*Disclaimer: Part II of this post became something very different from what I set out to write, but I believe it was what God has led me to communicate in this space today. If nothing else, it has helped me sort out my thoughts and settle in God’s truth. I pray that even in my failure to be clear, you will be blessed by this message.
A Lesson from My Flawed Self on Gratitude
I give thanks to God regularly throughout my daily life. Some of my favorite verses in all of Scripture include those that point to gratitude as a priority in the life of a Christian. I know that, as believers, there is no such thing as giving too much thanks.
Having experienced (by some small degree) hardship in my life, it is not difficult for me to see that I have blessings overflowing.
Thank you Lord, for friends and family.
Thank you, Lord, for another day.
Thank you, Lord, for health and wellness.
Thank you, Lord, for this food.
Thank you, Lord, for your abundant provision.
Beyond the obvious fact that blessings are not hard to come by in my life, I am also thoughtfully aware that the depths of pain and poverty throughout this broken world have never knocked at my door. I can not claim to know real suffering or persecution, and I do not buy into this idea that it is simply relative to each person. (Relativity is a feel-good excuse.) Minor hardship & pain? Sure. Suffering? Not yet, anyway. One can not help but feel gratitude when confronted with the face of true suffering that is experienced by others across the globe.
So as I approach this special day in America where we all gather around our tables for the biggest, most expensive meal we’ve prepared this year and consider what it is that we are thankful for, I have been considering the path my thoughts take in accomplishing this “task” of giving thanks. Not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day. My observations entail that I generally land on gratitude through one of the following thought processes:
- I consider all that I am glad to have, and I thank God for it. (Including the deeper stuff like Jesus, grace, mercy, faith, and God’s love, of course.)
- I consider all that I am glad I do not have, and I thank God for it. (You know: suffering, illness, real enemies, etc.)
- I am overcome with affection for someone or some thing and I can not help but express thanks to God for it. (Including, but not limited to, my salvation in Christ.)
- I catch a glimpse of what life looks like without one of my many blessings, and I respond by giving thanks to God that I still have it. (When a friend loses a loved one, for example, or I see the effects of natural disaster on the news.)
- I am struggling with something, possibly feeling down about a particular circumstance or an unmet desire, and I consciously choose to engage in #1 to be obedient in the command to rejoice in the Lord always.
I can imagine that these thought processes are quite familiar to many of you. I previously might have boasted in my frequent journeys across one through five above. That is, until recently when I discovered I had taken these steps into a place I had once vowed never to be again.
The Last Time God Hit Me in the Face with Gratitude
It has been eight years now since I entered into a year-long depression after losing my older sister to a drug overdose. Though I was a Christian, I spent that year refusing to speak to God and too blinded by grief to recognize anything good coming from God. It was my first year of college, and I had never felt more alone and confused in my walk with the Lord.
Though I was committed to darkness, slowly but surely, He was restoring my faith. A call from an adult mentor the following January started the process by asking me the question, “What is God teaching you through this loss?” I was slightly offended by the boldness of this question. What is God teaching me?! Really? I said something that sounded wise and Christian-ish at the time, but I was eager to hang up and return to my grief.
In the months that followed, despite the fact that I refused to open my Bible, God was putting Scripture in front of me everywhere I turned that was telling me to rejoice, be glad, give thanks, and think of all that is good and pure. At first these reminders did nothing but annoy me, until finally my refusal to pray exploded in cries of ingratitude and questioning of the Lord. “How do you expect me to give thanks?! Where exactly are these GOOD things you expect me to dwell on?! How could you, a loving God, cause me such pain?!”
No sooner than these words left my mouth did I experience an overwhelming wave of conviction, repentance, and abundant grace within my heart. For days my mind was spinning with the truth that I had swallowed the hour I first believed and was saved, that I deserved hell & that anything short of it came only by the grace of God. I deserved to be in slavery to sin, and any ounce of freedom came only by the grace of God. I deserved to have nothing, and any amount of something was a gift of grace. Evidence of God’s grace surrounded my every moment, and left me with no choice but to be grateful.
In those fragile weeks of my faith journey, God refined in me what gratitude to the Father in all circumstances was all about. It was about God and grace, an irresistible urge to worship Him, and a recognition that all good and perfect gifts come from above. Prior to the loss of my sister, giving thanks to God was still heavily motivated by my affection for all that I had, including possessions and the blessings of family, and that affection for these blessings would inspire affection towards God in the form of giving thanks. There were traces of pride and idolatry in this gratitude, as well as a sense of entitlement as I treasured the many “good” things my good and loving God had given to me.
Without realizing it, the world’s influence on my gratitude had led me to a convenient habit of giving thanks that had more to do with all that I had been given, and little to do with the One who had given it to me and the depth of grace given to me through Jesus Christ. It was as though my hardened heart had been reawakened to the Gospel in a deeper way than ever before, and the response was pure worship and a thankful heart. As I prayed to God in tears during that time in my life, I prayed I would never again let my thankfulness be wrapped up in the blessings themselves.
