“Gratitude: Your First Step Towards God” (Romans 1:21 sermon)

When John F. Kennedy was president, he was at a dinner one evening when an assistant defense secretary’s wife told him that every night when her husband comes home, she says to him: “How can they say those things about you? Aren’t they all awful!” — referring to the news of the day. Kennedy said to her, “You don’t say that to your husband when he comes home, do you?  That’s not what you should do. Find one GOOD thing they say, say, ‘Isn’t that great?’” He said: I know I don’t want to rehash all that negative stuff when I get home; let me hear something positive that I can be grateful for. (Dallek, Camelot’s Court, p. 124)

That’s a good word not only for a husband or a wife, in their relationship, but for ALL of us, ALL the time. It’s so easy with all that’s going on in our lives, and in our world today, to focus on the negative things around us, and if we do, we just get dragged down by it. But a better course is to focus on we we have to thankful for. Being grateful will make a huge difference not only in our daily attitude, but also in the whole direction of our lives. And as Romans 1 shows us, if we are NOT grateful, it will take us down the worst of roads, and to the worst of destinations.

I. Ingratitude: the first step away from God.

“they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks” 

Romans 1:21, comes in the context of Paul writing about the gospel. He just said in :16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …”. We’ve spoken several times before about how the gospel is that Christ died on the cross for our sins. Paul says here that God will save everyone who puts their faith in Him. But then he says in :18, on the other hand, that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. And he spends the rest of this chapter talking about how so many people in this world have turned from God, and have turned to the worst of sins. But HOW DID THEY GET THERE? 

This is where :21 comes in. It tells us the beginning of the story. It says “even though they knew God” — verses 19-20 say that everyone can see that there is a God, just by looking around at the creation around us. Verse 20 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The Bible says anyone who looks at the creation around us, can see that there is a God.

Albert Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with modest powers must feel humble.” (Anthony Flew, There Is A God, p. 102) 

Einstein wasn’t a theologian; but he said if you look around at this world, you have to realize that there is what he called “a spirit vastly superior to that of men,” who created this universe. And Einstein is right. Anyone can see that — especially in light of all the recent discoveries about our DNA, which show that the code built into our bodies in our DNA is more complex that the most sophisticated computer program. That could not possibly have come about by accident. It’s obvious that a God has purposefully designed us. It’s just like Romans 1 says here: “That which is known about God is evident to them …”. That is why every single culture that has ever been discovered, in the most remote island, or in farthest corner of the earth; or that has ever been excavated by archeologists, has worshiped some kind of god. Every. Single. One. Why is this? Because anyone can look at our bodies; our DNA; and the Creation around us, and see that there must be a Creator.

But the problem begins in :21, “Even though they knew God” — even though they can perceive He is there by looking at Creation — what did they do? It says, “They did not honor Him as God or GIVE THANKS.” It says despite what they can see about Him in Creation, they choose to reject God, and the first step away from Him is that “they did NOT GIVE HIM THANKS. We see here that ingratitude is the first step away from God. 

Then :21 is followed by a whole list in the rest of Romans 1 of what happens to people who reject God; of what their sin does to them. It says they get involved in idolatry, and then immorality, and eventually perversion, and they pay the penalty for it in their bodies and in God’s judgment. Many of you read this passage this week. It leads eventually to the worst of sins, and the worst of God’s judgment. But He says it all starts with this one simple thing: “they did not … give thanks.”  Ingratitude is the first step away from God.

Ingratitude was the first step away from God for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God gave them everything in the whole Garden. He said, “From any tree of the garden you MAY eat, except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” They had all of Paradise before them; the perfect home designed for them by God. We can’t even imagine how glorious that must have been! The most exotic vacation spot in the world today doesn’t even compare to the Paradise God created for them in Eden!  But did they give God thanks for what they had? Did they thank Him that they could eat from every tree in the Garden except this ONE? NO! They wanted to eat from the one that had been forbidden to them. They listened to the devil’s lies: “God’s holding out on you; He doesn’t want you to have that good fruit; He doesn’t want you be like Him.” And they turned their back on God in ingratitude for everything He had given to them, and grasped for the one thing He said they couldn’t have instead. So one of the root issues of the very first sin was that they weren’t grateful for what God HAD given them, and they focused on what He HADN’T given them instead. Ingratitude took them down the road that led to sin, and death, and every evil thing that has happened in this whole world ever since. Ingratitude was their first step away from God.

