankfulness. The verb there I think, from memory, is perisseuō and it simply means “to gush.” Some of you like a lot of gravy, some of you don’t like too much gravy, some of you like gravy on the side. If you don’t like a lot of gravy, the last person you want to see is the sort of gravy maniac coming who loves to make everything on the plate float; it’s not a good day unless it all floats. And some of you are smiling and others of you are grimacing; I can divide you into the floaters and the non-floaters on the basis of your reaction. But that is the word there, is perisseuō, it is to overflow with gravy, it’s going everywhere. It’s not that it is just meted out a teaspoonful at a time, a wee drop here and a wee drop there, but rather it comes out of the jug—whoooo! There it goes, everywhere overflowing. That’s the word he uses. He says the people of God in Colossae, the people of God in Thessalonica, the people of God in Ephesus, no matter what else they’re known by, are supposed to be people who when they overflow, overflow with thankfulness. They’re always saying “thank you.” They’re always mentioning things for which they’re thankful. There are always things that have happened, there are people they have met, there are places they have been, and you find them saying all the time, “thank you” and “thank you” and “thank you” and “I am thankful.”

Oh, and this of course is not the “thank yous” of the little robots of our children that we teach and train how to say thank you. “Go on, say what you’re supposed to say to Mrs. Jones,” and they say, “Thank you Mrs. Jones,” and “Go on, say what you’re supposed to say to the postman,” “Thank you postman,” and basically they may have no interest at all in being thankful. They may not be remotely thankful. They are simply doing what they’re asked to do in a moment in time. Anybody can be constrained to that. The sort of propriety of it, the pragmatic benefit of it, is such that we can induce in one another a sense of moral rectitude which says, you know, “Why don’t we at least give the impression we’re thankful even if we’re not? After all, nobody was ever upset by people saying thank you.” No, it is not that kind of thing. It is a thankfulness that is as a result of a key being turned in the soul of a man or woman, as a result of which they now begin to overflow with thankfulness.

Those of you who come from the Anglican Communion, or the Episcopal Communion here in America, will know that the Anglican Prayer Book provides you not only with prayers of petition and prayers of confession, but also provides wonderful prayers of thanksgiving. And I went to it again this week just to remind me of it all, and there is whole selection on offer here. There is a prayer of general thanksgiving, thanksgiving for the rain, thanksgiving for fair weather, thanksgiving for plenty, thanksgiving for peace and deliverance from our enemies, thanksgiving for restoring public peace at home, thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague or other common sicknesses, and it’s just all here. So that in case the people of God have forgotten that for which they should be thankful, then the worship leader may lead them in prayers and say, “You know here’s some things that we ought to be thankful for,” because it is not impossible for us as believing people to be thankless; it’s just incongruous for us as believing people to be thankless.

Now, what would it, then, be that would prevent thankfulness amongst us? Well I think the circumstances more than anything else, don’t you? Somebody immediately says, “Well I understand what you’re saying, but of course you don’t know my circumstances, and if you knew my circumstances, then I’m not sure that you would be so prone to reissue, as it were, the directive.” Well notice that your circumstances are actually mentioned in the directive. It says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” That’s the rub, is it not? Because not all of our circumstances are immediately conducive to thanksgiving. Some of us have spent these last few days, and they have quite frankly been the loneliest of our lives. They’re the loneliest we’ve ever spent. We haven’t confided that in anyone at all, but the very fact that I mention it to you now, it reverberates at the core of your being. Others of us have for some inexplicable reason just been overwhelmed by a sense of the lostness of a loved one, and it has crushed in upon us. And we have found ourselves reaching and trying our best, with God’s enabling, to exercise a spirit of genuine thanksgiving that would be an encouragement to those who have gathered around us.

Some of us have met these last few days with a spirit of such disappointment as a result of failure in our lives, and we’ve come to worship today, perhaps cajoled by a loved one, perhaps dragged here as a result of having found yourself unfortunately, you say, in the home of somebody who goes to this church and since they gave you Thanksgiving dinner, you have to come to church as well, and there you sit saying, “I wonder how long this chap will keep going. I wish he hadn’t found all of his notes and I wish his friend hadn’t gone looking for them.” Because you were having a wonderful Thanksgiving right up until about five or seven minutes ago, and now it’s just gone right over the edge. What do you do when the shadows are so long that they cast such a dark emptiness across your path? Well, what the Bible says here is that God not only gives to us a directive, but he provides a dynamic so that, even in the unpleasant and crushing experiences of life, we are going to be enabled to respond in such a way that distinguishes us from those who are thankless and embittered.

