The best things in life don’t come by grasping at them. They come as gifts. Restful sleep, a lifelong friendship, a good reputation, influence—when we aim directly at such things, they often elude our grasp, or we end up with parodies (or worse).
You cannot make yourself fall asleep. It’s a gift (Ps. 127:2). That said, you can take up fitting postures and practices for sleep. Counting sheep doesn’t produce sleep, but it does redirect our energies away from trying to fall asleep. It’s a humble preparation for the gift of sleep, which comes at us slant. So when my kids are frustrated with sleeplessness, I often tell them to get counting, though this usually doesn’t lessen their frustration in the moment.
A similar situation arises in pastoring. As a pastor, one of my first tasks is to encourage God’s people to begin and end their days with prayer. For many, this seems a weak-sauce, unsatisfactory strategy. Surely counseling sessions, a conference, or even a prayer retreat will provide a more immediate, purchasable way to joy. But morning and evening prayer? Yes, it’s important, but it seems impotent to produce the joy we crave.
That’s the point. Daily prayer isn’t a spiritual technique to make life better. When we ask the Lord for his provision at the beginning of each day and thank him for his mercies at its end, we wind up with the surprise of joy. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul gives us a window into why.
Read the World Aright
False teachers troubled the first-century Ephesian church, forbidding marriage and demanding abstinence from certain foods (1 Tim. 4:2–3). Paul’s response was clear, concise, and emphatic: “Everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (vv. 4–5).
The best things in life don’t come by grasping at them. They come as gifts.
This passage reveals that when it comes to thinking theologically about creation, we can fall off the horse on two sides. Like the false teachers in Ephesus, we can deny creational goodness, thinking embodied experiences like marital sex or eating food only distract and defile. Or, like many modern spiritualities, we can divinize the creation, believing the way to affirm creation’s goodness is to posit bits of divine essence or saving grace “in” it.
Actually, there’s a third common mistake. We can treat the stuff of creation as neutral and meaningless, occasions for ungrateful pleasure or fuel for our personal agendas. Thankfully, God’s world is not dirty, divine, or meaningless. It’s “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God intends for the physical world to come to a sacred fulfillment, for it to be “made holy” through word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:5).
For creation to be set apart for its divinely intended fulfillment, we need God’s Word to reveal its purpose. Scripture is like prescription glasses that put reality into focus. It helps us to rightly see everything God made. But God doesn’t just mean for us to “read” the world as his very good creation—he also wants us to receive it as a gift from his hand.
Receive the World with Thanksgiving
When you think of prayer, you’re probably more prone to think of supplication than gratitude. But if we’re to receive God’s good world as the gift it is, our days must be filled “with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4, emphatically repeated from v. 3). This is vital. As Matthew Myer Boulton notes, “Part of gracefully receiving a gift is receiving it gratefully; indeed, to a significant extent, gratitude constitutes the reception itself, since if no gratitude arises, we may well ask whether the gift was received as a ‘gift’ at all.”
If I give my children a new toy, and they snatch it away and run off with nary a “thank you,” they don’t receive my goodness as a gift but, in Boulton’s words, “as plunder, windfall, or merchandise.” Or they see it as an inalienable right, not a gift. My gift’s full realization, its consecration and reception as a gift, is inseparable from their giving thanks.
If we’re to receive God’s good world as the gift it is, our days must be filled with thanksgiving.
It’s the same with sex and marriage, and eating bread, and life and breath and everything. The wonderful divine Giver gives all these things, good in themselves. And he gives them constantly. Every day is filled with new mercies. So at every day’s end, we can and ought to raise prayers of thanksgiving to consecrate the abundance of gifts we’ve received.
But we can say more. It’s not only possible to give thanks at bedtime; we can also raise supplications in the morning. When we do, the evening thanksgiving is multiplied—indeed, transformed.
Realize the World’s True and Wondrous Joy
Suppose we pray in the morning, “Give us today our daily bread,” and then break bread in the ensuing day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the day’s end, we can give thanks for much more than the gift of bread, which is itself no small thing. More astoundingly, we can also give God thanks for listening to and answering our morning prayer. We can come to know God’s character and heart more truly: he’s not only a generous Giver but also an attentive, responsive Father who listens to our prayers in Jesus’s name. He is ever present for our life and good, and he loves us with an astounding generosity, kindness, and constancy we don’t deserve.
We’re inclined to think of God as only distantly related to everyday life. We may admit he’s ultimately responsible for marriage, bread, and breath as their first cause. But in our functional thoughts, God is no more practically and personally near to us and reality than a watchmaker is to the ticking watch he made. However “natural” it may seem to think God is absent from marriage, food, and all our material, temporal life, this is a false, anxiety-producing, and joy-sapping perception.
As people forgiven of sin through Christ’s blood, renewed in our perceptions by God’s Word, and impelled by the Spirit to pray, we can live otherwise. Through our morning and evening prayers, our anxieties may be put to rest and joy come to us as the surprising gift it is. In the end, joy is realized not through getting things we pray for but through prayerful resting in the Father’s constant presence, attention, and love in Christ.