The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” We would be wise to meditate on those words frequently, as this sickness of our hearts tends to infect our very best thoughts. This is well illustrated as John Piper asks if gratitude to God and even gratitude for the cross can be idolatrous.
. . . gratitude that is pleasing to God is not first a delight in the benefits God gives (though that will be part of it). True gratitude must be rooted in something else that comes first—namely, a delight in the beauty and excellency of God’s character. If this is not the foundation of our gratitude, then it is not above what the “natural man,” apart from the Spirit and the new nature in Christ, experiences. In that case “gratitude” to God is no more pleasing to God than all the other emotions that unbelievers have without delighting in him.
You would not be honored if I thanked you often for your gifts to me but had no deep and spontaneous regard for you as a person. You would feel insulted, no matter how much I thanked you for your gifts. If your character and personality do not attract me or give me joy in being around you, then you will just feel used, like a tool or a machine to produce the things I really love.
So it is with God. If we are not captured by his personality and character, displayed in his saving work, then all our declarations of thanksgiving are like the gratitude of a wife to a husband for the money she gets from him to use in her affair with another man.
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It is amazing that this same idolatry is sometimes even true when people thank God for sending Christ to die for them. Perhaps you have heard people say how thankful we should be for the death of Christ because it shows how much value God puts upon us. In other words, they are thankful for the cross as a echo of our worth. What is the foundation of this gratitude?
Jonathan Edwards calls it the gratitude of hypocrites. Why? Because “they first rejoice, and are elevated with the fact that they are made much of by God; and then on that ground, [God] seems in a sort, lovely to them. . . . They are pleased in the highest degree, in hearing how much God and Christ make of them. So that their joy is really a joy in themselves, and not in God” [Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John Smith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 250, 251]. It is a shocking thing to learn that one of today’s most common descriptions of the cross—namely, how much of our value it celebrates—may well be a description of natural self-love with no spiritual value.
Oh, that we would all heed the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards here. He is simply spelling out what it means to do all things—including giving thanks—to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). He is showing us what the gospel is for. It is for the glory of God. And God is not glorified if the foundation of our gratitude for the gospel is the worth of its gifts and not the value of the Giver. If gratitude for the gospel is not rooted in the glory of God beneath the gift of God, it is disguised idolatry. May God grant us a heart to see in the gospel the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. May he grant us to delight in him for who he is, so that all our gratitude for his gifts will be the echo of our joy in the excellency of the Giver!
—John Piper, God Is the Gospel (Crossway, 2005), 137–138.
I was reminded, as I read this, of gifts I receive from my children. Those gifts often have little or no value at all. I often have no use for them, except to clutter up my desk until such a time as I can discreetly tuck them away (I do usually save them). I have a box full of cards and crayon drawings that I will never part with, because those gifts are precious to me. Their value to me is certainly not in their quality or usefulness. I value them simply because their givers, little sinners with bad handwriting and spelling, who need me and owe me their gratitude, are precious to me. How much more ought this to be true of the gifts I receive from the Lord of the universe, who has no need of me and owes me nothing! Shouldn’t he be infinitely more precious to me