By David Feddes
He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Luke 17:16)
Once upon a time there was an immigrant shopkeeper. One day a grown son of his, an accountant, criticized his father’s way of doing business. “Dad,” he said, “I don’t understand how you run this store. You keep your accounts payable in a cigar box. Your accounts receivable are on a spindle. All your cash is in the register. You never know what your profits are.”
“Son,” replied the shopkeeper, “let me tell you something. When I arrived in this land all I owned was the pants I was wearing. Now your sister is an art teacher. Your brother is a doctor. You are an accountant. Your mother and I own a house and a car and this little store. Add all that up and subtract the pants and there is your profit.”
I like that story. Thanksgiving involves counting our blessings—and counting our blessings is not the same as doing a financial audit. There’s more to life than money. If we have family and friends, life and health, a place to live, good food and an appetite to enjoy it, meaningful work and energy to do it, we have a lot. And we should appreciate what we have. But true thanksgiving is rare.
Appreciating the Gifts
Instead of appreciating our blessings, we often take God’s gifts for granted. We get accustomed to his blessings being there day after day, and we don’t notice how precious they really are. Take sunrise, for example. How often do we celebrate that the sun rose once again? How often do we shout for joy at the light and warmth the sun brings us? Not often. We take God’s gift of sunrise for granted.
But just suppose the sun didn’t rise one morning. A tale is told of such a day. All the clocks indicated it was morning, but there was no sign of dawn. The clocks ticked on into the mid-morning hours, but still there was no ray of light. There was no singing of birds, only the occasional hoot of an owl. At noon it was as black as midnight. The afternoon hours dragged past in complete darkness. When the clocks moved on to the evening hours, no one slept. Many wept. Every church was crowded with people praying. They kept praying all night. Would the sun ever rise again? After a long night of anguish, millions of eyes turned toward the east. The sky began to grow red and the sun rose. Shouts of joy rang out. The sun had risen! The sun had risen! What a cause for celebration!
Often we learn to value and appreciate something only when we’ve had to do without it for awhile, or when we’ve come close to losing it entirely. Walking seems like no great privilege—unless we’ve just recovered from a sprain or a broken leg. A good appetite seems like no big deal—unless we’ve just recovered from the flu. Healthy skin is no great thing—unless we’ve just recovered from poison ivy. Waking up in the morning and having a fresh, new day of life inspires nothing but a yawn—unless we’ve had a life-threatening illness or an accident that almost killed us. Then being alive seems like a marvel. Seeing your child walk in the door is hardly worth a glance—unless the child has been missing and you’ve been searching anxiously. For some reason, we have a hard time recognizing and appreciating some of our greatest blessings unless we’ve nearly lost them.
One key to thanksgiving is to notice and relish the good things that keep repeating themselves day after day, instead of taking them for granted. This means we need to pay attention. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton: If children are grateful to someone for filling their Christmas stocking with toys and treats, can I not be grateful to someone for filling my stockings with the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents. Can we thank no one for the present of birth? We need to notice—and keep on noticing—what vast blessings fill our lives each day and what a gift it is to be alive at all.
Thanking the Giver
Thanksgiving involves noticing something to be thankful for; it also involves recognizing someone to thank. You may say, “I feel so thankful for health and home and happiness! This past year has been great, and I feel really thankful for the way things have gone.” But thankful to whom? You can speak of feeling thankful, but if you’re not thankful to someone in particular, then you’re not thankful at all. You may feel pleased, you may feel happy, you may feel fortunate or lucky, and you may use the word “thankful” to describe that feeling, but you’re not thankful if you merely feel glad about something. Thankfulness means recognizing that the things you’re glad about are gifts from someone. You not only appreciate the gifts, you acknowledge the giver. You know who gave you those blessings, and not only do you know who did it, you say thanks to him.
