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November 21, 2012


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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10 comments

Great exposition, Matt+.  It leaves nothing out that should be included, and adds nothing extraneous to the faith.  If only the masses had ears to hear!

Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] Posted by Fr. Chip, SF on 11-21-2012 at 09:52 AM · [top]

Matt,

Nicely done.  The “prayer of thanks” you may have in mind is the one delievered by Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shennodoah.  What’s interesting is that as the movie progresses and a rather idylliac life begins to fall apart, the character played by Stewart is humbled such that the ending reflects true gratitude for a resolution he did not “work with his own hands”.  I would note that the movie both begins and ends in a church!

[2] Posted by carl+ on 11-21-2012 at 09:59 AM · [top]

Excellent reflection.

[3] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 11-21-2012 at 10:05 AM · [top]

@ Undergroundpewster I second that.


As for my direct response to this post…


I think are some unique aspects of Christianity that only become clear when it is compared to other religions. For instance, this Christian take on gratitude only became clear to me when I spent a lot of time on Islamic discussion boards following 9/11. I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me otherwise if I wasn’t re-assessing Christianity in light of what I was learning about Islam.

This was all prior to my actual conversion Christianity as opposed to the nominal faith I held before that. I vividly remember one moment that in the end was crucial to my conversion. I had been struggling to define just what was different and superior about Christianity in response to the easy confidence of Muslims as to what was different and superior about their religion (They really do a better job of teaching this than Christians do). Then I read a comment from a nominally Christian man who was seriously considering converting to Islam. His main criticism was that if it was true that Jesus did all the work of earning our salvation, then what motivation was there to do good works. He thought Islam’s teaching that we earn our salvation through good works was more logical and attuned to human nature ie we respond to the promise of reward and do not respond in its absence.

I struggled with how to respond to that and that is when it became clear to me that the Christian motivation for good works was gratitude for a gift already given. As I thought about it I realized that this was by far the better motivator on many levels most especially in light of the purity of the response. When we do something in order to get a reward for ourselves, that response is tainted by self-interest. When we respond out of gratitude for a reprieve we do not deserve, our actions flow from the same place that love originates as love is focused on the other. This difference, ideally, makes it possible for the Christian’s good works to be about others instead of about ourselves.  Whats-more,  it is the only way to separate good works from self-interest. This is indeed powerful stuff, an idea that we selfish humans could not invent.

I posted my response to this effect on the board and they were promptly deleted without explanation! Haha

Thus my point in telling this long story. I think that, in spite of my overall ignorance, I scored a direct hit with that comment (It was my only comment in defense of Christianity that was ever deleted from that board). For anyone interested in outreach to Muslims I would say that this line of argument could be a real difference maker.

[4] Posted by StayinAnglican on 11-23-2012 at 02:11 PM · [top]

PS. I think that when we are given a gift that we do not deserve that it shocks us out of ourselves. We then turn to the giver and our hearts shout for joy “How wonderful you are!” How much more Wonderful is God the Giver of our salvation!

[5] Posted by StayinAnglican on 11-23-2012 at 02:22 PM · [top]

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119683/quotes?qt=qt0255229

Early on in Les Miserables (movie, 1998), the Bishop takes in John Valjean a homeless convict.  He feeds him and then sends him on his way.  When the Bishop and his wife are asleep, Valjean returns, breaks into their living quarters and begins stealing valuables.  The next morning the French gendarmes have captured Valjean and bring him to the Bishop asking if he stole the Bishop’s items.  At which point the Bishop says, “No he didn’t steal my valuables, I gave them to him,” and then he begins to find more valuables and says, “you forgot this.”  Once the gendarmes release custody of Valjean what follows is:

Bishop: Now Don’t Forget, Don’t ever Forget, you’ve promised to become a new man.
Jean Valjean: Promise? Wha, Why are you doing this?
Bishop: Jean Valjean my brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.

So, in keeping with your piece, the Bishop is trying to show Valjean gratitude?

[6] Posted by Seanny Rotten on 11-25-2012 at 01:32 AM · [top]

Excellent reflection, Matt+. Not a bit surprised at your theme. However, were any of the Christians there surprised at your thoughts on gratitude? You are so right. Many people believe that the Christian life is exactly as you describe:

“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.”

Yet, the Christian life and the True Gospel are soooo different from that attitude. I wonder how many realize that? Have you received any interesting e-mails from the people who were there?

[7] Posted by SC blu cat lady on 11-26-2012 at 07:20 AM · [top]

#4 and5- StayinAnglican,
Thanks for that story of how you came to realize that the greatest gift of all is what Christ did for us on the cross. Christianity does not really make sense until you can understand and then receive that gift. Until that time is all about “fussing” as Bishop Allison would say.

If any of you have read Bishop Allison’s book, Trust in an age of Arrogance, you know that he call this self striving and salvation-by-works philosophy- the yeast of the Pharisees. In that book, Bishop Allison goes on to explain how many denominations have been infected by this destructive yeast of the Pharisees. He starts with an entire chapter about Anglican “Pharisees” then goes to describe the tendency in the Roman Catholic Church and other Protestant denominations. Oddly, he does not mention the Moravians as having this “yeast”. It was a Moravian who set John Wesley on the right path.

Bishop Allison’s book is the antidote to this self-striving/salvation-by-good-works attitude. I highly recommend it!

[8] Posted by SC blu cat lady on 11-26-2012 at 07:34 AM · [top]

As the pastor who officiated at my wedding put it - “Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.”

[9] Posted by AnglicanXn on 11-26-2012 at 09:42 PM · [top]

Well said, AnglicanXn.
All, I should clarify something. Only the cross is the antidote to the self-striving/salvation-by-good-works attitude.  Bishop Allison’s book is an excellent introduction to how this “yeast of the Pharisees” has “infected” many individual Christians and several denominations.  I still highly recommend the book!

[10] Posted by SC blu cat lady on 11-27-2012 at 10:46 AM · [top]

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