Summary: Just how does one develop the discipline of gratefulness, joy and contentment, the way Paul envisioned it? Consider the following steps...
Developing the Discipline of Gratitude
Thankfulness is increasingly following a lonely trail nowadays. People seem to fall more frequently into the mire of ingratitude, especially when greatly impacted by the stresses of this world. Human beings throughout history have demonstrated their propensity for being more adversely rather than favorably influenced by life’s intricate problems. Adversities test men’s strength for survival, whereas prosperity challenges their integrity. The Israelites, God’s very own chosen people themselves, knowingly fell into such traps despite God’s palpable miracles when they complained repeatedly to Moses about the lack of food and water provisions in the wilderness following their divinely phenomenal exodus from Egypt. Job protested that his life of faithfulness had not been properly acknowledged by God when the latter permitted Satan to strike him with multiple, consecutive tribulations. Jonah bemoaned the fact that God wanted to save the undeserving Ninevites. The Bible relates a slew of other stories of how man continued to display unbridled thanklessness to God.
Christ’s followers, notwithstanding the fact that they are expected to display uncommon hope and inner strength, are not always exempted from this inclination. Griping is not an unusual trait shared by a good number of believers whether they are at work, at home or in church—demanding bosses, nagging wives, stubborn kids, boring preachers, incompetent government, rising prices, the list of our objects of complaint goes on and on. If we fined ourselves for every moment we whined since our childhood, we would probably be substantially richer today. One instance demonstrating this feeble nature of man happened after the tragic death of a teenage snow-boarder in the Angeles Crest Mountains in 1998. Jeff Thornton, the young snow-boarder, was found by a resilient search party after being lost for ten days, only to die about a week later as a result of complications of gangrene, frostbite, exposure, shock, and broken bones. The Christians in the town where Jeff had lived had different reactions to the boy’s demise: some (among them Jeff’s mother) were thankful that God allowed Jeff to be with them a short while longer; most others were angry, questioning God for allowing Jeff to be found only to take him away again. For these townsfolk, God was either gracious or cruel, depending on who you asked.
It is no surprise, then, that the Apostle Paul often spoke of the importance of maintaining an irrepressible attitude of thankfulness (Eph 5:19,20; Php 2:13; 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thes 5:16-18), joy (Php 4:4) and contentment (Php 4:11; 1 Ti 6:6,8; Heb 13:5) in his New Testament letters. He recognized our weakness: he knew how vulnerable even the finest Christians can be to succumb to the spirit of ungratefulness once they let down their guard in the face of changing circumstances. Paul was all too aware of the power of life’s difficulties to turn a child of God into a forgetful, complaining and doubting person, traits that put a serious strain to his relationship with his Creator.
Was Paul’s advise realistic or was it a tall order? Are unswerving joy, contentment and thankfulness truly attainable to today’s Christians, or are they exclusive only to ‘important Christians’, perhaps? Certainly not, for the Bible never qualified it that way, just as it does not qualify that the goal for holiness belongs only to an elite few. Neither does it make mention of ‘important’ or ‘special’ Christians. How, then, did Paul ever manage to become a master of contentment as he claimed in Philippians 4:11?
In the passages mentioned above, Paul’s emphasis on thanksgiving, rejoicing and being contented could not be more obvious by his choice of words: “ALWAYS”, “CONTINUALLY”, “UNCEASINGLY”, “IN EVERYTHING” and “IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES”. These are pointers to the pith of Paul’s message—he wanted us to take on the challenge both of life’s hardships and blessings by assuming a resilient, steady, and consistent attitude of thankfulness to God. I am convinced that Paul wanted to be clear that DISCIPLINE is the key element to seizing lasting happiness in this imperfect world. True enough, the only way we can make a healthy acceptance of whatever happens to us and the world around us is by hinging our hope in Christ, and in such process embracing gratitude, joy and contentment as a state of mind, which is therefore not dependent upon how well things go for us. External circumstances constantly change, usually unexpectedly. If we allow our satisfaction to be contingent on changing conditions of our lives, which often come in the form of problems and disappointments rather than in benefits and promotions, we quickly leave ourselves open to dissatisfaction, discontent and ingratitude. This does not mean we ought to clap our hands every time a tragedy or disaster strikes; it means that we use our contented, joyful and thankful state of mind to preserve us in the confines of tranquility which comes from God, so that we can be remarkably patient and hopeful amid trials that come our way. This is the kind of ‘peace’ that Paul referred to in Philippians 4:7.