Jonathan Edwards has a word for our time that could hardly be more pointed if he were living today. It has to do with the foundation of gratitude.
True gratitude or thankfulness to God for his kindness to us, arises from a foundation laid before, of love to God for what he is in himself; whereas a natural gratitude has no such antecedent foundation. The gracious stirrings of grateful affection to God, for kindness received, always are from a stock of love already in the heart, established in the first place on other grounds, viz. God's own excellency.1
In other words, gratitude that is pleasing to God is not first a delight in the benefits God gives (though that is 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 which 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, 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. This is exactly the picture in James 4:3-4. James criticizes the motives of prayer that treats God like a cuckold: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?" Why does he call these praying people "adulteresses"? Because, even though praying, they are forsaking their husband (God) and going after a paramour (the world). And to make matters worse, they are asking their husband (in prayer) to fund the adultery.
Amazingly, this same flawed spiritual dynamic is sometimes 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. 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, he 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.2
It is a shocking thing to learn that one of today's most common descriptions of how to respond to the cross may well be a description of natural self-love with no spiritual value.
We do well to listen to Jonathan Edwards. Does he not simply spell out for us the Biblical truth that we should do all things-including giving thanks-to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)? And God is not glorified if the foundation of our gratitude is the worth of the gift and not the excellency of the Giver. If gratitude is not rooted in the beauty of God before the gift, it is probably disguised idolatry. May God grant us a heart 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!
Excerpted from John Piper, A Godward Life (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1997), 213-214.
1. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959, orig. 1746, p.247.
2. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, pp. 250-251.