And ingratitude can be OUR first step away from God too. When a person doesn’t recognize that life is a gift from God; that every day He gives us sunshine, and water, and food, and provision of all kinds, and health and strength to work. There is no such thing as a “self-made man” in this world! Nobody ever made himself! Nobody ever became anything without a multitude of blessings from God which enabled him to do what he’s done. But many people refuse to recognize God, and all that He has done for them. Ingratitude takes them away from Him. And as Romans 1 shows us, once a person starts down the road away from God, that road ends up in some pretty ugly places. But the first step down that road, is ingratitude.

Sometimes even Christian people allow ingratitude to turn them away from God. We experience one disappointment in life; one loss; one time of deprivation; one experience we don’t understand — and toss everything else God ever did for us out the window, and turn away from Him. Instead of thanking Him for everything He HAS given us, we get angry at Him for the one He didn’t — or that He seemed to take away. 

And it’s not only our relationship with God that this affects. Ingratitude will POISON virtually every area of your life if you let it.

Ingratitude can be the first step away from a marriage: when you don’t appreciate all the good ways God’s blessed you through your husband or wife, and like Adam & Eve in the Garden you focus on that one thing that’s not good — and ingratitude begins to turn your heart away from your spouse. The same thing can be true between children and their parents — or really ANY relationship: if you’re ungrateful for all the positive things, and just focus on some negative, it can be the first step to the destruction that relationship. 

Ingratitude can be the first step away from happiness on the job: if you’re not thankful all the good aspects of it; how it provides for you, and instead focus on some problem, or some promotion you didn’t get, or some employee you don’t get along with, and you let that root of bitterness take hold of you and make you dissatisfied, when there’s really so much good about it. We can do the same thing in the church too.   It applies to any situation. Ingratitude can poison virtually every area of your life if you let it.

But you have to let it. Because it IS a choice. You choose whether you will be grateful, or ungrateful, for God and all that He has done for you. That’s what this verse shows us: ingratitude is the first step away from God.

II. Gratitude: the first step BACK to God!

So what do we do? Turn it around. If INGRATITUDE is the first step away from God, then what is the first step BACK to Him? GRATITUDE! Be thankful. Appreciate what God has given you.

Ingratitude is the first step away from God, and gratitude is the first step back to God.  This is why Psalm 100:4 says “Enter His gates with thanksgiving.”  We quote that verse a lot, but think about what it means: “Enter His gates”: that means, this is how you approach God; this is how you come to Him. You go through His “gates,” in a sense, with thanksgiving. Gratitude is the door that brings you into the presence of God. 

That’s why the Bible is SO FULL of commands to give thanks to God:

— Psalm 95:2 “Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving”

— Psalm 136:1 “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.”  And there are commands like that to thank God all through Psalms.

And we are instructed to thank God throughout the New Testament too:

— Colossians 3:17 “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

— I Thess. 5:18 “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

We could literally take our whole time today, just reading all the verses in the Bible on thanksgiving. It is all through scripture. And the reason it is all through scripture because it is SO important. Gratitude ushers you into the presence of God; ingratitude whisks you away. So we need to purposefully commit ourselves to give God thanks. It immediately brings us a step closer to God every time we do it: it reminds us of Who He is, and what He has done for us, and it totally changes our attitude, when we give thanks.

Thankfulness is one of the most life-changing attitudes there is. See, a lot of us are in the habit of always looking for the flaw, for the weakness, for the mistake, in every situation — and if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing, you will NEVER be satisfied; because there is ALWAYS something, isn’t there?

— My job’s pretty good, but there’s this one person there … 

— My husband’s done all these good things — but he still didn’t do that one chore he keeps saying he’ll get around to ….

— My child’s great about a lot of things, BUT …

— It goes for the church too: there’s probably at least one thing about every church that will bother you. 

If you’re looking for perfection, you will NEVER find it: not in a husband, not in a wife, not in a child, not in a friend, not in a job, not in a church — not in YOURSELF!  If all you ever do is look for the negatives, you’ll never be happy; you will always be dissatisfied, and you will always be miserable — and you will likely make all those around you miserable too, by the way! If all you ever do is look for the negative, you will always find it, because nothing is perfect in this world. And so you will always be unhappy.

I can say this because I know I can be one of those people, that it often only takes ONE negative thing to drag me down or get me worried or get me frustrated — even when I have SO many other good things in my life to be thankful for. Everything can be so good; but if there is one negative thing going on anywhere in my life, I tend to let that one thing just take over all the space in mind. And I stay bothered because there’s that “one thing” that’s not right.

