There are two ways to be thankful, and one of them is deadly.
On the surface all thankfulness sounds good, but the path we take toward thankful words makes all the difference. The deadly path is gratitude based upon the lack of others. We look around and discover our place on the scale of good luck and think, “I’m glad I’m better off than them.” This is thanksgiving relative to someone else’s situation in life. It is Relative Thankfulness.
Relative thankfulness sees the world as a zero-sum game. It’s grateful the score is tilted in its favor. Perhaps you’ve heard the sound: “There are so many people struggling, but thank goodness I’m not among them.” Relative thankfulness has a thousand expressions: “we have bounteous table in a world where so many are hungry; I got the promotion over the other five candidates; I may have only one pair of shoes, but there are people in the world with no feet.”
Tune your ear to its nuance: the sound of relative thankfulness is everywhere, even in the houses of the holy: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:10-11) After praying prayers of relative thankfulness we discover we’ve only been talking to ourselves. We also find ourselves ranking the other people at the temple.
But there is a path that leads to life, thanksgiving that enters the gates of God’s estate. Healthy thanksgiving is absolute. Without qualification. It has no need to look about. Absolute thanks focuses on the Giver and the gift. Absolute thanks understands that the gift says everything about the Giver—and next to nothing about the one who receives it, other than the receiver is the object of perfect love. Relative thankfulness looks around; absolute thanks looks up. Absolute thanks yearns for everyone to know such joy. Absolute thanks is the little boy who hits a home run, and wishes every other boy on the team will get the same chance to experience the thrill of taking the victory lap.
Here is the danger, the destination, of relative thankfulness: it is tempted confuse the goodness of God with the goodness of the recipient. Relative thankfulness has favorite verses in the Bible: “Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.” Or, “No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” And as true as these verses are, relative thankfulness thinks the kindness and mercy of God somehow validates its own lifestyle. From there it’s only a short step to wondering out loud why in heaven’s name God would show kindness to others or why the rain would fall on the unjust as well as the just. It is dangerously close to envying the good fortune of others. It is incapable of rejoicing with others, or mourning with those who weep.
When the scripture reminds us of gratitude that leads to life, let’s turn our gaze where it belongs, and discover again the pure joy of absolute thanks.
Nothing quite ruins a fancy dinner like an hysterical woman. Polite conversation continues while we all pretend not to notice. Then someone finally speaks up because her behavior is unacceptable. It happened one night when a man named Simon, a proper and meticulous Pharisee, invited Jesus to dinner.
Before we jump to the story, imagine the circumstances before the dinner party began. Simon, a man who respected the law of God, had made plans to be the host. He probably had a personal agenda as well: you don’t invite a celebrity to your house without thinking through the topics of conversation. You try to anticipate all the details in advance and put your best foot forward. Simon instructed his servants to pay attention to every detail.
But then someone slipped past Security and began to make a scene:
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. (Luke 7:36-38)
Perhaps you know the story. Simon recognizes the woman as a sinner from the streets of the city. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” But it doesn’t take a prophet to see someone’s sin and label them as such. The true prophet seated at the table saw something else: the beauty of a changed heart and the seed of loving gratitude taking deep root.
Simon saw a dinner party ruined. Jesus saw a life in repair. He saw the contrast between those who think they have it all under control and those who know for certain they do not. Jesus saw the difference between one person striving to avoid the label “Sinner,” and one who saw that same label as a path to freedom.
The irony of the whole affair is that we would never remember the dinner party if it had gone perfectly. What makes the story worth telling again and again is how everything went wrong in the best possible way. Like that other time when four strangers tore a hole in Peter’s roof, or that time when Jesus ruined a perfectly planned funeral by stepping into the procession and raising the widow’s son. It seems interruptions followed whenever Jesus went—or is it that he himself is the Great Interruption?