Questions of Worship and Affection
I now realize that this prayer for God-centered thankfulness should have continued daily through today and beyond, for in the time since my grief I have unknowingly returned to a form of gratitude that is more inspired by my affection for my blessings than my affection for God. (It is no small “coincidence” that my understanding of gratitude was far more God-centered in a time I was stripped of joy in worldly things).
You see, I absolutely believe it is possible for well-intentioned gratitude to our God to be nothing more than a feel-good exercise that identifies the idols in our lives and celebrates things like pride, greed, and entitlement. My fear that I am trying to express in these posts is that this form of well-intentioned gratitude may be more present in our daily lives than we have acknowledged, and following the five simple steps toward gratitude listed above might be a welcoming gateway to this end.
Now I have to be honest with you and say that I am still heavily tangled in my thoughts on this topic and struggling to articulate the uneasiness in my mind as of late. I’m realizing that this struggle in my spirit has much less to do with what it really means to give thanks, because the basic definition of “gratitude” is clear enough for me to swallow: the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Take that definition and point it towards God at all times and I think we have a winner for the answer to our basic question.
The struggle in my understanding, I am realizing, is the part where I distinguish whether my appreciation for God’s kindness and desire to return kindness (through acts of worship), is truly pointed in the right direction and divinely inspired. My questions that I am now asking have much more to do with the motivation & inspiration of our thankfulness, the direction our thankfulness sends our worship and affection, and the possibility that we as Christians are still so thankful for STUFF that we are distracted from the glory of God and the intended object of our worship and affection.
So God has been prodding me to evaluate my gratitude, and it’s led me to ponder these questions:
- When I give thanks to God for my blessings, what is the object of my affection? Is it Christ, or the blessing itself?
- When I give thanks to God for a particular blessing, does it stir in me affection for the God who provided it and inspire a heart of Gospel-centered worship? Or does it stir in me greater affection for the blessing and inspire deeper worship of an idol?
- If my gratitude is truly birthed out of my appreciation and affection towards the God of my salvation, is there any room for affection toward the good things of this world?
- If my gratitude is truly birthed out of my appreciation and affection towards the God of my salvation, where is the evidence that I desire to return it all to Him in humble gratitude?
- Is it possible that by naming the things in this world I am thankful for with misplaced affection, I am cooperatively following distraction after distraction from the Gospel and evidence of God’s grace in my daily living?
- If I desire to be thankful in the same way the Apostle Paul demonstrated thankfulness, or even Job, in the midst of every trial and long-suffering, is it possible that the way there is actually far LESS gratitude (and affection) for the things of this world, and instead a clearer picture of the greatness of God in contrast to the total depravity of humanity (which will inspire an irresistible need to give thanks)?
In many cases, the answers to these questions lead me to conclude that more often than not, my gratitude is pointing in the wrong direction.
A Point…At Last
I’ve said a lot here, none of which seems to stick to the plan for what I intended to write, and much of it that may be extraneous in the points I have tried to communicate. I find myself praying God will give you more clarity than he has given me as you attempt to read through all of this. If I have lost you in my trail of thought, please feel free to ask questions, though as I said above I am still lacking complete clarity here. If nothing else, I hope it has challenged you to think deeper.
The point that I have landed on in all of this thinking, praying, and Bible reading in recent days is nothing new or profound to people of faith. I’m simply putting my own words to a message you’ve heard time and time again:
Everything righteous before God is inspired, sustained, and will be delivered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any human effort to do good must be centered on Christ, fueled by Christ, and surrendered to Christ, including the act of giving thanks. Anything short of that is missing the mark, and it is therefore sinful.
My concern is that we (I) have somehow separated the command to give thanks to God in all things and all circumstances from the vital presence and focus of the Gospel in that gratitude. In some ways we have allowed our obedience to this command to go unrestrained by the truth of the Gospel and our need for it even in the midst of our obedient acts. John Piper once mentioned at a Together for the Gospel conference that as sinful people, we even need to repent for our imperfect repentance (paraphrased). His message was clear, that even when we try our best to do what is good, we are still falling short and need more grace. I have been falling drastically short in my gratitude.
As we continue to lift up words of thankfulness and praise to the Lord this holiday weekend and every other day of the year, my desire is not only that we be truly thankful in our hearts, but that our gratitude is based on the Gospel and the evidence of God’s grace in every moment. I also hope to be discerning with my gratitude, and careful to not let it lead me toward worship of anything other than God himself.
Dare I suggest that the single most important thing we as Christians need to do every single day to cultivate a truly thankful heart is not specifically thank God for all of our individual blessings, but rather to grow deeper in our knowledge of and affection for the Gospel and of the God of our salvation. The natural outpouring of a heart focused on the majesty of God himself will be gratitude, gratitude undistracted by the abundance of fleeting blessings in our lives, gratitude that inspires deeper affection for our Heavenly Father and blurs our affection for the things of this world.
If we are fully saturated by thoughts inspired by the Gospel, is there really a need to seek out reasons to be thankful?
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