For example, the other night I was looking at our bank account online. And I noticed that while I was up in Oklahoma with my mom’s husband in the hospital, my account paid for something in Bogota, Colombia. Neither Cheryl or I bought anything in Colombia while I was at the hospital, so I got ahold of Bank of America, and they started the process of dealing with that. Well, typically, something like that will just continue to bother me; it’ll just “hang” over my life like a dark cloud, until it gets reconciled, and I feel like nothing is good; and nothing is right, until that thing gets fixed. 

The problem with that is, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING, isn’t there? There is always some bill that’s mixed up; there is always something that breaks down in the house — and if there’s not, I can promise you there is ALWAYS something that needs to be done at church. If I can’t have peace because there is just ONE thing messed up anywhere, I will never have peace. 

So one thing God’s been doing in my own life recently, has been for me to make a conscious effort, every day, to give thanks. If there’s something somewhere that is bothering me, I go, “OK, yes there is that; but think how much else you have to be thankful for …” and I start counting my blessings — and when I start count my blessings, it makes such a big difference in my attitude. So what if that one thing’s not good: look how many other blessings God has given me!  Be thankful — and don’t let ONE negative thing cancel out your gratitude for all those blessings! 

(I got tested on this, by the way: yesterday I had THREE “little problems” pop up that I can’t deal with till Monday! But I’m going to count my blessings! I’ve got a lot more than those three problems to be thankful for!)

Some of you may need to join me in that commitment. If something’s bothering you, don’t get tunnel vision on that one thing, and let it ruin your whole day. Instead, start giving thanks. See how much you DO have to be thankful for. Continually practicing gratitude will have a huge impact on our attitude, and on our whole life.  

But maybe you’d say, pastor, in all honesty, I just don’t have the relationship with God that I should have. How do I take the first steps to get closer to God? Well, as we’ve seen, gratitude is the first step back. Start by thanking Him. Like Psalm 100:4 says: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving.” 

Maybe you’d say you don’t think you can’t pray very much —but I bet you can pray more than you think. Just look around, and start thanking God for things you’re grateful for. I do it every morning; it’s how I start off virtually every day:

— I usually begin reading or quoting a Psalm of thanksgiving, like Psalm 75:1 “We give thanks to You O God, we give thanks ….” 

— and then I just start thanking God: Lord thank You for the good night’s sleep I just got; thank You for this caramel coffee I can sip on; thank You for the rain we just had; thank You for my wife, and our kids, and all of our grandkids, and the sweet call they gave us yesterday; and thank You for our church, and all the encouraging people in it (and I’ll call out some of your names!); and thank You for Your word that I can read here in a minute; thank You for Jesus, and for my salvation, and that all my sins are forgiven, and that I have a home in heaven forever … and on and on. Just thank God for everything you can think of. You can and should take a lot of time doing that.

— And then sing a song to Him like we sang today: “Thank You Lord, I just want to thank You … with a grateful heart, with a song of praise, with an outstretched arm, I will bless Your name; thank You Lord!”  

See, that’s a great start to a prayer time right there: use a Psalm of thanks; give thanks; sing a song of thanks — And if that’s ALL you did for your prayer time, that would be a pretty good way to start your day. And later you can add some prayer requests and Bible reading to it.  

The best way you can begin your day, is by thanking God. Start every day like that. It will change your life. (I’ve heard that expression a lot in recent days. People say about all these different things: “It’ll change your life!” “Oh, this new coffee’s so good; it’ll change your life.” Well, that coffee may be good, but it’s not really going to “change your life” right?!  But listen: starting every day by thanking God like we’re talking about here — THAT will change your life!  Make gratitude your first step towards God, every morning. 

Think about it: every morning you will either take your first step BACK to God in gratitude, or take your first step AWAY from God in ingratitude, by NOT thanking Him for all He’s given you. I hope you’ll make the commitment to take your first step BACK towards God every morning, by beginning your day with thanksgiving.

But it’s not just for the morning; or just once a day. Gratitude should be something we walk in all day long. Every time the devil tempts you to get down about something — start thanking God again. We need to constantly cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” It will make such a difference in our lives (and in the lives of those around us!) if we will.  

