Fill Your Wandering Heart with Thankfulness
(article by John Bloom: serves as author, board chair, and co-founder of Desiring God)
Do you know what’s stronger than lust? Thankfulness.
Let me illustrate before I explain. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, why didn’t he succumb to her advances? He explains,
“Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8–9)
Joseph received Potiphar’s remarkable favor on him as a gift from God. Gratitude was occupying so much space in Joseph’s heart that there was not enough room for the ingratitude of sexually sinning with Potiphar’s wife.
Too Full to Indulge
Now look at your own experience. You have not indulged in lust when your heart has felt full of thankfulness to God. Why? Because lust is a form of coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17). And coveting, in all its forms, is a fruit of ingratitude. It’s a desire for something you want but don’t have, or can’t have; it’s a desire for something God has not provided for you or forbidden to you (James 4:2).
So lust, being a form of ingratitude, is incompatible with gratitude — they cannot cohabit the same space at the same time. It’s one or the other. And thankfulness is the stronger power. Lust might feel powerful, and thankfulness might feel meek. But when thankfulness is truly present, lust is no match for it.
Thanksgiving is not merely a “nice” Christian character trait. It is a sin-conquering force. Gratitude is both a vital indicator of our soul’s health and a powerful defender of our soul’s happiness. Which means we should intentionally cultivate the healthy, happy habit of thanksgiving.
What Thankfulness Says About Us
How thankful we are reveals the health of our souls. When the apostle Paul describes what our being filled with the Spirit looks like, he doesn’t point to ecstatic experiences or miraculous spiritual gifts; he points to thankfulness:
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–20)
When Paul describes what our being governed by the peace and word of Christ looks like, he doesn’t point to an absence of conflict or our level of theological sophistication; he points to thankfulness:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:15–16)
When Paul describes what our living in the will of God looks like, he doesn’t point to how well our rolls match our strengths and aspirations; he points to thankfulness:
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
When Paul describes what our freedom from sexual sin, or other kinds of defiling sin, looks like, he doesn’t point to the absence of temptations; he points to thankfulness:
Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:3–4)
If we want to know how healthy our souls are, we should check our levels of gratitude.
How Thankfulness Protects Us
We should monitor our gratitude, not merely for our spiritual health, but also for our spiritual protection. Gratitude is immensely (and subtly) powerful.
Gratitude is what we experience when we perceive that what we have received is an undeserved gift of God’s grace. It is a fruit of humility; it’s inherently unselfish. We don’t feel true gratitude toward ourselves, but only towards someone else who treats us better than we deserve. That’s how Joseph felt being entrusted as Potiphar’s chief steward.
Sins like sexual lust, however, are a fruit of pride; they’re inherently selfish, exploiting others for our own narcissistic purposes. That’s how Potiphar’s wife felt looking on the attractive Hebrew house slave.
Pride always looks more powerful than humility on the outside. But in reality, it’s not. It’s not even close. Humility is stronger than pride like heaven is stronger than hell. Like the cross was stronger than the Roman Empire. Like the Resurrection and the Life was stronger than the grave. In the same way, thankfulness is stronger than lust, and serving is stronger than exploiting.
The more thankfulness is present in us, the less vulnerable we are to sin.
That’s why the Bible talks so much about thanksgiving. Thankful people have set their eyes on God (Hebrews 12:2), recognizing to some degree how much grace we are receiving right now (2 Corinthians 9:8), trusting him to cover all our sin and work our painful past for good (Romans 8:28), and looking to him for all we need tomorrow and into eternity (Philippians 4:19). Souls that learn to be content in God “in whatever situation” (Philippians 4:11) are souls that are the least vulnerable to temptation, particularly covetous temptations.
Therefore, cultivating thankfulness should be one of our core strategies in helping each other fight sin. In our small groups and accountability groups, we should encourage each other to “be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). Not out of guilty obligation, but out of an unashamed desire to be happy! Thankful people are not only the most spiritually healthy and spiritually protected, but very often the happiest.
Cultivating thankfulness is not easy. We all need help, and thank God help is available. But there is no thankfulness hack — no four easy steps to a grateful heart. It’s as hard as habit-building. We begin to train our heart-eyes to look for God’s grace — in all circumstances. This looking must become habitual. And habits are built by doing them every day. We get incrementally better at them as the days gradually accumulate to months, and months to years. They become more and more a part of us over time.
But it is worth the effort. Thankfulness is one of the most powerful affections God has given us the capacity to experience. It is far stronger than lust or any bondage of sinful pride. The more it grows in you, the more spiritual health you will experience, and the less power sin will wield over you.