We have a song that we’ll sing next year at this time, all being well, with the help of my friends here. (When did they leave? Last time I looked they were there. Some of the youngsters are going, “I knew I should have joined that choir, that group. I could have left with them.”) We sang this at school in Scotland, and we sang it at church too. Some of you will have sung it, I’m sure. I just want to read it to you. The opening line is sometimes referred to as “The Golfer’s Chorus”: “We plow the fields and scatter.”[7] Some of you with whom I played this year were obviously not taking divots but making contributions to the harvest thanksgiving.

We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God's almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes, and the sunshine,
And soft, refreshing rain.
He only is the maker
Of all things near and far;
He paints the wayside flower,
He lights the evening star;
Hhe winds and waves obey him,
By him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, his children,
He gives our daily bread.

This was written, incidentally, sometime between 1740 and 1815 by a man by the name of [Matthias] Claudius, translated by Jane Campbell in the nineteenth century. It concludes in this way:

We thank thee then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food.
No gifts have we to offer,
For all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.

And then the chorus, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.” We sometimes sing it at grace as well.  When people say “Let’s sing the grace,” then we would sing that.

Well, you see what a worldview that is, what a view of the world it is? If you take your grandchildren out at night, and you look up at the stars, and the children ask you questions that are really metaphysical questions, they’re asking you about the universe and they’re asking you about the solar system. And you’re not fobbing them off at all, you’re actually introducing them to unbelievable truth when you tell them that God who made the solar system turns the stars on. Indeed, it says, “He calls them by name.” That he is the one who “paints the wayside flower,”[8] when you look at it and you say, “That is immense, that is amazing! Look at that stuff!” When you drive along the freeways of some parts of the world—I think maybe in the Carolinas and in California too—and all of that foliage, that beautiful colored stuff that’s up the middle of the freeway. How come? Apparently, the exhaust of cars helps it to grow—doesn’t kill it. What a freak of evolution, huh? That just while we’re gushing all this stuff into the universe, God is “painting the wayside flowers” and sweeping all our exhaust into the immensity of his purposes.

The Dynamic

The exhortations of the Bible are never there without the enabling of the Bible also.

Well the directive is clear. He says, “Be thankful in all circumstances.” Notice the dynamic, because the exhortations of the Bible are never there without the enabling of the Bible also. “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”[9] How are we supposed to do this? Well verse 23 and 24 help us: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” Now that word there to “sanctify” means to set apart for God. Let me use an illustration I’ve used with you before. When Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, makes a purchase of a dwelling in the United Kingdom, or anywhere else for that matter, her lawyers take care of the transaction behind the scenes. As a result of a transaction unseen publicly, there is a transfer from the title of the prior owner into the title of the Royal Family. Once the Royal Family has taken title of the place, then the Royal Family sets in motion the transformation of that dwelling in order that it might be a fit habitation for Her Majesty in which to spend time. Now the analogy breaks down at several points, but at least it holds here: when the Lord Jesus Christ comes to rule and to reign in a life, he dispatches as it were, if I may say so crassly, the Holy Spirit in order to produce the clean-up operation necessary, an ongoing cleansing operation, whereby Christ then may dwell in faith within that being, namely my life. And so it is that the work of God in bringing me to Jesus then enables me to be what Jesus desires for me to be. So when the directive comes, “I want you to be thankful in all circumstances,” and the response comes, “How am I supposed to do that?” the answer then comes, switching from Thessalonians to Philippians [2:13] it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. You see? “But I don’t feel thankful.” That’s not the question. God enables us to thankfulness. “But my circumstances are so bad and so gloomy.” We understand that, but it is God who is quickening us from within, saying even through our tears, even through our pain and our disappointment, the loss of a business, the collapse of a relationship, whatever it might be, “Come, ye thankful people, come”[10] and raise this song. How? By God’s enabling.

The cry of ethics is simply this: be what you are not. The call of Christianity is to become what you are.

