WITH THANKSGIVING TO GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-23-86 10:50 a.m.
We welcome you to the First Baptist Church in Dallas. You who sit in front of a television or listen to a radio, you are now a part of our great congregation. And the title of the pastor’s sermon is With Thanksgiving To God. It will be a different turn than what you think for, something that comes out of the deep of my soul and my own personal testimony. Will you turn in the Bible to 2 Corinthians chapter 12? Second Corinthians chapter 12; I am going to read a part of verses 7 through 10; 2 Corinthians chapter 12, in the middle of verse 7:
There was given to me a thorn in the flesh . . .
For this thing I besought the Lord . . . that it might depart from me.
And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
[2 Corinthians 12:7-10]
And to add to it, a verse from 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ concerning you.” Out of the life that God has given to me, I take pages, leaves; and things that I bitterly resented when I was growing up, now I bring before God in deepest thanksgiving and gratitude. I have changed in so many, many ways. One: I grew up poor, and I resented it when I was a boy. Others seemingly had so much and we had nothing at all—out in the Dust Bowl, on a farm that blew away. Others had cars, nice homes, affluence, and I lived in a home that had nothing. And as a boy, I used to envy these who had so much more, and I resented the poverty in which we lived. But now that the days have passed and the years have multiplied, I thank God that I grew up poor. I notice what children today seemingly never notice. I notice we have electric lights in the house; I studied, all through the years of my growing up, at a coal oil lamp. We have running water in our house; when I grew up, we drank water from a windmill. We have a bathroom in our house; all of the years of my growing up, I bathed in a galvanized tub. I have some money now; poignantly do I remember as a lad counting seven buffalo nickels that belonged to me, and I thought, “This is riches”; seven buffalo nickels. There are a thousand things that I notice that children today growing up in modern affluent homes never see, do not even realize they possess them. And growing up out on a farm and in a tiny town, I became deeply conscious of the artistry of God in the world created all around us.
Standing in an airport in a western city, the plane delayed; a storm went through, and at the passing of the storm, there was the most vivid rainbow I think I ever saw—from horizon to horizon. And not only had God’s brush painted that vivid bow in the sky, but He did it again. There was a double rainbow. I stood at the airport and looked at it in wonder and in praise, at the glorious God who made this world in which we live. I do not exaggerate it when I tell you there was not another person in that airport and in that throng of people who even noticed it, who even looked at it. I thank God I grew up in that farm home and in that tiny town and was conscious of everything the hand omnipotent had created around me.
Suppose that people had to pay
To see a sunset crimson play
And the magic stars of the Milky Way?
And suppose God charged us for the flowers and rain,
Or put a purchase price on a bird’s glad strain
Of music—the dawn mist in the plain?
How much would an autumn landscape cost,
Or a window etched with winter’s frost
And the rainbow’s glory so quickly lost?
How much, I wonder, would it be worth
To smell the good, brown, fragrant earth
In spring? The miracle of birth-
Suppose we paid for a glimpse of the hills,
For the songs of rippling mountain rills
And the mating songs of the whippoorwills?
Or curving green breakers on the sea,
For grace, and beauty, and majesty?
And all those things God gives us free!
Ah, what a poor return for these
We yield at night on bended knees,
Forgetting thanksgiving, mumbling pleas,
Ignoring the moonlight across the floor,
The voice of a friend at the open door.
We just kneel there and beg the Master for more and more.
[“Sunsets for Sale,” Carmen Judson, c. 1939]
I thank God in these passing years that I grew up poor. I thank God that I grew up in a tiny Baptist church. But in those days, never missing an assembly of God’s people, there were things that burned like fire in my soul; to me, terrible things. I have set in the congregation as a boy, and the preacher a beloved and godly pastor seated in the pulpit, and the people stand up, openly accuse him of everything under the sun and fire him on the spot. Even as a boy, my heart pled and bled for that pastor humiliated.
We had in the little church one well-to-do man. He was president of the little bank in that tiny town. And at a business session of the church, they turned him out for dancing. Had a bitter confrontation, and those exceeded and succeeded in casting him out. In that church, the way they took the Lord’s Supper was this: the preacher would stand up and announce, “All of you that are worthy and prepared, you stand up, and all of the rest of you be seated.” Then they served the elements of the Lord’s Supper just to those that were standing.
Sometimes the pastor would change it. He would say, “All of you who are worthy and prepared, you move to this side of the church, and the rest of you, you move to that side of the church,” and they would serve the elements to those who had moved to this side of the church. And as a boy I would look at them, and it seemed to me that those who were seated or those who moved to this side of the church were better than those that were standing up. And the pastor was paid so poorly: he lived on a pittance, and even the small salary that was paid him was just a part of the salary they promised him. That may have been the reason, one of the reasons why my mother so was discouraged when I persisted in wanting to be a preacher. Her father was a physician, and she wanted me to be a doctor, and strove to educate me, that I would be prepared for that professional ministry. And when I persisted in being a preacher, she was greatly disappointed.