That kind of thanksgiving is rare. Many people are glad about certain things, and some may be aware of who made it happen for them, but far fewer actually bother to say “thank you.” In Luke 17 the Bible tells a story of ten percent thanksgiving:
As [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” [The priests acted as health inspectors of a sort, to certify whether or not people with leprosy had really been healed.] And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:12-19)
Just think of it! 100 percent healing, 10 percent thanksgiving; 100 percent loudly yelling for help, 10 percent loudly praising God after receiving help; 100 percent loving the gift of health, 10 percent loving the Giver himself. Jesus was upset at the reaction of the 90 percent, but he affirmed the 10 percent and told this man he was cured of more than leprosy: his grateful faith had made him completely well, both in body and soul.
Now, you and I might shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the nine ingrates. But before we judge them, we’d better make sure we’re not doing what they did: running off glad about a gift while ignoring the Giver and ending up with only physical blessings and not the greater spiritual blessings. Let’s look at the 90 percent long enough to learn from their blunder, but then let’s have the same adoring faith as Mr. Ten Percent and thank the same Savior and receive the same full salvation as he did.
Gladness Without Gratitude
Earlier we saw that in order to give thanks, we need something to be thankful for and someone to give thanks to. We need to notice our blessings and delight in them, rather than taking them for granted, and we also need to know that the Lord provided those blessings, rather than crediting them to good luck or unknown causes. But even if we delight in something and know the Lord did it, true thanksgiving is still far from automatic. We may simply take God for granted and ignore him after we get what we want.
I’m sure the ten lepers had no problem delighting in their healing and no problem knowing who had healed them. Their disease was so awful that there was no way they could take their healing for granted. And their healing was so obviously a miracle from Jesus that they couldn’t possibly not know who had healed them. And yet only 10 percent, one in ten, threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. I’m sure the other 90 percent were thrilled to find they were healthy again, but they didn’t direct any of their joy or excitement toward Jesus. Once they got what they wanted, they had no further interest in Jesus, no personal connection. And without that personal connection and affection, thanksgiving doesn’t happen.
The 90 percent wanted a gift; they didn’t want the Giver. They loved their health; they didn’t love Jesus. It’s possible, you see, to have a faith in miracles but not to have a saving faith which links your soul forever to Jesus.
In Nigeria someone told me the story of a village chief who was not a Christian. One day the chief became sick. He went to the village medicine man, a witch doctor, but that didn’t help. The chief became sicker than ever. Next the chief went to a medical doctor, but the physician’s medicine did no good. The chief lay in his hut, hovering near death. Someone from the village said to him, “The missionaries have been telling us about Jesus. You should have the missionaries ask Jesus to heal you.” And that’s what the chief did. He sent a messenger asking the missionaries to pray for healing from Jesus.
That night, while the chief slept, he saw Jesus in a vision. When he woke up, he felt sure that Jesus would heal him. And sure enough, the chief quickly became healthy again. He knew that Jesus had rescued him from dying. But when asked whether he wanted to become a Christian and be baptized, the chief refused. If he did that, he might lose his status and influence with non-Christian villagers. The chief had been eager for healing from Jesus, but when he got the healing, he didn’t want Jesus himself. The chief ended up entering eternity without Christ.
It’s possible to want something the Lord alone can provide and yet not want the Lord himself. You seek his power but not his Person. Still today perhaps many of us call out to the Lord when we desperately want something but ignore him the rest of the time. We want him to help us when we’ve got problems, but we don’t want to thank him or follow him. That’s what happened with the nine of the ten lepers Jesus healed. They got what they wanted and had no further interest in Jesus.
The Thankful Minority
But enough about the nine ingrates. Let’s look at the one man who came back to Jesus and thanked him. This man was a minority—in more ways than one. He was a ten-percent minority as a thankful person among a majority of ingrates, but he was also an ethnic minority, being a Samaritan among a majority of Jewish people. That made his response to Jewish Jesus all the more remarkable. If there was anyone you’d expect to get what he could from Jesus and then ignore him, it would be someone from a nationality that often didn’t get along with Jewish people. But in this case, while Jesus’ fellow Jews ignored him, the Samaritan had a grateful faith and personal attachment to Jesus.
