Thanksgiving is more than a holiday. It’s a mindset, an attitude of the heart, and an essential spiritual discipline for every Christian. It feeds our spiritual growth and leads to a deeper experience of God’s peace. But how can we weave thankfulness into the fabric of pastoral ministry? How can we as pastors help our flock to grow in thankfulness so that, as individuals, our minds may be less anxious, and, as congregations, our churches may model a thankful spirit to a world characterized by complaining?
In his pastoral letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul answers these questions by both example and instruction. Seven times in his brief letter, Paul brings thanksgiving to the reader’s mind. Thus, we see that cultivating thankfulness is one of the Holy Spirit’s priorities for us and our ministry. However, Paul’s direction differs from a simple “Think positive!” message in that he roots God’s call to thanksgiving in the soil of our new life in Christ. Grounding gratitude in every believer’s union with Christ is a key from which we gain four practical applications for our pastoral ministry.
Always thank God for the people who make up your flock
We find Paul’s first mention of thankfulness in the opening verses: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col. 1:3-4). Before the apostle issues forth any teaching or command concerning thankfulness, he models it. Under the inspiration of the Spirit who cannot lie, Paul testifies that he consistently gives thanks to God for the Colossian believers every time he prays for them. Think about it. Even though there are theological challenges and practical godliness issues that he needs to address, Paul’s baseline ministry to them is prayer, which includes gratitude for their being in Christ and growing in love. How do you pray for your church? Do you regularly thank the Lord for every member of your flock—those who are easy to shepherd, as well as those who are more difficult to care for and lead?
Always compel your flock to set their minds on Christ
Paul exhorts Christians to be thankful, but he also keeps his call connected to our new reality—a life pattern of thankfulness that grows from our new-creature-in-Christ theology. In Colossians 3:1, Paul transitions from theology—what we believe—to the practice of putting on the new self: “If then you have been raised with Christ.” Sometimes the word if has the sense of meaning “because” or “since.” Because we are united to Christ, it only makes sense to compel the believers in our church like Paul did: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-4). From an earthly perspective, there is always cause for discontent or a temptation to be ungrateful. Therefore, habitually point your flock to fix their minds on Christ by remembering that their old life died, and their new life is hidden safely with him. We nurture true contentment in all circumstances as we remember the works of Christ on our behalf. If the apostle had to learn contentment, which is rooted in Christ (Phil. 4:11), then so do we and the flock that we pastor.
Always feed your flock with nourishment from the Word
Paul knew that a thankful heart is one that allows “the peace of God [to] rule” it (Col. 3:15). In other words, an attitude of gratitude is directly connected to whether the peace of God is a ruling motive in our hearts. The peace of God is different from peace with God. Peace with God is positional—we are no longer enemies of God, but submissive kingdom-citizens, children, and friends (Col. 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 3:2; Jn. 15:15). The peace of God is experiential—a calm assurance that guards our inner person through the Spirit, Word-based trust, and prayer (Rom. 14:17; Isa. 26:3; Phil. 4:6-7). When we feed God’s people the gospel-rich, soul-sustaining bread of the Word, then it will richly dwell in them. This equips them to teach and admonish “one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [their] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16-17). Feeding your flock Christ-centered truth will guard their hearts from anxiety and prompt thanksgiving, which leads to public praise.
Always give thanks while working for the Lord
Coming full circle from where Paul began—by prayerfully expressing thanks to God—he now exhorts believers to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Every task assigned to us is sacred, not because we are pastors, but because we are first followers of Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion. Doing all things “in the name of Christ” means doing all our work with diligence while “giving thanks” through Christ to the Father. Our work—and the work of every believer in our church—is an opportunity to express thanks to the One who saved us from the penalty and power of sin and raised us to new life.
In an ungrateful world, our flocks need us to set the example of being filled with thanksgiving. We may do this by cultivating gratitude in our hearts, as we deliberately give thanks to God for them. We may also produce thankfulness in others by helping them to behold the glory of the Savior as revealed in his Word. Together, as pastor and flock, we carry out our assigned work with thankful hearts. This kind of thanksgiving is contagious and will last all year long.