You see, the cry of ethics is simply this: be what you are not. The call of Christianity is to become what you are. Now let me illustrate that by the verses I said I’d return to in Colossians chapter 2. Colossians 2:6. “So then,” says Paul, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord …” I want you to stop there. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord …” The tense here is not simply the past tense.  It is a tense in the Greek language which conveys a completed action in the past with continuing results or conditions. Let me say that to you again. The tense conveys a completed action in the past with continuing results and conditions. The completed action in the past is that this individual has come to receive Christ Jesus as Lord.

Now let me ask you a question this morning. Is that a familiar phrase to you? Let me ask you this: have you ever received Christ Jesus as Lord? You see, the call to thankfulness is not a call which is issued, as it were, Paul going out onto the streets and gathering up a crowd of people and saying to them, “Listen, I think that since you live in such a nice place and you seem to be fairly well put together, I think you all ought to be a far more thankful group of people than you are. Now, go on and try and be far more thankful than you’ve been. And why don’t you try and be a little cheerier as well. Be joyful. And have you ever tried praying? Have you ever tried meditation? Try that as well. And go on with you now and see if you can’t do much better than you’ve been doing.”

But that’s the call of all kinds of religion, and that, you see, is what many of you have only come as far as, because you are not Christians. “Oh,” you say, “what do you mean I’m not a Christian? I’m in the lineage of Lincoln. That’s a long time ago and I’m here in America, you know. I’m certainly Christian.” Oh, does Christianity pass to you with national status? That you get the you get the freedom to work, the freedom to vote, the opportunity to serve in the military, and you become a Christian as well, by dint of being born here. “No,” you say, “well no I didn’t really mean that at all, but I mean I come to the church, and I have been coming to the church for some time now.” I understand. You could also have been spending your afternoons sitting in your garage, but sitting you in your garage wouldn’t have turned you into a Ford Mustang, you know. The very fact that you’re in a place that is related to the event does not necessarily mean that the event is uniquely yours.

And the reason I point this out to you this morning is because it is so crucial. Why is it that so many people are absolutely stalled at this time of year? I’ll tell you why. Because the directive comes to them, but there is no dynamic within them. They are not Christians. They do not have the power of Christ within them. They have never received Jesus. They do not know what it means to bow beneath his lordship. All that they have done is assimilate various religious ideas and they have added them, then, to the package of their existence. And so what you have is some kind of ethical call, and so they’ve come through these last few days and they haven’t been particularly thankful at all. They really didn’t want to go to their mother-in-law’s house, and they dragged themselves in there, and they grinned and they beared it for a while. And after that they had to go over to Aunt Mabel’s again, and they were sick and tired of that. They’ve done it five years in a row and they didn’t want to go there again. Or they were a teenager and they frankly wanted to run off by themselves into the hillside and just do whatever they pleased, and they had to go over here or there, and then finally they got dragged to church on a Sunday morning. And when they got into the church on the Sunday morning, if there isn’t some alien and stranger haranguing them about the fact that they ought to be thankful when thankfulness is the last thing from their minds. And you say to yourself, “There’s no way I’m going to be thankful.” No there isn’t. You’re stuck. You’re absolutely stuck. You’re stuck with self-pity. You’re stuck with any endeavor to try and pull yourself out of the spirit of debasement. And I want to tell you that unless you receive Christ Jesus as Lord, you have no dynamic with which to be able to fulfill the directive. Did you ever consider that?

You see, you could give me a play by Shakespeare and put part of the soliloquies up on the screen and then ask me to write such a play. I can’t do it. You could put up over here a painting by Turner and say, “Now do one of those wonderful landscapes like Turner,” and I can’t do it. You could put up before us all the life of Jesus Christ and say, “Now live a life like Jesus Christ,” and I can’t do it. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could pen words like that, and if the genius of Turner could come and live in me, then I could paint a landscape like that, and if the power of Jesus could come and live in me, then I might live a life like that. You see the message of Christianity is not, become what you are not. The message of Christianity is, admit what you are. And there’s the rub, you see for the average well-heeled businessman, the average put-together family that comes to an event such as this, the one thing in the world that you don’t ever want to do is to admit what you are. I mean that if people could really see what you are, if they could see what you’re really like, if they could know the kind of things you say in your car, if they could understand the sort of stuff that you are prepared to tolerate and live with … and after all, they think you’re an outstanding person. They commend you. They talk about you in the office and they say, you know, “He gave so much to the such and such project; and the people down on East whatever street, they are so thankful because he did this; and she was down there the other night and took blankets; and all of these wonderful things,” which of course pagans can do, can’t they? And which anybody can do.

