In a previous post about controlling anger, I mentioned that I’d eventually realized that most of the anger I was dealing with stemmed from being unthankful for the many blessings God had given me. And it’s no wonder—we live in an unthankful and entitled society, where everyone takes and believes they have not only the right, but they deserve to have the best. But this is not a mindset Christians are to have, and we have to guard carefully against it. In my previous article, I stated the (rarely-mentioned) opinion that unthankfulness is a major sin, and I want to explore that thought a little further.
Is being unthankful a “little” sin?
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “I know the major sins—things like murder, adultery, lying, blaspheming—and unthankfulness isn’t anywhere near that!” It’s true that the actual word “unthankful” is only used twice in the bible (KJV), so it’s easy to assume that it’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. However, the symptoms of unthankfulness—such as covetousness and anger—are addressed often and in great detail, and we have to be careful about thinking of them as “minor” sins. As Gary Petty often says in his sermons, we usually think of “major” sins as the ones with the greatest outward consequences (like murder) and “minor” ones as the ones that “aren’t that bad” (like gossip). But God doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. Sin is sin, and all sin results in death if not repented of. And while the outward consequences of unthankfulness aren’t as apparent at first, they still eat away at you bit-by-bit until you die.
Let’s look at the most well-known scripture about unthankfulness:
“But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: for men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (II Tim. 3:1-5)
That’s a lot of bad crammed into a few verses! And “unthankful” is hanging out right next to “unholy”, which is a pretty bad one, so you can’t argue that this list is all “minor” sins. The other verse specifically using the word “unthankful” occurs in Luke 6:35 where Jesus is instructing His disciples on being good to their enemies, for God “is kind to the unthankful and evil.” So even worse, unthankfulness and evil are lumped together in this one. Maybe unthankfulness and its symptoms are a bigger deal than we think?
Symptoms of a larger problem
I mentioned that covetousness, anger, bitterness, pride, selfishness, and many other sins merely symptoms of unthankfulness. How can we tell? Because these and many others like them are all just indicators that you’ve lost sight of God as your primary focus and put the focus on self. And here’s the kicker—they rarely occur as one isolated issue, but rather are typically all present together in a big tangle fed by human ego and reasoning. Humans, when left to their own devices, will focus on acquiring more than their neighbor, being better than their neighbor, and generally feeding their sense of self-worth—or as John says, “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16).
When you live this way and believe that everything you have is a result of your own doings, you start acquiring nasty mental habits. Maybe you’ve been working hard but your co-worker always seems to have nicer things than you, so you covet them. Then you start thinking about how she’s a terrible person and doesn’t really deserve those things anyway (bitterness and anger, by the way), and that it’s not fair that God lets her have those things when you live paycheck to paycheck (anger, pride, and a slew of others). All of these boil down to losing sight of the fact that God made you and gives you everything you have, including the sunlight that warms your face and the air you breathe. He makes sure you have what you need and sometimes gives extra blessings, but you do not deserve any of it, and the minute you think you do you’ve stumbled into unthankfulness.
Paul sums up this state of mind, saying, “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:21). A futility of mind and purpose are the end result of being unthankful, and they will lead us to lose sight of the kingdom and set aside our future crown.
Unthankfulness was the root of the Laodiceans’ great sin. Rather than focusing on drawing near to God and thanking Him for their abundant physical blessings, they focused on pursuing worldly wealth and believed that whatever they achieved was due to their own skills or righteousness rather than acknowledging that all gifts come from God. Jesus tells them that “because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”, they are in danger of losing their place in His kingdom forever if they do not repent and focus on living in relationship with God (Rev. 4:17).
Unthankfulness and many of its symptom sins are what David called “presumptuous sins,” those which are hidden or secret—to others and often to ourselves. “Who can understand his errors?” he said. “Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12-13). He knew that those “minor” sins led him to great transgression and, when left unrepented of, were a giant blot on his conscience. And the great danger of these sins is that we often don’t see them in ourselves either. That’s why, in addition to thanking God for all His blessings, we must ask Him to show us if we’re committing any of these hidden sins.
Overcoming an unthankful heart
There is a cure for being unthankful—active, purposeful thanksgiving toward and acknowledgement of God. Giving thanks to God is a command, mentioned dozens of times in the bible. But rote recitation of blessings without a true attitude change won’t get you there. Satan’s too good at his job, and knows all the right buttons to push to send us down the path of focusing on what others have or what our lives are lacking.
Instead, being thankful requires a total paradigm shift. That’s where the active and purposeful come in, because it doesn’t just happen on its own. Now when I’m seething about something at work, or my pride gets stung by a comment, I sit for a second and try to think about what—deep-down—is setting that off. Is it that I feel someone at work is getting more respect than me or paid more than me? That boils down to thinking very highly of myself as well as not being happy with what I have, so instead I’ll try to focus on thanking God for having a great job where I know I’m valued and make a comfortable living.
If you start making a list of the blessings in your life—physical things like a home and a car, emotional things like friends and family you can lean on, a spiritual purpose in life through the knowledge of God’s truth, and even smaller pleasures in life like pets or good wine—you realize exactly how much abundance you have. When you focus on those things and giving thanks to God for everything He has given you, it clears out all the nastiness of pride, anger, bitterness, and other feelings brought on by living without thankfulness (and so, without God), and replaces it with peace and contentment that nothing else can achieve.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:6-8)
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