Perspective Shift

This week we finally reach the end of our teaching series, Married for Good. This week, to wrap things up, we are talking about one of the simplest but most powerful ways we can improve not merely our marriages, but all of our relationships. Starting next week, we’ll begin an Advent series you won’t want to miss. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Perspective Shift

Everybody loves a good life hack. A life hack is a simple thing you can do to make some normal part of life easier and more efficient than it is right now. In honor of that this morning, I found a few life hacks to share with you. We’re getting into prime baking season. If you happen to be making cookies in the next few weeks, but you just don’t have time to do it from scratch (I see you) so you are using one of those premade logs of dough, use a bit of dental floss to slice them instead of a knife. You’ll get much cleaner and prettier slices. This also works really well if you are someone who makes cinnamon rolls from scratch (just saying). 

Here’s another: How many ladies in the room regularly use bobby pins? If you do, I suspect you have lost at least as many as you have purchased. Next time you go to the store, pick up a pack of Tic Tacs. Once you’ve enjoyed all the mints, save the container. You can use it to store your bobby pins. Not only will you not lose them anymore, but you can shake out just one at a time as you need it. 

How about just one more? I’m not a salad guy myself, but I suspect many of you are. Next time you open a new bottle of dressing, if it has the kind of lid that doesn’t have some sort of an easy-pour insert, don’t take the foil label off the top. Instead, poke a hole in it. Now you have your own easy-pour bottle that will help you avoid accidentally drowning your salad. You can use this same trick with just about any bottle of liquid you’re going to have to pour out for one reason or another. Just poke a little hole and give yourself more control. That even rhymes. You’re welcome. We love simple things that make our lives better than they otherwise seem to be. Well, today, I want to talk with you about a life hack that isn’t terribly easy itself, but if you’ll put it into practice, it will make your life infinitely better than it is right now. 

Today we are in the fifth and final part of our series, Married for Good. For the last month we have been talking about marriage. We’ve been talking about it because marriage is something that affects everyone’s life. There has not ever been a person who walked on this earth who was not impacted by it in some way, shape, or form. That impact may be pretty good. It may be pretty bad. It could be somewhere in the middle. Whatever it is, though, you’ve felt it. It has shaped who you are today in ways you may not even be able to fully describe. In addition to this, our culture is in a season in which we are together figuring out exactly what role marriage should play in how and why we do what we do, and even whether it should play a role in the first place. To this I would add still even one more thing: God gave us marriage as a good gift. He gave it as something intended to make the world better and our lives better in it. He gave it as an example of the kind of relationship He wants to have with us in Christ. As a result of all of this, we need to make sure we’re getting it right. 

So far on our journey, we have defined marriage with Moses’ help. We have worked through Paul’s challenging but important words to the Ephesian church on what marriage should look like when everything is working according to God’s design for it. Then, last week, we let the apostle Peter take us through how to handle it when things aren’t going like they should be. With his help we clarified a principle that actually applies to all of our relationships. If you are a follower of Jesus, your call to live and love like Him is totally independent of your present circumstances and the way the other people in those circumstances are behaving. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

Where I want us to land this morning as we wrap up our series is on one of the simplest and most powerful things you can do to make your marriage better than it is right now. I’m going to give you one of the ultimate marriage life hacks. Kind of like our principle last week, though, the idea I want to set before you this morning has potential way, way beyond just our marriages. This thing is so powerful that it has the potential to make every single part of your life better than it is right now. All it takes from you is a willingness to put it into practice. 

In order to see what this remarkable idea is, if you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, come with me to the very end of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonica. The Thessalonian letters are two of those little documents in the New Testament that are easy to overlook. Oh, they have some incredible stuff in them, to be sure—they are in the Scriptures, after all. But compared with the theological preponderance of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians on one side, and the pastoral practicality of Paul’s letters to Timothy on the other side, they can easily get lost in the shuffle. Thessalonica was a large and important city in the Roman Empire. It was (and is), a port city with a natural harbor. It was technically a free city as well, meaning that while it paid proper fealty to the Roman government, it was also left fairly free to handle its own affairs without much outside oversight. Paul wrote this first letter sometime between the years A.D. 49-51 while he was ministering in Corinth on his second missionary journey. He had planted the church several months earlier and was writing to address some issues that had already arisen since his departure based on the report of his protege Timothy. 

Paul writes about a number of really important things here, including some of the most helpful theology about the second coming of Jesus. Giving that our full attention will have to wait for another time. I want to take you to the end of the letter where Paul offers up a sort of lightning round of parting wisdom for how the members of the Thessalonican church could get along together well in community. Over the course of 11 short verses, Paul addresses three themes: honoring leaders, a proper balance of compassion and accountability for the poor, and some really practical counsel on pursuing what is good together. 

