One of the common characteristics we find in the apostle Paul’s letters is the number of times he gives thanks to God in prayer. The opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is an example of this: “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:16). Paul was a man forgiven of much and so his prayers were punctuated with thanksgiving for all of the blessings he received from God. Paul’s thankfulness finds precedent especially in the Psalms, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the prayer book of the Bible. In this regard, Psalm 136 stands out as it repeats a continual refrain: Give thanks to the Lord and then lists many different things for which the psalmist was thankful. Can we say the same about our own prayers?
To be honest, this is sometimes a shortcoming in my own prayers. I’m quick to take my needs to Christ in prayer but almost as equally quick to forget to thank him for the blessings in my life. Perhaps part of my own forgetfulness on this account is due to the fact that I don’t regularly take brief inventory of God’s blessings in my life. When I get ill and then recover, I give thanks for my restored health. But it takes an illness to remind me of the blessing of a healthy state that I normally enjoy. When I narrowly miss having a car accident, I give thanks for God’s protection. But why does it take an avoided accident to awake me from my stupor to recognize God’s providential care every moment of my life?
Ideally, any time we bow our heads in prayer our hearts should overflow with thanksgiving for the many blessings we have received from God’s hand, chief of which is our salvation. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, there are three things that we need to know so that we may rest in the comfort of Christ’s redemption: “How great my sins and misery are . . . how I am delivered from all my sins and misery . . . how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance” (q. 2). Any time we open our mouths in prayer, thanksgiving for our salvation should flow out. But we should also take inventory of our lives and count the numerous ways God continually blesses us: health, jobs, family, friends, homes, clothing, food, and the like. There is always something in our lives for which we can be thankful. Once again, if we find ourselves at a loss for words unable to think of things for which to be thankful, we should turn to the Psalms. The psalmist knew how to thank the Lord for many different things, whether in times of joy or sorrow. The psalmist was no Pollyanna Christian who painted over the tragedies and suffering of life with a thin coat of feigned thanksgiving. The psalmist knew of great travail and tragedy but nevertheless could perceive the light of God’s mercy piercing the darkness and thus regularly gave thanks.
Therefore, whenever you pray, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psa. 136:1).