Does thankful thinking come naturally for you? Or do you find it easier to be negative, critical, or jealous?
I’ve discovered my ability to think thankfully directly relates to how deeply I think about myself, God, and the world. Let me explain with a story.
Thankful Thinking: A Story
In college, my friend Bob impressed me with how eloquently he prayed. Of course, he felt embarrassed that I admired his prayer life, but it opened a dialogue about how he prays. His prayer life mirrored his thought life. He taught himself to never settle for superficial thoughts or prayers.
Here’s how that played out. I might pray, “God please bless and heal my friend, Joe, who has lung cancer.” Bob’s prayer would go deeper because he trained himself to think thankfully. It might have gone like this (not Bob’s actual prayer as that was too long ago):
“Lord, I’m concerned for my friend, Joe. I’m grateful that you’re more concerned than me. Jesus, I thank you that you continually bring Joe before the Father. I praise you that you made him in your image and you redeemed him. I know you never intended for Joe to get cancer, but sin came into the world and now we must face awful diseases. But, Lord, you have the power to heal as you proved while you walked on this earth.
“I know Joe’s family and friends are crushed right now and it would hurt them deeply to lose him. Joe’s content with whatever choice you make because he knows getting to be with you would be even better. But I believe you have work left for Joe in his family, in his community, and in this world. So I pray you would heal him. We will accept your will with thanksgiving because we know your will is always perfect and beyond our understanding. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I’m not recommending you copy this prayer. But I do want to unpack how Bob taught me to pray and think more deeply and thankfully. It all starts with a single verse.
Do you get tired of hearing young people flippantly respond, “Whatever!” Typically it’s dismissive, defiant, or passive-aggressive.
That’s not how Paul used the word in Phil. 4:8:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”Phil. 4:8 NIV
The word translated “whatever” can also mean “how much, how great, how many, as great as, as much.” This means to make all your thoughts focus on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy.
This list provides a roadmap to more thoughtful prayers and more thankful thinking. If you spend your time thinking deeply about all these things, you won’t have time for negative thinking, critical thoughts, or impure desires.
Whatever is True (Brian Duerkson):
Dig deeper by asking “what else”
In his classic book Start with Why, Simon Senek challenges leaders to define their why and then to keep digging to the foundational why. The way to do this involves asking a series of 5 whys.
The same discipline applies to Paul’s thankful thinking pattern in Phil. 4:8. Don’t settle for simple answers or simple prayers. Instead, ask “what else.” What else is true about Joe? What else is true about God? What else does scripture say?
For example, let’s take the phrase “whatever is true.” In Bob’s prayer example he allowed this statement to remember what is true about his friend, Joe. Here are some things:
- Joe is more loved by God than anyone else
- Jesus is continually praying for Joe
- God designed and redeemed Joe as an expression of God’s creative love
- God’s not out to get Joe and doesn’t love to inflict cancer
- God has the power to heal
I won’t keep listing the truths Bob rehearsed in this prayer. God doesn’t need to be reminded of these truths, but Bob and Joe do. And so do we.
If you ask “what else” about each of the eight concepts listed in Phil. 4:8 you will be able to think more deeply and thoughtfully for hours.
Thinking in paragraphs
Remember learning to write essays in school. Our teachers taught us to create an outline that included an introduction, a few paragraphs to make our case, and then a closing paragraph.
For most of us, our prayer life is more like a tweet: a 140 character headline. It might be catchy, but it’s not very deep or extensive.
What if we learned to think in paragraphs? How would that change our thankfulness and prayer life?
That’s what Bob taught me. He told me that I pray in sentences and he prays in paragraphs. He didn’t necessarily write out an outline for spontaneous prayer, but through the discipline of thinking in paragraphs, his prayers became more meaningful.
My goal here is not to teach you to pray more deeply or think more thankfully so others will become impressed with you. Jesus actually warned us about this:
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get” (Matt. 6:5).
It might seem I’m merely advocating for more careful thinking. I do think that’s beneficial, but it would be empty and vain if we don’t allow those thoughts to lead to thanksgiving.
Remember the context of Phil 4. Whatever thinking flows out of Paul’s encouragement to pray with thanksgiving in response to anxiety. So the cure to anxiety is grateful prayers, thankful thinking, and right living.
Choose one of the 8 words listed in Phil. 4:8 and take out your journal. Reflecting on a situation you’re facing right now, make a list of things that are true about the situation. What else is true about the people involved? What else is true about your desires? Is there anything else you don’t you know? Why is everyone so concerned? What else is God doing in this setting?
Now that you have a better understanding of what’s happening, how do you think God wants you to pray? What might it look like to turn your concerns into prayer and then thanksgiving?
Father, I thank you for giving me a mind with which I can think about you, your world, and my life. Teach me to think more thankfully and more carefully. Give me a heart that longs for truth, purity, goodness, and love. Use me. Melt me. Break me. Shape me. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.