I am well aware of the fact that prayer, strictly defined, means to ask for something. And, in the context of the Christian life, it means to ask our Heavenly Father for something. But let me suggest to you that any prayer that is limited to the activity of asking is no prayer at all.
There are many passages of Scripture that remind us that prayer must be accompanied by thanksgiving. And while I recognize that asking and thanking are two different things, I maintain that they are inseparable.
When talking about our salvation, the Reformers would often say, "we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone". The apostle James tells us that "faith without works is dead"(2:17). In the same manner, prayer without thanksgiving is no prayer at all.
19th Century, Church of England minister, J.C. Ryle, writes, "I know well that asking God is one thing, and praising God is another. But I see so close a connection between prayer and praise in the Bible, that I dare not call true prayer that in which thankfulness has no part."
The apostle Paul, after the exhorting the Philippians to be "anxious for nothing", tells them, "By prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God."(Phil. 4:6).
And when Paul encourages the Colossians to be devoted to prayer, he also instructs them to "keep alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving"(Col. 4:2).
We should not be surprised to read that Paul instructs us to pray "with thanksgiving". We should not be surprised because earlier in his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, "whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father"(Col. 3:17). And to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "always give thanks for all things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father"(Eph. 5:20).
The disposition of being thankful is to be the constant companion of a child of God. When we serve Christ, we are to do so with an attitude of thanksgiving. When we sing, we do so with thanksgiving. When we pray, we do so with thanksgiving. In "whatever" we do, we must do it with thanksgiving.
This is not simply helpful advice that Paul is giving us here. Paul is telling us what appropriate prayer looks like. He is telling us the correct way to serve Christ. And what is implied in this instruction is that there is a way to serve Christ, there is a way to pray to God, which is dishonouring to Him.
We may safely infer from Paul's instruction that to pray without thanksgiving is dishonouring to God. To serve God apart from a thankful disposition is sin.
Many of you here today are faithful servants of Christ in this church. If I were to ask you this morning, what motivates you to serve Christ in this church--what would you say? If I asked you what motivates you to serve on a committee, what motivates you to teach Sunday School, what motivates you to be the organist, the treasurer, or a choir member--what would you say?
What I hope you wouldn't say is, "It's my duty." It is true enough that it is your duty to serve Christ, but I sure hope that this is not your motivation for serving Him. It is my duty to be a diligent and faithful husband, but I can assure that it is not duty that motivates me to be kind to my wife. If we are to honour someone with our service, if we are to honour God with our service, our service must be motivated by loving gratitude. If our prayer is to bring glory to God, we must be sure to gratefully acknowledge all that He has done for us.
It is a common expression to say, "Count your blessings", but Paul is calling for so much more than this. It is not enough for us to merely "feel grateful". Quite frankly, I think the whole idea of celebrating "Thanksgiving Day" can be easily misplaced.
I bet you never imagined that there is a wrong way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yet, I maintain that the Bible teaches us that it is of paramount importance where we direct our gratitude.
In Colossians 3:17, and in Ephesians 5:20, Paul specifically instructs us to give thanks to God the Father through Jesus Christ. When we "count our blessings", when we celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, we must be sure to also sing, "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow".
This may seem simple and straightforward to most of you, but I'm guessing that what Paul is calling for is a lot harder than you might imagine. To return thanks to God seems easy enough, but let us carefully consider the fact that Paul instructs us to "always" give thanks, and to give thanks for "all things"(Eph. 5:20).
My experience is that it is much easier to thank God when our circumstances are favourable. When our body is healthy, when our bank accounts are growing, and when our relationships are strong, it is much easier to give thanks to God. I think it is safe to say that most anyone can be thankful in times of abundance. O, but how difficult it can be to sing God's praises in the time of trial!
In times of pain, in times of sadness, in times of poverty, in times of mourning, it is not natural to give thanks to God. The natural response to adversity is not gratitude, but doubt. Our natural response is to ask, "Why?".
Friends, Paul is not asking you to do what comes naturally, he is asking you to do what is honouring to God. Give thanks "always" and for "all things", he says. The mark of a person controlled by the Holy Spirit is to be able to give thanks to God in extreme circumstances. Job, after learning that all of his children had been killed, replied, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord"(Job 1:21).
Augustine has written that the early saints, when they met each other, would never separate without saying, "Deo gratias!", which means "thanks be to God". Frequently their conversation would be about the persecutions which raged against them, but they finished their conversation with "Deo gratias!" Sometimes they had to tell of dear brethren devoured by the beasts in the amphitheatre, but even then they said "Deo gratias!" Frequently they mourned the uprise of heresy, but this did not keep them from exclaiming, "Deo gratias".
So should it be with us. The motto of the Christian should be "Deo gratias!", "Always giving thanks to God for all things".
The same apostle who instructed us to "pray without ceasing"(1Thess. 5:17) also instructs us to "always give thanks"(Eph. 5:20). Add these two instructions together and you must conclude that the life of a Christian is to be a life of thankful prayer.
What shall we give thanks for?
First, and foremost, give thanks to God for you salvation. As one theologian has said, "(the fact) that you are not in hell is due to God's longsuffering; that you have been (made alive) spiritually is due to God's gracious operation; that you are pardoned is due to His precious blood"(Spurgeon).
Secondly, give thanks for every good thing you enjoy. From the sunshine that warms your face, to the rain that waters the earth, to the food and drink you enjoy, to the air you breathe--praise God from Whom ALL blessings flow.
And finally, give thanks for the mercies of God which you cannot detect. I am sure that if God would make known to us the number of His graces towards us, they would be altogether incalculable.
Our Heavenly Father is indeed the "fount of every blessing" and may He continue to "tune our hearts to sing His praise". And may your gratitude compel you, and motivate you, to do everything for Jesus. Deo Gratias! Amen.