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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Power of Gratitude

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5)


Black Friday. While I write this in the safety of my office, the mobs are in the streets, filling shopping malls, or doing that slow drive behind other shoppers heading to their cars, hoping to get their parking space. They'll come home with car trunks loaded with presents for family and friends, and maybe a little something for themselves tucked in as well. And then the analysts will tell us what we bought, and if we bought enough, and what all that means for our economy.

Wasn't there a time when our economy depended more on what we produced and less on what we bought?

A lot of the Black Friday shoppers sat at full tables yesterday, letting very few serving platters get by untouched. That's kind of what Thanksgiving is in America, circa 2010: we eat more than we probably ought to, and buy more than we can probably afford. Oh, and watch more football than ought to be humanly possible. Was Tom Brady somehow playing for the Jets last night, or did I just get mixed up?

I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, though. There's something good about celebrating when we have plenty. I don't think it's immoral to overeat while celebrating with friends and family, or overspend on gifts for those we love. I doubt I'm alone in feeling that way, but the church hasn't always shared that opinion.

The church has historically had a mixed opinion at best on overindulgence. In some times, and in some places, Christians have taken a decidedly more ascetic stance toward things like food, money, and entertainment. There's a reason for that, too: overindulgence can bring out the worst in people. We aren't always good at distinguishing “want” from “need” in the best of circumstances, and when we get used to always reaching for a double handful of whatever we want at the moment, there are consequences in terms of relationships, spirituality, and even physical health. Take, for example, the 27-year-old woman from Long Beach, California, who was quoted by the LA Times today as she waited in line at Toys R Us to buy Barbies for her daughters.

“We are in it to win it,” she said. “Go hard or go home.”

For Barbies. I hope I don't get between her and whatever else she might want.

But despite the human inclination to confuse “want” and “need,” I don't think the answer is to avoid every want and deny or delay every need. Contrary to the impression the church may have given at times, Christianity isn't all about the denial or avoidance of human wishes and desires. Oh, there are times when devotion to Jesus will require us to say “no” to ourselves. But there have always been those who take that reality and twist it into a rule that all wishes and desires are always bad, as if “physical” equals “evil.” And that's as dangerous, probably, as the undisciplined fulfillment of every desire.

In reality, the Biblical writers all affirm in one way or another that God's physical creation is good, and that it is a mistake to sharply distinguish “physical” from “spiritual.” God called his creation “good,” and that includes human beings with their needs for food, sex, and companionship. He created the world around us to be enjoyed, its plants and animals to be eaten as food. It's because of him that we can create art and music, or earn money, or dance, or be intimate with our spouses, or appreciate a gourmet entree or a fine wine. And just because all of those things can be twisted and used in ways that he never intended doesn't mean that we should feel compelled to always avoid them.

Part of the fallenness of human beings is that we can find ways to twist and deface the best of God's creation. Part of the glory of God is that he always finds ways to redeem it.

So how do we enjoy the good things of the physical world that God created, without worshipping them or making attaining more and more of them the chief end of our lives? Well, I'm thinking of our dog, Isaiah. Last night, after we finished our Thanksgiving meal, he got a nice treat: one of our turkey's leg bones. He took it out into the yard and had a wonderful time with it.

And then he came back in and whined for more.

No gratitude. He didn't lick my hand to say, “Hey, thanks for the bone. It was great.” He got what he wanted, but as soon as it was gone he was figuring out how to get more.

I expect that from a dog, but human beings have a greater capacity for gratitude.

And that's how we can appreciate the good things God gives us without making them what our lives are all about. It's very simple: we say “thank you.” We show gratitude to the God who gives us so many good things, and we show gratitude to the people through whom he often gives them. “Everything God created is good,” wrote Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5, emphasis mine)

You'll have a hard time living as if you're entitled to the blessings you have if you cultivate the habit of being thankful. You'll be less likely to misuse the good things God has created if you often say “thank you” to him. Get used to being grateful, and you'll be more likely to share what you have with those who don't have. Remember to thank God often, and you'll also remember that your desires and wishes are not God.

And if thanking God for what you're doing or enjoying seems somehow out of place, or makes you uncomfortable, then it's a good bet that what you're doing or enjoying is a misuse of his blessings.

Enjoy what God has given you. Indulge in a little extra, from time to time; there are occasions in which to throw moderation to the wind. But never forget from Whom those blessings come. Remember to be thankful. Remember to worship the Creator of all the good things you've been given.

And, next time you're shopping, be extra careful around the Barbie shelf.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

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