Thursday, November 13, 2014

Two Modes of Thankfulness

"The One Who Showed Mercy"

Not every mode of thankfulness is to be applauded.

The most morally and spiritually inferior form of thankfulness is the one that sees a beggar on the street and thinks, "Thank God I am not like this beggar; that, while she does not have a roof over her head and food to eat, I do. And for this, I give thanks." This is hierarchical gratitude. One sees that there are people who have less than I, and this is accompanied by a feeling of gratitude for having more than they do.

"More than they do" means things like: more giftedness, more opportunity, more stuff, more money, more beauty, more experience, more square footage. The "prayer" that rises up to God out of one's place on the status-honor hierarchy sounds like: "Today, God, as we approach Thanksgiving Day, we know there are people who do not have food enough to eat. We see them on TV. We read about them on the internet. But we do have enough to eat. And we give You thanks."

That is Pharisaical thankfulness. It's a gratitude that grows in the soil of confidence in one's own righteousness.

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'  "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.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."" (Luke 18:9-14)

Pharisaical thankfulness is comparative, based on the idea that one's physical condition and circumstances indicate the approval or disapproval of God. The man born blind must have sinned, or at least his parents must have sinned. Thus, he deserves his blindness.
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself." This is a form of self-prayer that only makes sense on the honor-shame hierarchy. The occasion of thankfulness is someone else's infirmity. I see someone who has less than me, and I thank God that I am not them.

This is not true gratitude. Real thankfulness, having a thankful heart, comes out of one's relation to God and not to others. The core recognition is: I need God, and God's love came down and rescued me. This kind of praying says:

  • God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • You have had mercy on me!
  • Thank you God.
True thankfulness is a function of an awareness of one's own neediness and not that of others, and the realization that God has displayed and is displaying his mercy towards me. When you realize how in need of rescue you are, and rescue comes, you will inexorably feel thankful. Prayers of thanks then become passionate. One outcome of such a truly and purely thankful heart is the heart-desire to be used of God to rescue others rather than to look at them and feel good about your own self. There's no honor-shame hierarchy in the kingdom of God. We're all beggars in need of bread.

Thanksgiving Day is coming. Give thanks in the right direction and for the right reasons. We have a God who comes to us.