The kind of thankfulness which overflows here, which Paul calls for, is a thankfulness that only comes as a result of understanding what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

These are all external to ourselves. We may do them simply as a result of guilt, we may do them as a result of pragmatism, but the kind of thankfulness which overflows here, which Paul calls for, is a thankfulness that only comes as a result of understanding what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. “How can I say thanks for the things that you have done for me? Things so undeserved, yet you give to show your love for me. The voices of a million angels could not express my gratitude,” for “all that I am and ever hope to be, I owe it all to thee.” For “with your blood you have saved me,” you see, and “with your power you have raised me.”[11] Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Is there an event in your life, has there come a time in your life, where you received Christ Jesus as Lord? And if there is not, then I put it to you that there is really little point in going much further with the exhortation, because you have no way to complete the project except by human endeavor.

A completed action in the past with continuing results and conditions. It was some twenty-five years ago I said to my wife, “You know, yeah, I’ll love you for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and so on. What if she asked me about it in the last week and I said, “Oh, that was twenty-five years ago. We’re not dealing with that still are we? That was a long time ago. What’s that got to do with now?” That would be a ridiculous answer, wouldn’t it? Because the event that took place then in the past has abiding conditions in the present. And having received Christ Jesus as Lord, so then as I abide in him, “rooted and built up in him,”[12] as he says there, studying my Bible, learning to pray, fellowshipping with God’s people, making much of who Jesus is, telling others about him, as I’m rooted and grounded in these things, then I grow up into him and then I overflow with thankfulness. So, if you see that an absence of thankfulness will then be diagnosed by a spiritual doctor either as a result of lifelessness—for unless we have received Christ Jesus as Lord we cannot overflow with thanksgiving—so where there’s an absence of thankfulness, then either the person has ceased to be rooted and grounded and built up in Christ so they just become a miserable rascal, or that beyond that they have never ever received Jesus. Now, mercifully it’s the work of the Spirit of God to do the diagnosis, and not me or anybody else. I’m not going out amongst the congregation to find out just exactly where you are. I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t be able to find out. How could I ever diagnose such things? You couldn’t diagnose it in me. I could be up here and preach for a month of Sundays and you would still never know the difference, but the Spirit of God does.

The Doctrine

Now you see … and let me go to my final word. The directive, thankful in all circumstances. The dynamic, having received Christ as Lord we are rooted and grounded in him. And what is the doctrine that underpins this? Well it’s the doctrine of providence that God is completely in charge of his world and that although his hand may be hidden, his rule is absolute. You don’t have to sit by your televisions counting down to five o’clock this afternoon, no matter how interested in it you are, with some great spirit of anxiety and panic and worry. They’re counting it down now on CNN, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick down to the great moment, the great five o’clock moment. There will be another moment after the five o’clock moment, and they’ll have to get another clock out and they’ll set that up again.

The ultimate goodness to which he works is to conform us to the image of his Son and to prepare us for the day when we will stand with him in glory.

But let me tell you the clock that is ticking. It is the clock of which we read in 1 Thessalonians 5. Do not live, he says, as children of the night but as children of the day who are paying attention to the fact that the real clock that is ticking is a clock that is ticking, as it were, on the portal of eternity and it is clicking down to the time when the trumpet will sound and Christ will appear and he will bring to fruition all that he has planned from all of eternity, and that is the real issue.[13] And God reigns and rules concerning this, and everything else may be subsumed under the vastness of that plan. God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. He is in all things working for the good of those who love him. He is in everything conforming the events of our lives to the purpose of his will. He is separating and transforming his people into the likeness of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.[14] And that is why, incidentally loved ones, there are things in your life and mine that do not immediately go in the category of “good” that God has brought into our lives in recent days, because his transforming things for our good to create a spirit of thankfulness is not about giving us the government we think is best. It’s not about making sure that our family life is always intact. It’s not about making sure that everybody lives for one hundred years and that we all go on fine together. If it were, then frankly we have nothing of which to speak because our congregation is riddled with pain and with disappointment and collapse and confusion and all manner of things. And yet, we’re going to declare that God is good in all circumstances. How could this ever be? Because the ultimate goodness to which he works is to conform us to the image of his Son and to prepare us for the day when we will stand with him in glory, and all the affairs of time and the things that ravish our minds now will then be seen to have fallen away like scaffolding having been raised around a vast structure, so that all of the glory and beauty of it may now be seen, and he will kick all the scaffolding away. It will fall away! You say to yourself, “Well that is a shame for me because I’m only involved in the scaffolding.” I hope not.