This doesn’t mean that Jews in general tend to be less grateful or that they are poorer candidates for faith in Jesus than non-Jews. It would be wrong to jump to that conclusion. After all, Jesus himself was Jewish, all his apostles were Jewish, thousands of the first Christian believers and martyrs were Jewish, and still today many Jewish people trust Jesus as Messiah and Savior. The point is simply that in this story, a Samaritan seemed like the least likely of the ten former lepers to thank Jesus—and yet he alone gave thanks. This man is proof that no matter what your national or racial background, no matter how little you or your people had to do with Jesus in the past, you can fall at Jesus’ feet and taste his mercy and love.
Notice what the Bible says about this man: “When he saw he was healed, he came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus feet and thanked him” (Luke 17:15-16). His joy was noisy, enthusiastic, uninhibited. He was delighted to be healthy again and even more delighted to know God’s reality and power and to know God really did care about him personally. He shouted God’s praises at the top of his lungs and raced toward Jesus. Then, without regard for formality, without worrying how foolish he might appear to onlookers, he flung himself on the ground in front of Jesus and poured out his gratitude. He knew that it was better to be lying in the dust at Jesus’ feet than to be standing proud anywhere else. His thanksgiving was happy, heartfelt, and humble.
True thanksgiving is an explosion of praise to God and a humbling sense of dependence and devotion to Jesus. That kind of thanksgiving is evidence not just of a body healed but of a soul set free from sourness and selfishness, a heart made new by the saving love of God and connected to him in a living relationship. That’s why Jesus said to Mr. Ten Percent, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Our Bible translation isn’t quite strong enough here. Where Jesus’ words are translated, “Your faith has made you well,” a more literal translation is, “Your faith has saved you.” That’s what Jesus was saying to this man: your faith has saved you! Joyous, awestruck gratitude to Jesus is a mark of saving faith.
There’s a difference between saving, relational faith and a faith that you’ll get some physical blessing you’ve been wanting. All ten lepers had that kind of faith. They asked for Jesus’ help, and when Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, they had enough faith to go, expecting to be healed on the way. But it’s one thing to have faith that Jesus can do something for you; it’s another to have a relational faith that connects you to Jesus himself.
Every time Jesus helps you, every time the Lord gives you a gift of any kind, the goal of the gift is not simply that you will enjoy the gift but that the gift will draw you to the Giver. That’s why Jesus was so upset that 90 percent didn’t see their healing as a signal to draw them to him; and that’s why he told the one man who did come to him, “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus loves to help and befriend people, but he hates to be used and then ignored. God’s purpose in giving gifts is not simply to make us happy in the gifts but to make us happy in Jesus. His aim is not that we be attached to our health or wealth or whatever else he gives us, but that we be attached to him—that we come to him and praise him and thank him and love him and trust him forever.
Do you have that kind of relationship to Jesus? Do you praise God loudly and gladly? Do you fall before Jesus in thanksgiving and devotion for all that he has done? When you hear the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers, you might say, “If someone did that for me, I’d surely thank him loud and long.” Are you sure? You say you’d thank Jesus if he healed you from leprosy and gave you healthy skin, but how about if Jesus gives you healthy skin every day? How about if he makes the sun come up for you every morning? How about if he gives you food to eat every day? Do you thank and love him? How about if he has died for you? How about if he offers you a ticket to eternal happiness in heaven? Jesus has done all those things. Do you praise God and come to Jesus and thank him? If so, your faith has saved you. If not, you’d better consider whether you’re among the 90% who shout for Jesus’ help but run off when you get what you want, without wanting Jesus himself or saying thanks.
If Jesus isn’t your Savior and friend, you don’t go to him or thank him, not even when he gives you some astonishing blessings. On the other hand, if you do go to Jesus and live in praise to God, then even when something he gives you isn’t exactly what you wanted, you still thank him.
A story is told of a little boy whose parents asked him to say grace at the table. For several moments the little guy was silent and said nothing. He was looking at the food and thinking about what to say. Finally he bowed his head and said, “Lord, I don’t like the looks of it, but I thank you for it, and I’ll eat it anyway. Amen.” Let’s be realistic: we like some food better than other. But any food is better than no food, and we can thank God for it.
