Gratitude and the Christian
note: Last night I delivered the following reflection at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service including Armenian Orthodox, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists
Gratitude is a fundamentally Christian way of life. I don’t mean that Muslims, Buddhists or atheists never feel thankful. Obviously all humans experience gratitude.
But gratitude in its fullness is something that flows directly from the Christian gospel.
Let me explain.
I grew up in a fantastic Episcopal Church with wonderful Sunday School teachers who, I’m sure, taught me well so what I’m about to say has more to do with my listening than their teaching.
What I remember from Sunday school and, later, from sermons, and what I took with me to college was something like this:
“God sent Jesus to model the life we are supposed to lead. Christians are people who do good things like Jesus did. If we do, then God will reward us here and when we die and we will go to heaven whereas all the bad people will go to hell.”
How many grew up with similar understandings?
Most religious faiths, in fact, present paths very similar to the one I just articulated. A “way” is revealed by prophets, avatars, or gurus, that, if followed well and correctly, will lead you to some kind of reward. The rewards differ - heaven, nirvana, and/or enlightenment. And the paths differ - prayer, good works, and/or meditation. But the core idea: that you and I by following certain disciplines, rules, laws or precepts can by our own efforts ascend to some ultimate spiritual reward - is the same.
Human religion then is about human striving, and the human ability to reach, the divine.
Here’s where the gratitude problem comes in.
If you - through your own efforts and strivings - attain heaven, toward whom are you thankful?
I suppose you could “thank” God for revealing the “way” in the same way you might thank the clerk at Citgo who gives you a free roadmap - but the clerk does not drive your car or empower you to reach your destination. You are the one doing all the work.
The same is true with the sort of religion we’ve been speaking about. The only thanksgiving due is of the attenuated, “thanks for pointing the way” sort.
If you see the goods of this life and the next as the result of your ability to follow a path, achieve a height, then while you will on occasion feel thankful to God or whoever for laying out the steps necessary, the whole thing is your own doing.
This reminds me of a prayer I saw on some film, I think it was the Patriot by Mel Gibson but I could be wrong. It went something like this:
“Lord thank you for this bread and this meat set before us, even though it was my hands that planted the seed, my hands that fed the sheep, the sweat of my brow and the skill of my eye and the success of my plans that produced it.”
What place, ultimately, does Thanksgiving have if you are the one who accomplishes the task?
There is certainly room for feelings of accomplishment, self regard - but gratitude? Not so much.
But all of this, as I later learned, is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The New Testament presents no work by which or through which you attain the divine. The gospel is not: “Jesus did good, now do likewise and if you try hard and do well you’ll be let into heaven.”
The first principle of the gospel is that such an endeavor is impossible.
In Mark 10, a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and says: “Good teacher, How do I attain eternal life?”
Who remembers what Jesus says?
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Jesus was not denying his divinity. He was rather correcting the young man’s anthropology.
Human beings are not “good” and cannot be “good”.
You and I are morally powerless. If eternal reward depends on your capacity for moral rectitude and holiness, then you are hopeless and so am I.
Here’s how Paul puts it:
“You [speaking to Christians here] were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air…carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”(Eph 2:1-4)
That’s the human condition from God’s perspective. That is God’s diagnosis of our natural potential for good. We’re dead. Children of wrath. Dead men and woman are very limited in their ability to affect moral change.
“But God [two very beautiful words], being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”(Eph 2:4-9)
That last verse - and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God - sets Christianity apart from all man-made religion. Do you understand what that means? To be a Christian is to trust not in you, your own work, your goodness—all of that, as Paul says elsewhere is “rubbish”(although he uses a stronger word)—but forsaking hope in yourself, the Christian depends on, surrenders to, trusts in Jesus Christ who by himself did all the work required of you, on your behalf, and then bore the consequences of your sins on his cross.
He became sin for you so that you might become the righteousness of God.(2 Cor 5:21)
He did it not because we deserve it but precisely because we don’t and never can.
And so every step, every breath, every tasty morsel of food we eat everything we drink - the life of the Christian - is a life responding to, not earning or deserving, the love, mercy, blessing, and abundance of God.
Everything is unmerited, unearned, undeserved.
And so the Christian life is bathed in gratitude. It is not a life of ease and comfort…we were indeed “saved for good works” but we work to please God because he has given us all things in Jesus Christ, not so that he may do so, if all goes well, one day in the future. Ours is the sweat and toil of gratitude and joy.
Gratitude is the fundamentally Christian way of life.
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