And one more thing: let’s make sure we are grateful to God for the most important thing He’s given us: the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus  Christ. God designed us to know and love Him (something ELSE we can be grateful for!) but the problem is, we all separated ourselves from God by our sins. That should have been the end of the story, and we should have all been found guilty and sent off for judgment and hell — but God was merciful to us (something ELSE we can be thankful for!) and He sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay for our sins — the greatest gift that was ever given! So because of what Jesus did, we can be forgiven for all our sins. 

I Corinthians 6:9-11 says “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such WERE some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified; but you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …”. 

He told the church at Corinth, you’ve committed all these different sins — but he says to them, but you were WASHED, your sins were PAID FOR by the blood of Jesus that He paid when He died on the cross. 

Jesus is the best and most important gift God ever gave us. That we can be forgiven for ALL of our sins — and he mentions some pretty strong sins here in that list, doesn’t he: adultery, homosexuality, robbery, swindling — but he said you can be WASHED from ALL of them in Jesus. As we talked about last week, you have to personally admit your sins, be willing to turn away from them with God’s help, and ask Jesus to save you. But if you will do that, He will forgive ANY sin you have ever committed. You don’t have to pay money for it; you don’t have to do some “great deed” to get it. Romans 6:23 says: “The free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” THAT is the best thing we have to be thankful for! 

If you know this is true for you, you ought to thank God every day for it. Go ahead and thank Him for your home, and for your morning coffee, and for whatever else you’re grateful for. But be sure you especially thank Him for the forgiveness He gives you in Jesus. And some day when you don’t feel like there’s much else to be thankful for, you can ALWAYS give Him thanks for that. No matter how bad a day you’re having; your sins are forgiven; you have a home in heaven! You can always be thankful for that!

And if you’ve never really asked Jesus to forgive you, and make you a Christian, take your first step towards God today: THANK HIM for what He did for you on the cross. Say, God, I know I’ve sinned and I don’t deserve to go to heaven. But THANK YOU that Jesus died on the cross for me. Save ME. And then say “Thank You God, for saving Me!” Take your first step towards God today, by thanking Him for sending Jesus to save YOU!   But if you DON’T thank God for what He did for you, what an ungrateful wretch you are, honestly. God sent Jesus to die on the cross, to pay for your every sin — and you ungratefully turn Him away? I promise you; if you do that, there will be no forgiveness for you, only the judgment of God for your ingratitude for His incomparable gift.  

Either gratitude will be your first step towards God; or ingratitude will be your first step away from Him. And that’s especially true of salvation. Take your first step towards God today. Receive the greatest gift He gave you in Jesus, and thank Him for it. 

But it’s not only true for salvation, but also for every area of your life. Let gratitude be your first step towards God. It will change your life if you will walk every day with a thankful heart. Gratitude can make the worst situation you are in, a place of worship and thanks. And ingratitude can make a living hell out of paradise. The question is: which one will you choose?


Some years ago, a man named Jack Hinton was on a short-term mission trip to the island of Tobago, and he was leading worship at a leper colony there. Like we often do in our prayer meeting here on Wednesday nights, they were asking for requests for songs to sing out of the hymnal.  One would ask for this song, and another for that. At one point Hinton asked if there was anyone else who had a request.  One woman raised her hand and said she had a song she wanted to sing. Like many of the others there, this woman was a leper. But Hinton said hers was “the most hideous face I had ever seen.” The woman’s nose and ears were entirely gone. The disease had destroyed her lips as well. When she raised her hand in the air to request the song, there were no fingers on it, because they had all been eaten away by the leprosy.  But with her fingerless hand raised in the air she asked: ‘Can we sing ‘Count Your Many Blessings?’”  Hinton said he was so overcome by emotion, he could hardly sing the song. After the service, one of his team members came to him and said:“Jack, I guess you’ll never be able to sing that song again.”  He said, “Yes I will — but I’ll never sing it the same way again.”

If a fingerless woman in a leper colony can “Count her many blessings,” and worship God for all He’s done for her, then surely you and I can count our many blessings too!  It will change our lives if we will. Let’s make gratitude our first step towards God — today, and every day! 


— Perhaps the best response you can make to God today is just to start giving thanks

— Ask God to help you begin every day with a time of thanksgiving: with a Psalm, giving thanks, and a song of thanks.

— And ask Him to help you respond in every situation by giving thanks. 

Even when something starts to “bother” you; remember how much else you have to give thanks for.

— If you know for sure you are saved; thank God you have heaven’s greatest gift!

— And if you’ve never done it, why don’t you take YOUR first step towards God, and thank Him for Jesus, and ask Him to be your Savior?

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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