The bible is full of the command to celebrate, to praise, to recount and remember all that God has done. I am not very good at this. And more often than not God’s instructions to give joyful thanks feel pretty burdensome, and obligatory. Thanksgiving becomes at best a habit, and at worse a chore. But, God does not desire thanksgiving from His people to booster his ego; thanksgiving is not just another rule to be followed: the art of thanksgiving is His remedy to us. Gratitude is his gift to remedy our natural instinct to complain, to begrudge circumstances, to stare longingly at the grass that we think is greener.
In recent days (and probably weeks) I have felt myself become a bit of a moaner. There is certainly quite a lot to moan about in the world of global politics, and whilst God calls us to lament what is unjust and painful in our broken world and stand alongside those who are wounded by decisions made by the powers that be, moaning is not the same thing. There is a beautiful kind of discontent with the world as is that inspires us to change it; there is an ugly discontent that traps us in own our selfishness. The discontent that resents others’ success and achievements, that criticises but refuses to acknowledge any good, that delights in complaining for the sake of it. It is this discontent that God would save us from.
In the story of Israel, God knows what His people are like. He knows that they will be quick to forget what is good, and what they have got, and even quicker to start complaining. In the account of the Exodus he introduces the Israelites to the ritual of Passover, and calls it a “lasting ordinance.” (Exodus 12:14) This special meal is not to be just a one off affair but a yearly practice, a way of remembering their incredible rescue from Egypt and God’s goodness towards them. Each year, they are to tell the story. They are to practice remembering; it is remembrance that leads them to thanksgiving: to realising once more the goodness of the God who has redeemed them from slavery.
After their miraculous escape from tyranny and oppression, the Israelites last only three days before the grumbling starts. (Exodus 15:22-27) In the same chapter that recounts the joyful celebrations of God’s rescued people, we get the first incidence of complaint. Israel have a serious short term memory problem. They have just witnessed first-hand the saving power of the God who loves them, but they are already starting to forget what this God is like. They are already starting to forget that he is a provider and a rescuer. They are already starting to doubt his character.
This is the story of the Old Testament. It is the story of the people who God loves and their failure to remember what He is like. Time and time again, God intervenes into the lives of His people. He rescues them and delivers them, he cares for them and provides for them, but time and time again, they forget. In Jeremiah God concludes simply that His people have “forgotten him.” (Jeremiah 2:32) They have made their contentment dependant on circumstances, not on their relationship with the One who loves them.
We live in a culture that specialises in discontentment. Advertising is a successful business because it taps deep down into the desire that we have for more than what we have: a different job, hairstyle, holiday destination, Facebook profile picture, circle of friends, set of achievements, piece of technology. We are masters of dissatisfaction. And thanksgiving is our God-given antidote. When John the Baptist breaks onto the pages of history announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, he reminds people what life lived with God looks like. He is, in a way, jogging their memories, dusting off the long-lost dreams of a society that is satisfied with life as is because that life is lived with God. “Be content,” he says. Be content with your pay, and your possessions, with what you have. (Luke 3:10-14)
In today’s world, this is radical, counter-cultural advice. And it is the advice that my soul needs this morning. It is the advice that would rescue me from moaning. Today, we are called to recount and remember the goodness of God, to tell one another stories of what God has done, to be actively thankful for all that we have. As my daughter grows up into a world that loves to complain, I long to teach her to be a child who is content. A child who knows how to be thankful, how to rejoice, how to share stories full of gladness and goodness and wonder. And if she is to learn that, then I had better start doing it as well. So, come on Soul, forget not his benefits. (Psalm 103:2)