So many of the things that burn in my memory of those Baptist days, I resented as a child. It hurt me as a boy. But I have come to see that Baptist freedom and democracy moves in a different world than the church of the hierarchy and the prelate. They own the property, but we own ours. The hierarchy controls the church; we control our destiny, and we can confront and discuss. We are free, and for that freedom the martyrs laid down their lives.
I asked to be taken to the place where the river runs out of Zurich Lake in Switzerland, that I could stand there where Felix Manz, the Anabaptist, was drowned. On January 5, 1527, they sarcastically said, “He likes water, let us give him lots of water,” and they drowned that marvelous Baptist preacher. I asked to be taken to the place where, in Vienna, Austria, they burned Balthazar Hubmaier on the tenth day of March in 1528—and then to be taken to the Danube River where they drowned his faithful wife—one of God’s great Baptist preachers. I cannot but believe in this dynamic accusative word of our Baptist pastor, in England in 1611, who said, “The king”—talking about James Stuart I—”the king is a mortal man, and not God; therefore hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them.” And James I replied, “They will conform, or I will harry them out of the land.” And Thomas Helwys rotted and died in prison.
Roger Williams in 1631 came to America, and four years later he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and established the state of Rhode Island—the first time in human history there was a free church in a free state.
Oh God! beneath whose folded hand
So long hidden away
The secret of this wondrous land
We glory in today.
We thank Thee that in faith profound
Our sires their sails unfurled,
And claimed as henceforth hallowed ground
This unsuspected world.
That here they suffered, toiled and bled,
For leave to keep Thy laws;
That here pure martyr-blood was shed
For freedom’s holiest cause.
. . .
Our faith hath made us what we are
Beneath these skies so broad,
From Southern cross to Northern star
Our people worship God!
[from “Our Nation’s Faith,” Margaret J. Preston, 1893]
And I am grateful for the democracy and the freedom to which our communion and faith has given itself and for which our martyrs died. I repeat, that does not mean there is not also littleness, and bigotry, and bickering, and smallness, and lack of vision among our people. But I’d rather to be free to express what I believe than to have an hierarchy over me, telling me what I am to do, what I am to say, and what I am to believe. I thank God I grew up in a Baptist communion.
I thank God that I grew up in my beginning ministries as a country preacher. I stayed out in the country ten years, pastor of rural churches where they plow up to the front door of the church house, and where they left off, start again at the back door. And in little tiny villages, and even after ten years in the country, as a country pastor, I pastored county seat churches. It is with deepest shame and contrition that I confess that in those days I became envious and resentful. Men that I had roomed with in seminary, and classmates with whom I had attended school for years, were called to famed pastorates in great cities, or they were elected to executive positions in the denomination, and I remained in these small pastorates. I felt that God had passed me by, that He had forgotten me; that He had overlooked me; that I was left behind. And these men with whom I had gone to school were now pastoring great city churches and leading the great denomination in executive positions. I am so ashamed of that. How I could ever have fallen into that I cannot understand. Anywhere is a great where to preach the gospel. And any pulpit in any church is a marvelous place for a man of God to stand and break the bread of life to his people. But I went through that for years; struggled with it.
As I look back over it now, I praise God and thank the Lord for the years that I was a country pastor and for the years that I ministered in a county seat church. I was close to the people. I lived with them. For the most part of those years, I was single, I was not married, and literally I lived with the people. Those were the years of the Depression. I used to weep with them. They would lose their farms. They would lose their homes; put out on a lane in the country or on a street in the little town. I lived with them literally, and I loved those people.
And in those days, I learned to do all of the work of a church. One of my pastorates, there was not a man, not one, who would lead in public prayer. I did all of the work; all of it. I learned all of it; every syllable of it. And as I look back over it, it was the kindest, dearest thing God ever did for me to leave me out in the country and in the small village and in the county seat town. I only have one regret being pastor of this wonderful church in this queenly city. I wish I could be in every home of every family of our congregation. I wish I could, I wish I could come and knock at the door and say, “I have come to spend the evening with you.” “Well, pastor, we are not prepared.” It would not matter to me at all. I would just come in anyway. I would just come and sit down. Oh, I would love to do that. I would love to pray with every one of you. I would just love to talk to you and visit with you. Read the Bible with you. Kneel with you. I would love to do that.
And I thank God for the struggle of the years. It did something for me.
A twig where clung two soft cocoons
I broke from a wayside spray,
I carried it home to a covered place
Where, long through the days, it lay.
One morn, I chanced to open the lid,
And lo! as light as air,
A butterfly rose on downy wings
And settled above my chair!
A dainty, beautiful thing it was,
Orange and silvery gray,
And I marveled how from the withered bough
Such a fairy stole away.
Had the other flown? I turned to see,
And found it striving still
To free itself from the swathing floss
And rove the air at will.
“Poor little poisoned waif,” I said,
“You shall not struggle more,”
And I tenderly cut the binding threads,
And watched to see it soar.
Alas! a feeble chrysalis
It dropped from its silken bed;
My help had been the direst harm—
My little butterfly was dead!