Look at this with me starting in I Thessalonians 5:12: “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you, and to regard them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” Now, this is one of those verses I feel really awkward talking about in this kind of a setting, but what Paul is saying here is to treat your leaders in the church well. But this isn’t just talking about me. When there is someone who has committed at least a portion of his or her life to taking a leading role in the church, it is in your best interest to boost them up so they can do well the work to which God has called them. The less drama and more support you can give them, the better off everyone will be. 

Paul goes on in v. 14: “And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” One of the issues the church there was dealing with was poor believers who, instead of being willing to work, were essentially mooching off of the wealthier members of the church because Jesus might come back soon, and so why would they waste their efforts doing physical labor when they could be spiritually preparing for His arrival. Paul wasn’t having that. He essentially told them to get off their tails and work. On the other hand, we do have a responsibility to care for those who are genuinely in need in our communities. The church should be a place where there is no ongoing need. That applies spiritually as well as physically. Getting to this point, though, requires a lot of patience from everyone involved. 

This brings us to Paul’s big finish in v. 15: “See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil.” Now, there’s a lot here, I’ll grant you. But something he says in v. 18 should absolutely captivate our attention. Did you catch it? He says, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Have you ever wondered or even said to someone else out loud, “I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.” Ta-da! We often make the mistake of assuming God’s will is primarily concerned with the nitpicky details of our lives. He’s not unconcerned with the details. Make no mistake. He has all of those planned out. But most of them He’s going to let us figure out in process. When it comes to God’s will in the big picture, though, it’s not so much concerned with things like where you’ll live or what job you’ll work or what car you’ll drive. It’s much broader than that. His will is much more concerned with things like your rejoicing always, praying constantly, and giving thanks in everything. That is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 

Can we take a few minutes this morning and give some focused attention to that last part? God’s will is for you to give thanks in everything. That’s a big idea. It’s a big idea because I suspect that you’re like me and there are some things in your life for which you aren’t feeling particularly grateful right now. There are days you wake up and aren’t very thankful for your job, your kids, your school, your car, your house, your stuff…and even occasionally—just go with me here for a second—your spouse. Maybe you’re in a tough financial season. Hard to be thankful in that. Perhaps you have a relationship that is in crisis. That’s not generally a situation that engenders much gratitude in our hearts. It could be that you’ve got a scary medical situation going on. I don’t suspect that was on your list of “things to do…ever.” No, there are a lot of situations in our lives that don’t exactly cause thankfulness to well up in our hearts. And yet here is Paul telling us that giving thanks in everything is God’s will for us. 

Why? Is gratitude really that important? I submit to you that it is. And let’s think about why. If you are focusing your attention on giving thanks, what are you not focusing on? Problems. Negative things. Things about which you might otherwise be complaining. In fact, if you are focusing your attention on giving thanks for something, there are a whole lot of things you aren’t focusing on. And, if we’re being really honest with one another, most of those are things that if you give them your attention, it really isn’t going to do you any good. They won’t cause a positive change in your situation. They won’t give you any more power in it (they’ll perhaps give you the illusion of power, but not any actual power). They won’t make you any taller or add any years to your life. None of that. But when we shift our focus to gratitude, things are different. When gratitude is our focus, we are actively searching the situations we are in for things that are good and reflective of God’s character. The heart filled with gratitude lives with the constant reminder that we are not alone in our situations. Indeed, if there is something to be grateful for, then there is someone to be grateful to. Now, we’re focusing on being grateful to someone instead of just grateful in something, and when you’re grateful to someone, you can’t be upset with them. You can’t be jealous of them. You can’t hate them. Instead, you’re kind of just stuck loving them. And I can think of some worse things to be than stuck loving someone. Gratitude like this can take a terrible situation—one in which everyone fully expects us to be miserable and angry and bitter—and completely turn it around so that instead of all of those things we are filled with peace and joy and hope and love. Our whole outlook changes when we shift gears to gratitude. Nothing is the same and in the best way it possibly could be. An attitude of gratitude makes all the difference. 

So, how do we leverage this? What does it actually look like in practice? Well, we’ve been talking about marriage for a month now, so let’s start there. What does gratitude like this look like when unleashed in our marriage relationships? It looks like a perspective shift. Now, this isn’t easy to do, especially if it’s unfamiliar territory for you. If your first instinct is to gripe and complain and harbor resentment, this may be a really tall order for you. But just like you disciplined yourself into those habits, you can discipline yourself into a habit of gratitude as well. 

Okay, but how? Start finding things for which you can be grateful. Let me be more specific: start finding things about your spouse for which you can be grateful. Now, maybe you are in a place in your relationship in which this is a challenge, but if you want to experience the transformative power of gratitude, you’ve got to step up to it. 

