Okay, go ahead and file this one under “iffy”. I’m typing this without a clear sense of “conviction” per se; but rather a “what if it’s possible” or “let’s think about this” type of feeling. In other words, I’m not sure I’d be willing to die on the hill of the words I’m conveying. At least not yet. That might sound weak or indecisive to you, but if you’ve read this far you might be willing to go a bit farther into what’s coming in the next few paragraphs.
We’re in the 2nd week of November, and that means that the smells of stuffing, gravy, and turkey are beginning to waft through the neurons and synapses of my brain. I love Thanksgiving. It’s such a magnificent holiday that I think doesn’t get its due shake. It’s often sandwiched between the hub-bub of Halloween and the hustle-bustle of Christmas. Some view it as nothing more than the starter’s pistol of the holiday shopping season. And by the looks of the crazy glazed-over eyes of those in line at 2 am outside Target (I know because I’ve been there), we’re not too far off.
So, with Thanksgiving comes the idea of giving thanks. But is there a wrong kind of thankfulness? I believe there is, and I want to cite an instance Jesus talked about. But before I do that, I want to share an insight I’ve picked up from the wide range of “mission” trips I’ve been on (and I’m leaving for another one in just a few days).
I’m a youth pastor. I spend a huge chunk of my everyday existence thinking about, communicating with, counseling, praying for, and loving teenagers and my stellar team of adult leaders. And at least a couple times a year I take teens on a trip, often out of the country. When we go to another culture, its usually one that is impoverished, a place where we can do something helpful–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the exposed and homeless, and lots of other activities that hopefully leave a place better off than when we arrived. And to me, a “mission” trip is only as successful as the difference it makes not just “over there” in that distant land, but “right here” in my heart. A difference that is reflected in my priorities, my passions, and sense of purpose in life long after the trip is over. If there isn’t a change in me, then I feel I’ve missed a big part of the point of the trip. Of course, we still did good things over there, but does it make any difference after the luggage is unpacked, the jet lag is subsided, and the routine is restored?
More often than not, when I ask students what difference the trip has made in their lives, I get a recurring response. A response that goes a little something like this: “What did I get from going on this trip? Well, for sure I’m going to be more thankful for the nice stuff I have (that these people don’t have). I’m going to be thankful for the food in the fridge, and the clothes in the closet, and the bed I don’t have to share with my family.”
Now, I’d be nuts to say that hearing an American teenager say such things isn’t a wonderfully remarkable thing. It is. But what I’m getting at is the idea that a thankfulness that is thankful for me being better off than you isn’t quite the thankfulness that the Bible teaches. It’s a starting point to be sure, and I truly don’t believe that the students who have it are wrong, or bad, or anything close to that.
Let’s take a look at Luke 18, verses 10 & 11:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.'”
Now, clearly in verse 11 we see a “bad gratitude” exhibited by the Pharisee. It’s a thankfulness that’s only present because there’s someone worse off than him. It’s a thankfulness that does nothing more than acknowledging that we’re not as bad off as others. So, how do we foster a genuine thankfulness? Let’s look at the tax collector’s prayer in verse 13:
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
First of all, thankfulness MUST be unhinged from any/every other contingent and external reality. Thankfulness ought to be independent of anyone we know or anything we have. Thankfulness is first between God and me. That is the start of a right heart of gratitude. Certainly we can and should be thankful for what we have and the people in our lives. But when we attach our thankfulness to things and people, where are we left when those things and people are not around, or even gone from our lives? The tax collector in verse 13 made no comparison to those around him as the Pharisee did. His focus was on his own depravity, and the merciful grace of God who accepted him, justified him, and loved him right where he was. His humility was such that it would not allow him to even lift his head heavenward. And I’d dare say that between the lines of that verse, we see a piercing gratitude–a gratitude that stands alone, separate from anything God has done–focused only on who God is.
A simple question to gauge our gratitude would be: If I lost every possession and every person I hold dear, what would happen to my view of God, His goodness, and His presence? Don’t think I think that’s an easy question to ask or answer. I certainly know that it’s not. But I think that a gratitude that is detached from what I possess demands such a hard-hitting introspection.
As we approach this Thanksgiving season, may we be a people who most definitely hold dear and are grateful for all the good things and relationships that we enjoy. But may we also find within ourselves the willingness and courage to stand in gratitude to God even when those other things aren’t there.
As always, I welcome your thoughts or comments on this issue. How do you approach Thanksgiving? What do you most commonly thank God for? Is it possible to separate thankfulness from what we’re thankful for (that question even sounds crazy)? Have I completely lost it?
Thanks for reading.