I should have left it there to gain
The strength that struggle brings;
‘Tis stress and strain with moth or man,
That free the folded wings!
[adapted from “Gaining Wings,” Edna Dean Proctor]
As I look back, I thank God for the years and the years of the struggle and strife into which I was introduced as a country and a county seat pastor.
I must close. I thank God for all of the trials that come into my life. Great God of understanding, I have joined with the throngs in these days past in giving thanks for all of the wonderful things. And have found it easy to rejoice in counting those blessings. But today, I come humbly thanking Thee for that part of my life which was full of hurt. I have not been willing to stand there on the hill beside the Crucified One. I have cringed from accepting those gifts from His nail-pierced hand. But now, dear Lord, I come to thank Thee for these gifts; the feel of want and the hour of need that have quickened within me sympathy for others; my own miserable failures that have taught me perseverance and tolerance for my brothers; disappointments and discouragements that save me from thoughts of easy success; humiliation and rebuff that keep me from false pride. I have come to be grateful for criticism and even for misunderstanding that make me careful not to judge others. I thank Thee for pain and for suffering, because they have put patience into my heart. I thank Thee for my mistakes that make me want to do better; for hard tasks that have taught me endurance; for tears that have made me more understanding; and even for the sense of sin within my own heart that keeps me from prideful boasting. It is thus that I pray, dear God, that my gratitude may not become an easy and thoughtless thing. Make me ever more willing to stand beside Jesus, Thy crucified Son. For Him and these burdens, I am grateful today.
I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey…
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God…
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I received nothing that I asked for—but I was given everything that I hoped for.
My prayer is answered, I am supremely blessed.
[“Creed of a Soldier,” by an unnamed Confederate officer, quoted in Edmund Rousmaniere, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” 1912]
God hath not promised
Skies always blue,
All our lives thro’;
God hath not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the laborer,
Light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
[“What God Has Promised,” Annie Johnson Flint]
“Therefore,” says the apostle, “I take pleasure in reproaches, and in infirmities, and in necessities . . . for when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. “And in all things, give thanks to God: for this is pleasing in His sight” [1 Thessalonians 5:18]. And on this day of God before Thanksgiving, and in the presence of the Lord in heaven, O God, when I’ve complained, forgive me, and when I have resisted or been bitter, pass it by, Lord, knowing that God hath prepared some better thing for us [Hebrews 11:40]. Sometimes, the best thing God can do for you is to break your heart and lead you through the valley of disappointment and despair, God having prepared some better thing for us [Hebrews 11:38-40].
Now may we pray together? Our precious Lord, who knew what it was to suffer [Hebrews 2:18; 1 Peter 5:18], to be despised and outcast [Isaiah 53:3], to be crucified [Matthew 27:32-50], O Thou Crucified One, may we take our stand by Thee, and may that love and faith that made beautiful the life and death of Jesus bring us also to resurrection [Romans 8:11]; to a new life in God. O Lord, teach us, by the things that we suffer, by the discouragements and disappointments and hurts, teach us, Lord, Thy love and Thy presence and Thy grace [1 Peter 5:10]; realizing that mostly, in the tears and sorrows and heartaches of life, we learn the beautiful and precious things of God. And on this day, may we lift our hearts in thanksgiving to the Lord who hath led us, and who keeps us, and who teaches us through the sorrows and disappointments of our life. And now blessed Jesus, sanctify and hallow the appeal that we make. Please, God, may these who are in the pilgrim way find the going with Jesus so much sweeter and dearer than to walk without Him. What a friend to accompany us in the way, blessed Jesus, our Savior and fellow traveler, our helper and strengthener and comforter; now in the hour of our death, and into heaven, always with us; may this be a day of commitment and love and devotion to Him; in His saving name, amen.
In this moment when we sing our hymn of appeal, to give your heart to the Lord: “Lord Jesus, this is God’s day for me and here I stand,” a family coming into the fellowship of this wonderful church, or to answer the call of God in your heart, while we sing this appeal, if you’re in the balcony, there’s time and to spare, down one of these stairways, come; on the lower floor, in one of these aisles. And I want to make a special appeal to you who have come to Zig Ziglar’s seminar. What a beautiful and glorious moment to come forward, either to take Jesus openly, publicly, as your Savior, or to reconsecrate your life to the Lord, just starting all over and anew with Him. If in your heart you believe in the Lord Jesus, our first commission and command, Romans 10:9-10: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that He lives, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart one believes unto that God kind of righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” God asks of us that we publicly avow, unashamedly confess the faith we have in our Lord [Romans 10:9-10].
And this is God’s time and God’s hour, openly and publicly, to make that confession, to give your life to the Lord Jesus. Do it! When we stand in a moment to sing this appeal, come. God will be with you; He will accompany you and bless you. Zig, do you mind coming and standing here? Come up here and stand right there. And you that are in that seminar, when you come, come to Zig, and kneel down there and all of you pray together. It will be the most meaningful moment in your life, if you’ll answer that appeal of God in your heart. And with all who are present, you are welcome. God bless you. Come, come, while we stand and while we sing.