Let’s get more practical. Here’s an exercise you can put to use in this effort. For the next week, I want you to work on assuming the best about your spouse. Let me explain what I mean. I mean that in every single encounter you have with your spouse, I want you to assume the best about that situation. This works best when you put it into play in a situation that would normally set off either an argument or cause you to store up some resentment to be unleashed later at a more convenient time of your choosing. In this situation, instead of going down that path, I want for you to find whatever is the most generous, gratitude-inducing explanation of what the other person has said or done, and then move forward on the assumption that this explanation is true. Listen to this next part because it’s really important: Whether or not your assumption here is actually true is totally irrelevant. You are acting and responding as if it is. Now, are there some situations in which this will take a little more work and creativity than others? Absolutely. Does this set you up to occasionally be taken advantage of (especially if the other knows you’re doing it)? Perhaps. But most people have a tendency to live up…or down…to the assumptions the people around them make about them. If the assumptions you are making about your spouse are constantly good and ennobling, then he or she is going to start to live up to those such that you aren’t going to have to be creative to figure out what the most generous explanation of a situation is very often any longer because the most generous explanation will be the obvious and actually true one. 

And if you are giving your greatest attention to gratitude-inducing practices like this one when it comes to your spouse, do you know what you aren’t going to be doing? Complaining about her. Nagging at him. Wishing he was someone other than the man he’s turned out to be. Dreading having to go home and face her withering glare once again. And what does this actually cost you? Nothing. Some pride perhaps. Maybe some power over your spouse as well, but that’s not the kind of power you want anyway. But nothing other than this. It won’t take you any expensive supplies. Everything you need to do it lies right in the center of your chest. And it will make your life infinitely better than it is right now. It’s the ultimate life hack for your marriage. An attitude of gratitude makes all the difference. 

Yet the impact of gratitude like this is hardly limited to our marriages. This can have a completely transformative effect on every single part of your life. Think about the power of unleashing this in your family. Do you perhaps have some family relationships that are hard? I’ll bet you do. I’ll even bet you’re going to have to endure some of that hard in the next week. What if instead of rolling your eyes when you see them (at least internally), you went into your holiday gatherings on the lookout for things for which you can be grateful? You think that might make a difference? How about unleashing this at work? Whether it’s your boss or a coworker or even your customers, I suspect there is someone you have to interact with on a regular basis because of your job who makes you want to bang your head against a wall. What if you started intentionally seeking out things about that person for which you can be grateful? What if you went even one step further and told this person about some of these things? Parents, what if you did this with your kids? Kids, what if you did this with your parents? What if we just got this right at church? How many churches lose sight of this and allow themselves to be torn apart by internal strife? Which kind of church do you suspect will be more attractive to guests: one filled with grouchy people who don’t like each other very much, or one filled with people who love each other and are genuinely grateful for one another? An attitude of gratitude makes all the difference. 

Now, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, you may be tempted to roll your eyes at all of this. I understand. I probably would be too if I were in your shoes. And what Paul says here is optional for you. You haven’t signed up for this. But this isn’t just a Bible idea. There’s a fair bit of sociological and psychological research to back up the power and impact of gratitude on our lives. If you are a follower of Jesus, though, this whole thing is really a non-negotiable. Or, as Paul put, it’s God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 

Let’s think about why for just a second and then we’ll be out of here. If you have accepted Jesus as Lord, you have committed yourself to the idea that there is someone bigger and higher than you in the universe. What’s more, this person, in spite of His immense power and might, thought so much of you that He was willing for His Son to die in your place so that the entirely just punishment for your sins could be satisfied on your behalf by someone else. What’s more, when you accept what this someone else, this Jesus, did on your behalf and commit your life to Him as one of His followers, instead of receiving the due punishment for your sins that He paid you will instead receive the reward for faithfulness that He earned. More specifically, you will receive eternal life. Death and all its trappings are no longer on the radar for you. How could you be anything but grateful for that? 

That gratitude really should pervade your entire life and regardless of the particular situation you happen to find yourself in at a given moment. Everything other than the death you should have died had Jesus not taken it on for you is a gift that your heavenly Father intends to use to draw you closer to Him and to bring your life more fully in line with His character. To put that another way, He’s going to use it to make you more fully who He designed you to be in the first place. And by “it,” I mean all of it. Everything. Every single experience you have and circumstance you are in God is going to use to make you more like Him. So you can…no, you should…be grateful in everything. It really is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 

It is His will for you because when you are giving your attention to gratitude, your heart will naturally be inclined positively in His direction. When that happens, you are much more likely to willingly acknowledge, celebrate, and participate in His character. You’re more likely to glorify Him. You’re more likely to enjoy Him. And that’s all what He made you for. An attitude of gratitude makes all the difference. So practice gratitude. Practice it in your marriage. Practice it with your family. Practice it at work. Practice it out in the world. Practice it here in the church. Practice it everywhere. It’s God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. An attitude of gratitude makes all the difference. 

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