Have you ever noticed children who were happily playing until they noticed the one toy that they didn’t have being played with by another child? Suddenly their joy fades, and they become totally focused on the toy that the other kid has. They probably have dozens of better toys, but their selfish natures kick into high gear when their focus is off kilter. Of course, none of us adults would ever be guilty of forgetting dozens of blessings while we rue the lack of one other blessing which is not ours! King Ahab of the Old Testament was a man whose selfish, greedy character will convict of us the sin of ingratitude.
Ahab, a king of Israel during the period of the divided kingdom, was a self-serving man. His selfishness evidenced itself in many ways, including his marriage to Jezebel, the wicked worshiper of foreign gods. No greater example of his self-serving heart can be found than in his encounter with Naboth. “So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.’ He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat” (1 Kings 21:4). Naboth, although a poor man, owned a little vineyard near the palace of Ahab. In spite of his vast land holdings, Ahab felt that he just had to have this little vineyard, for it would be a convenient place to raise his vegetables. The problem was that Naboth had received the land as an inheritance, and God’s decree was that families retain such inheritances in the families for the use of future generations. For Naboth, it was a matter of divine principle, so he turned down the King’s offer to purchase the land.
Ahab was so filled with anger that he lost his appetite and lay sulking on his bed, acting just like a spoiled kid. His wife came in and found him in this condition and taunted him a bit: “What’s the matter, big boy? Someone steal one of your toys?” He whined out the story about not being able to have what he wanted, and Jezebel hatched up the devilish plot to falsely accuse Naboth and have him executed. Not only did they have him falsely accused and murdered, but they also had his sons killed so they could not inherit the land. No wonder God’s estimation of Ahab was so bleak: “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife” (1 Kings 21:25).
The truth is that like Ahab, we all wish we could attain items that we don’t have. We all have things about ourselves and our situations that we wish were different. In fact, we probably would like to have something different about almost everything, for this life is not characterized by perfection. But in the process of focusing on what we wish was different, we lose the joy of all that is good in our lives. When our focus is on “what if…” or “if only I had…” we are not going to be the kind of person who will attract others to Jesus.
Being content is a decision, as is being happy generally. Visiting extremely poor countries and watching the children at play convinces me that life’s circumstances are not the greatest determining factor in happiness; it is our focus. Little children may have only sticks to play with, but they are laughing and having fun. Jesus said that we must become like little children in order to go to heaven (Matthew 18:3), which means that we have to decide that life is good in spite of bad things which are part of it. If Christ indeed is our life (Colossians 3:4), then, “…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Lift up your eyes to heaven and start seeing God as he is and your life through his perspective. Then, and only then, can you be joyful and thankful in all circumstances of life.
Why do we lose our gratitude so easily? Several reasons come to mind rather quickly. One, we often have a shallow grasp of our own sinfulness. A good study of Romans 1-3 should help us deepen our convictions about the magnitude of our sin. Here, Paul is the Spirit’s tool to convict us of sin. When I teach these three chapters, I entitle them, “the best of us is a mess.” We really are in a mess compared to Jesus. The more we see Jesus as he is and ourselves as we are, the more we are going to be grateful that God has reached down in mercy to each one of us.
Two, we are plagued with abysmally short memories. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle reminds us that a real understanding of God’s grace should move us to be growing continually. Peter views a failure to respond in this way as quite unnatural, no matter how common it may be: “he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Peter 1:9). The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is often true, even when the familiarity is with our Creator.
Three, ingratitude may simply trace back to a sinful heart that blocks the understanding—and therefore the appreciation—of spiritual realities. I remember times when I dealt with sin in my heart in a radical way. After such times my spiritual heart seems soft and sensitive, and the tears of appreciation flow easily. Thinking back to those moving experiences makes me marvel at how quickly the tenderness of heart can fade.
Four, a self-focused life certainly results in little thankfulness. My childhood years contributed to my self-focus. Although I was raised in a very blue-collar setting, without an abundance of money, we were comfortable, and I was given much of what as I asked for. In less kindly terms, I was spoiled (hopefully not permanently!). As a result, I characteristically respond to events in my life in a selfish way. When things go well for me, I think,“Fine, that’s the way it should be.” When things don’t go well for me, I react internally by thinking, “What is going on here? I am Gordon B. Ferguson, Jr. This shouldn’t be happening to me!” When I allow my sinful nature to lead me in this direction, I respond to blessings without much thankfulness and to challenges without much grace. Prayerfully, I have made lots of progress in changing these tendencies, but I must guard against them to avoid being an ingrate.
Five, a suspect picture of God is one of the more serious, yet subtle, culprits behind ingratitude. We develop our view of God from the most important authority figures in our lives, normally our fathers. If our fathers were beneficent, leaning towards permissiveness with us, we are likely to take God’s goodness for granted. If our fathers were distant or harsh, we are likely to view God the same way. And if we see him as impersonal, uncaring or demanding, we will misinterpret life’s blessing and challenges, remaining unaware of the bounty of grace. The reality of who he is and what he does can be missed almost entirely. If we are like the one-talent man in Matthew 25, we will see him as a “hard” man (verse 24). If we are like the older brother in the Parable of the Lost Son, we will see him as the Father who has done absolutely nothing for us (Luke 15:29). Astounding!
For gratitude to be a principle part of our lives, a continual study of God’s Word is vital, and especially Romans 1-3. Whatever the cause of ingratitude, the cure is in taking the time to figure out life as God designed it to be, rather than life as Satan wants us to see it. Then the message will not be how soon we forget, but how often and deeply we remember the overwhelming goodness and grace of our God. It really is a matter of focus!