Someone recently asked me why we start every Immanuel session with a connection experience – either a time when we felt close to God, or a time when we felt gratitude. As he asked, I heard a song from Vacation Bible School begin playing in my head: “I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart! I will enter his courts with praise!”
There’s a technical reason why we start Immanuel sessions with connection and gratitude: God designed our brains to relate to Him and others better that way. (You can read more about the brain science behind gratitude in Dr. Karl Lehman’s book Outsmarting Yourself.) But brain research aside, consider what God says about gratitude:
From Psalm 50: I have no need of a bull from your stall, or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. [Rather,] sacrifice thank offerings to God. Fulfill your vows to the Most High. Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me.
From 1 Thessalonians 5: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
From Psalm 118: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever!
From Psalm 100: Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him and praise his name!
Think for a moment about what thanksgiving does in us. If you didn't just skim those verses but actually read them, did you find your heart lighten at all? Did you sense a shift in your thoughts or feelings? I often notice an inner change when I give thanks. It turns my focus away from my problems and toward all the good things in life - and maybe even the bad things that God has or will turn to good. Where my focus goes, my feelings and actions follow. When I spend more time giving thanks, I treat others better and offer myself more grace (I tend to be pretty hard on myself.)
But thanksgiving changes more than how I feel and act. It is not just saying thanks for something but saying thanks to someone. I'm turning my attention to the Giver of all good things (James 1:17). In fact, if I stop to listen for his response, then I'm going beyond giving attention - I'm initiating conversation. It still amazes me what I actually notice when I stop to sense his response. Sometimes I actually sense his smile or feel his appreciation that I noticed. It's like suddenly I'm aware of another Person who's enjoying my company. And that - as we know through the teaching of the Life Model Works team - is joy, a good fruit that produces more good fruit.
Now let’s look in more detail at this movement toward recognizing and paying attention to God’s presence.
I find it interesting – and probably not a coincidence – that the Lord associates thanksgiving with the entrance to his temple. Every year Jews from all over Israel processed up to Jerusalem singing psalms of praise and thanksgiving (probably specifically Psalms 120-134). They literally entered the temple gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise. And, just as some of them moved from the courts of the temple into the temple itself, so do many Immanuel sessions progress from thanksgiving to a much deeper encounter with the presence of God.
The temple provides a very apt image for the trajectory of our interactions with the Lord. Ruth Ward Heflin has described the progression of entering God’s presence as moving from thanksgiving and praise to worship to glory. These steps match the temple - and some of the most powerful Immanuel sessions I’ve witnessed or participated in. Consider this progression:
We begin with a time of thanksgiving, analogous to entering the temple courts where the altar and bronze washbasin stand. After we enter, we become aware of things that hold us back from God – sins, lies, wounds. We are covered with the debris of walking through life in the world. We offer these to him in sacrifice at the altar, and he washes us clean at the bronze basin.
We respond to his grace with deep gratitude, awed afresh at his mercy and faithfulness. This state of worship parallels entering the temple itself. Here we encounter the Bread of the Presence, golden lampstand, and the altar of incense. We come face to face with Christ, our Bread, our Light, our Everlasting Intercessor (Ps 141:2; Lk 1:9; Rev 8:3-4).
As we encounter Christ, our interaction may shift from conversation to quiet. We rest from our work and distractions, gaze upon him, and simply but deeply share the experience of being together. And as we do, we discover we have entered behind the veil into the Holy of Holies. The mystics identified union with God as the highest goal. In this place we, too, may discover the reality of the words “Whoever is united with the Lord is one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17) and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
Every Immanuel session is different, but if you want to see what the kind of experience that I’m talking about, try watching Joanne’s session. And of course this movement doesn’t have to happen in Immanuel Prayer. It can happen in church, personal devotions, or any place where we set out to seek the Lord or where he decides to make himself known. What would it be like if our church services were like this? I think a lot more of us would look forward to Sunday mornings – and a lot more of us would have something powerful to share with our friends and neighbors who don’t know the Lord.
So why do we start with gratitude? Because God told us to do it, because it shapes our attitudes and actions, and because it opens us up to the kind of interactive relational connection with God that produces good fruit, increasing intimacy, and powerful witness!