A verse from the Acts reminds me of one of the Christian virtues which is within the reach of all of us. In this verse we read that Paul "thanked God and took courage." — Acts 28: 15.
Thanking God is, in itself, an act of the simplest nature, requiring no outward ceremony, no elaborate preparation, no profound study of Scripture, no special energy of Christian service, no advanced growth as a believer. In thanksgiving the heart rises spontaneously to God as to the Great and Good Giver, just as when we receive a gift, a letter, or a parcel, at once the mind is sensible of and grateful for the kind thoughtfulness of the sender. Each moment of our lives events are occurring, some more striking than others; but though we cannot understand it, each one is governed in accordance with the gracious disposition of the God and Father of all. In proportion as we recognize this divine ordering, the heart within us leaps upward in a little tribute of thankfulness — in a vocal or, may be, in a silent song of praise.
Immediately behind him, at the time of the above incident, Paul had the experience of a wearisome journey of some five months since he left Caesarea as a prisoner to Rome for his trial. His protracted voyage was marked by many vicissitudes, including hunger and shipwreck. Now he was nearing the metropolis, where he had through long years most ardently desired to preach the gospel of God, but it could not have been to him a pleasant reflection that he was at last approaching it in bonds and in charge of a military guard.
Truly his circumstances at that time were such as might be expected to depress his sensitive nature. But at the sight of the brethren who had travelled some seventeen miles or so to meet him, Paul "thanked God and took courage." The kind interest and gracious concern of these men to whom he was "unknown by face" stirred his warm heart to its depths. He forgot the perils of the past, the weariness of travel, and the shame of bondage in the joy of seeing those who loved the Christ whom he served, and who had put themselves to some pains in hastening to greet him. But while he would be undoubtedly grateful to the kind brothers for their affectionate interest, his first thought was to render thanks to God.
And when we inquire why this was so, I think the answer must be, not that the expression of gratitude was a purely apostolic excellence, but that thankfulness to God was a habit with Paul as a disciple of Christ. At any rate we can trace this habit in the letters of the apostle. The salient features of a man's personality are usually displayed in his written communications to others. And if a man frequently alludes in the course of his public and private remarks to the practice of giving God thanks we may fairly conclude that this subject is one of those uppermost in his mind and that it forms an important part of his own practice.
You would find it an interesting and profitable employment for some quiet quarter of an hour if you were to consult the opening verses of Paul's Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, and to Philemon, and to observe how consistently the apostle thanked God for the conversion, faith and discipleship of those to whom he was writing. You would then come to the conclusion that it was his habit to look out for subjects for thankfulness. Further, in the body of his letters you would discover frequent exhortations that his readers should acquire the habit of always thanking God for all things. See especially Eph 5:20; Col. 1:12; Col. 3:17; Thess. 5:18; 1 Tim. 2:1.
But thanksgiving to God was practised in Old Testament days as well as in the New. You will recollect the happy song which the Psalmist wrote for the Sabbath day. — Psalm 92.
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,
And to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High.
I may by way of further emphasis of the subject briefly refer to another instance found in the Old Testament of the exercise of this virtue. Daniel the Hebrew was practically the head of the MedoPersian Empire under Darius, and as such he was the envy of all the high officials of the land. They plotted, as you know, to compass his destruction by securing the issue of a royal edict forbidding that any petition should be made for thirty days to any but to Darius; for they knew Daniel's habit of daily worship and prayer. The penalty announced for disobedience to this tyrannical decree was to be cast into the den of lions.
By virtue of his exalted office, Daniel was fully aware of this interdict. "And when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; (now his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem;) and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime." — Dan. 6:10.
Comparing the record of the Old Testament prophet with that of the New Testament apostle, we find that in one case thanksgiving led to courage, and that in the other courage was required to render thanks. And the conclusion we draw from these examples is that gratitude to God and the absence of fear are closely joined together: so we find in what another prophet sang: "I will trust and not be afraid; for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and song." — Isa. 12:2; Ps. 118:14.
I sometimes wonder whether we take sufficient pains to be thankful to God, and thus to maintain a cheery heart and a smiling face in spite of gloomy circumstances. There are of course special privations to which all are liable at one time or another. We are liable to become cast down and discouraged, and forget how to be thankful. We almost feel like those Jewish captives when they said, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Ps. 137:4.
Is it however really the case that there is nothing whatever in your life which calls for thanksgiving to God? Can you not recall one mercy? There must surely be one: are there not even two? perhaps you can if you try count a score, and if you try hard, a hundred and more. And on adequate reflection you will probably say like the Psalmist, "Many, O Lord my God, are Thy wonderful works which Thou hast done, and Thy thoughts which are to usward; they cannot be reckoned up in order unto Thee; if I would declare and speak of them they are more than can be numbered." — Ps. 40:5.
Try habitual thanksgiving as a tonic, and you will then find your nerves braced, and your loins girded to meet whatever lies ahead.