Some things in our life are things we would not have chosen for ourselves. God doesn’t always give us exactly what we want. But he has given us life, and he gives us what we need to become what he wants us to be. Helen Keller was a blind and deaf person who was a remarkable person and achieved great things. We’d all rather see and hear than be blind and deaf, and yet Helen Keller said, “I thank God for my handicaps. Through them I have found myself, my work and my God.” You may wonder why God has given certain blessing to others and not to you. But stop wishing you were someone else. God wanted Helen Keller to be Helen Keller, and he wants you to be you. He gives you everything you need to be the unique and special person he wants you to be. So stop focusing on what he hasn’t given you, and start thanking him for what he has given you and for your relationship to him.
Escaping the Entitlement Mentality
Thanksgiving involves noticing something to be thankful for, recognizing someone to thank, and coming to him in grateful joy and humility. That joy and humility exists only when we realize that the Lord owes us nothing and we owe him everything. We often switch this around. Rather than thanking God, we want God to thank us for what fine people we’ve been. We get an entitlement mentality: we think we’re entitled to God’s blessings and that God is not entitled to our devotion.
Some of the saddest, sourest people around are those who say what fine, decent folks they’ve been and then complain how cruel life has been to them. I’ve heard such people go on and on about their fine character and good deeds. They think they’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, and God owes them something. They think the Lord should be grateful for all they’ve done, and when he doesn’t give them the health and happiness they so richly deserve, they get grumpy.
Before we get into the mindset of thinking God owes us, Jesus has a message for us. It’s in Luke 17—something Jesus said just before he met up with the ten lepers.
Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
Most of us haven’t done nearly as much for God as we think. We tend to think that a little common decency on our part is some great act of heroism, while the vilest sins are no big deal. We exaggerate our goodness and minimize our badness. But just suppose you and I were absolutely perfect and used every minute of our day in service to God. Would God owe us? Would we be heroes? No, we would just be doing our job. Who gave us every minute of each day in the first place? Anything we offer back in his service is rightfully his anyway. He doesn’t have to thank us; we should be thanking him. Whatever we do for God is less than our duty; whatever we get from God is more than we deserve. Even when we obey God’s commands and work hard for him, we can only say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
Does Jesus tells us this just to make us feel worthless? No, he says this to shake us loose from the entitlement mentality and open our hearts to thanksgiving and joy. Thanksgiving dies the moment you see your blessings not as God’s gift but as a payment to which you are entitled. If you don’t get what you want, you become bitter. If you do get what you want, you take it as your right. Thanksgiving dies, and joy dies with it. So if you’re trying to win the employee-of-the-month award from God and earn a big raise, give it up. Be God’s child, not his employee. Be glad you depend on your Father and owe him more than you can ever repay. Obey him because you love him and want to please him, not to put him in your debt.
In an ordinary human family, if you’re a son or daughter, you may sometimes forget the parent-child relationship and want to be treated as an employee. You do some laundry or take out the trash or cut the grass for your parents, and you think you ought to be paid big bucks and perhaps receive a medal for heroism! Meanwhile, the house you live in, the room you relax in, the bed you sleep in, the food you eat, the clothes you wear, even your very body—it all comes from your parents. They’ve worked countless hours to support you. They’ve been paying your bills for years and years. Instead of trying to add up how much your chores are worth, just be glad they love you and don’t charge you for all they’ve done for you.
Now let’s apply that same principle to our heavenly Father. We sometimes think God owes us, but every breath, every brain wave, every ounce of energy, is his gift in the first place! Our Father doesn’t begrudge us these things; he loves to shower good things on his children. But he doesn’t want us to take his gifts for granted or to love the gifts more than we love him. Jesus wants us to taste his love and goodness in each gift and to love and thank him in return. Through his giving and our gratitude, our relationship to him grows closer and more joyous every day. So even if there’s only ten percent thanksgiving, let’s make sure we’re in that ten percent, shouting our praises to God and giving thanks to Jesus.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for the splendors of earth and sky, sun, moon, and stars. Thank you for food, water and air. Thank you for family and friends. Thank you for life and strength and healing. Thank you for loving us and dying in our place. Thank you for eternal life. Thank you above all, dear Lord, for being you, and for making us yours. Receive our thanks and our love, in the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.