If you doubt this—and some of you are teenagers here, and you listen to music and you lie on your bed at night and you say, “Who am I? What am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Does it even make even one stinking bit of difference?” And everything that you read and everything that you listen to and everything that gushes your way confirms the fact that you are just some piece of plankton soup, that you are adrift in the universe. Well go home and get a Bible or take one with you, Psalm 139, and read there about how God has created you, put you intricately together in your mother’s womb, given you the eyes that he gave you and the color of your hair and your nose in the exact place and given you your own DNA and established all the days of your life. He wrote them in his book even before one of them came to be. Do you see how vastly different this is? You might as well believe there is no God as believe that he doesn’t see or he doesn’t hear or he doesn’t care or he doesn’t act in human affairs. You see this is in direct contrast to the world view of many, and I draw this to a close in just a moment here.

In the Glasgow Herald in Scotland they have a poem every day, and this is the one from, I think, the fourth of June or the  sixth of June, I can’t remember, but I tore it out. It’s by Thomas Hardy. You know Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, etc. This is his poem which everybody woke up to in Glasgow if they take the Glasgow Herald on either the fourth or the sixth of June this year and, as they were having their cornflakes, this is what they read:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh:
‘Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!’
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Power fuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan . . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.[15]

And underneath the heading “Daily Poem,” the editor has written, “Not a happy poem but a thoughtful one,” lamenting the effect of sheer chance on human affairs. Not a happy poem but a thoughtful one. In other words, Hardy says, “I’m just a cog in the machinery. We’re just individual cells in that single global organism that constitutes the Earth.” Or to go back twenty years and put it right down at the lowest of levels, we are in the words of Pink Floyd, “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone. They’re just another brick in the wall.”[16] They’ve no significance, no intrinsic individual meaning to life, just another brick. We’re simply a collection of 1,500 bricks seated here at the moment, about to disengage ourselves from the other bricks and go out and find a building site on which to spend the rest of our lives. Hopefully some in a grand building, others in a poorer building, but whatever—we’ll just be another brick in the wall. Is it any wonder that there’s such a thing as road rage when people get up and then they have this with their cornflakes? You know, you get up in the morning and you read this, and you say to your wife, “Well I have to get out on the road now.” You get out on like a total maniac because you feel completely trapped, or alternatively you feel completely toyed with.

This is the fifth of June from the same newspaper. “Truly, mankind is the son of Blob. A new theory on the origin of life suggests that we are descendants of bubbles of oily fat … The new theory of life proposes that we are related to microscopic lipids, chemicals which still exist in our cells today. And our mega-distant ancestors were not ‘formed.’ Rather, they dribbled together slowly.”[17] Loved ones, these are the alternatives that are up for grabs right now in our culture. This is the war that is being waged. It’s a war that is far more significant than any political machinations. It’s actually about a view of the world. It’s about the intrinsic nature of man. It is about whether we are created by an interpersonal creator God. It is about all of these things. And to think that people can grow up believing that they’re the son of Blob, or believing that they’re simply being toyed with, or believing that there’s no difference between up and down, that there is only void, that with Nietzsche it has become chilly and the dark night is closing in[18]—take your choice. That how you want to live your life? Trapped, toyed with … or trusting God?

Let me finish with another piece from my files, from dear Diane Circelli whose memory we revere. What a great girl. A cheerleader in her early teens, and then that encroaching skin disease took over and closed her down, made her so unlike her early pictures, so unlike the cheerleading pictures. I only knew her post-cheerleader. I only knew her, as many of you did, when the illness had begun to close in upon her. And yet those who knew her best would testify to the fact that it in no way made her a creature of self-pity. She did not find herself morose and waiting for people to come and serve her. Indeed, the testimonies about her all had to do with the fact that she still loved to make the meals for her dad, she still loved to have the family come over for Thanksgiving, she still loved to be the one who despite the difficulties of her life was putting the operation together for others. Therefore, it was no surprise when, on the Fourth of July 1995, she wrote to her mom and to her dad and to her family to say that in prospect of her soon-to-be demise, she had certain requests for them because she was going to die and leave them, and she wanted to make sure that they were okay. And in the course of her telling them how much she loves them and how grateful she was for their love and care, how difficult it was to think of leaving them, she says, “I have these requests for you,” and then she gives them. And then she says this, “It’s difficult expressing all that this life and my future eternal life mean to me. This verse expresses a little of my feelings and my gratitude to God for the life, the family, and the friends he has given me.” And then she quotes Job 10:12, “You gave me life and showed kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.”

Now I put it to you that it is impossible to write this letter —to live this life of thankfulness —simply as a result of determining that by self-endeavor I will respond to the directive of the time of the season, and I will just try and become a thankful person. No, it’s going to take far more than that. It’s going to come to the fact that I am a person of ingratitude, that I have never been grateful to God for the fact that he gave me the gift of his Son, that I’ve never bowed down and acknowledged that I needed the gift that he came to give, that I’ve never held up my hands like this and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, I receive the gift of your salvation, and I welcome you as Lord and Savior of my life, and I pray that now, being rooted and built up in him, I may actually overflow with thankfulness.”

To the extent that you or I believe ourselves to be deservedly in Christ, we have never understood the gospel.

Some of you are still tied up on the fact that if you just try a little harder you’re going to be there. You’re going to frustrate yourselves dreadfully. When Jesus came, the people who thought they were really good found that Jesus had little time for them at all, and the people who knew themselves to be really bad found that Jesus loved spending time with them. Why was that? Because Jesus knew that it was going to be by his death on the cross that all of the problem of our sin and our rebellion and our unbelief would be dealt with; and that therefore what was necessary was not for people to put themselves in a position of goodness, but it was for people to take all of their goodness, everything that they thought was good that they could offer up to God, all of their righteous deeds, all of the things that made them them, all of the things that made them walk out in the street, they were going to have to strip down to the buff (metaphorically) and he would then give them the “royal robes they don’t deserve.”[19] To the extent that you or I believe ourselves to be deservedly in Christ, we have never understood the gospel. For those of us who know that he has dressed us up in finery for kings and priests that, given what we know about ourselves, is an amazing grace, then we say, “Hey, we bow before your majesty, and we thank you. Oh, do we thank you.”

Father we thank you for your love and your goodness expressed to us in Jesus. Words run away from us to try and crystallize these truths. Grant that anything that is said that is wrong may be forgotten, anything that is said that is unclear may be clarified, anything that is said that just confuses the issue may be banished from our minds; and I pray that from the tiniest child to the oldest person here, you will give us a baptism of clear seeing: who we are, what Christ has come to do, and what it means to overflow with thankfulness. May we bow before the greatness of your majesty today and all our days. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Abraham Lincoln: "Proclamation 106 - Thanksgiving Day, 1863," October 3, 1863. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. (accessed September 10, 2016).

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:1 (NIV 1984).

[3] Psalm 35:18 (NIV 1984).

[4] Psalm 75:1 (NIV 1984).

[5] Psalm 100:4–5 (paraphrased).

[6] Ephesians 5:4 (paraphrased).

[7] Matthias Claudius, “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” (18th cent.), Tr. Jane Campbell (19th cent.).

[8] Ibid.

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV 1984).

[10] Henry Alford, "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" (1844).

[11] Andraé Crouch, “My Tribute: To God Be the Glory” (1971) (paraphrased).

[12] Colossians 2:7 (NIV 1984).

[13] 1 Thessalonians 5:5-7 (paraphrased).

[14] Romans 8:29-30 (paraphrased).

[15]Thomas Hardy, “Hap,” (1866) Glasgow Herald, June 2000.

[16] Roger Waters, “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” (Pink Floyd, The Wall, 1979) (paraphrased).

[17] Jim McLean, “Origins of life - the blob theory,” Glasgow Herald, (June 5, 2000),, (accessed September 12, 2016).

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Madman (1882) (paraphrased).

[19] Jarrod Cooper, “King of Kings, Majesty” (1998).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.