That night, at Simon’s place, the interruption was forgiveness. Forgiveness is always an interruption—it interrupts our carefully planned party, our comfortable patterns of thinking. It interrupts the way we have structured our world into good guys and bad guys, into us and them. Forgiveness is Jesus’s preferred scandal. Forgiveness is the uninvited guest who makes a mockery of the fine china of our lives. We can choose between keeping the china in a fancy cabinet, using it only when we pretend everything’s at its best, or smashing the plates and making a mosaic of the shards of our messed-up lives.
Forgiveness cares nothing for etiquette and everything for the gauche. The secret beauty of forgiveness is it’s only available to the sinner.
Jesus speaks forgiveness to the mess and the refuse of all that’s ugly in our lives. His words become the stuff of stories told centuries later, like the time that woman broke in and ruined a dinner party. We should be so lucky to have our plans ruined again today.
Thank You for what You’ve done,
Thank You for what You’re doing,
Thank You for what You will do.
This simple prayer is taking root in me, teaching me the deep wisdom of gratitude, and changing my life.
Each morning, after the alarm goes off—but before my feet swing out of bed and stand me up—I take just ten minutes to pray and think through this prayer. Ten minutes well spent: better than the snooze button; better than a to-do list. James Bryan Smith observed that, upon waking, most believers turn their mind immediately to what must be done in the new day. He suggested starting each day with a meditation on the goodness of God. This prayer grew from his sound counsel.
Let me share what I’ve learned after a few months of this discipline:
Daily gratitude isn’t easy: it’s a life-skill we must learn. Anyone can recite the major blessings of their life if they are called upon to do so every once in a while. But the daily practice of thankfulness either becomes dull via repetition or a mere formula we rush through before we move on to the next task. Unless we apply ourselves to the substance of the prayer: can we develop the skill to discover God’s goodness day-by-day? My ten-minute morning prayer exercise has begun to sharpen my awareness of God’s mercies, which after all, are new every morning. As I go about my day I try to gather up in my memory the Father’s small kindnesses—and I’ve discovered there are hundreds each day! But we only find those things we are looking for.
His goodness is not random; it’s the current of his presence. This simple prayer urges me to connect yesterday with today, and to anticipate God’s works tomorrow, before they have even happened. Have you ever played this game: “What did I have for lunch yesterday?” In many cases it’s hard to recall. So it is with the thousand kindnesses we are shown each day. But our memories can be trained to reach backward 24 hours and savor the fragrance of small graces we consumed yesterday. The yesterday portion of this prayer exercise primes the pump of gratitude for the new day: we know our schedule, and we know our tasks; what we somehow fail to know is that God’s goodness is infused in these daily activities. When we thank him for what he is doing today we are reminded not only that he is good, but also that he is with us. We begin to realize with the Psalmist, “as for me, the nearness of God is my good.” (73:28)
Finally, we can experience breakthrough for what is yet to come. Too often we imprison gratitude in the past. The long-term effect of this choice is the subtle idea that his goodness is behind us and the only thing ahead is worry. Anxiety is nearly always pointed toward the future—why not replace it with thankfulness for what God is going to do? In my personal experience I have found this to be a remarkable antidote to fear. When I’ve remembered his goodness in the past, and seen his goodness today, it’s but a small step to realize that his faithfulness extends forward, forever.
But this prayer is an exercise. At first it seems forced or clumsy, or perhaps even lame. Intellectual agreement (for instance, by merely reading a blog post) is not enough: we enter into a lifestyle of gratitude through intentionality and practice. You will, no doubt, adapt the three prayer steps to your own situation. But after a few weeks of trial and error, you will discover a new spring of life—and I am thankful for what he will do in you!
Grace to you all, and peace!
Jesus said some pretty outrageous things; sometimes you just have to wonder if he was serious. Maybe when we see him face-to-face he might say, “Oh, the Sermon the Mount? I was just yanking your chain.” Or not. Perhaps he meant what he said.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
These words are a crazy combination of challenge and promise. The promise is perhaps a negative: each day comes with just enough trouble. It’s not the sort of promise you’ll find in a book of Bible promises or some promise-a-day software. The challenge is that Jesus suggests tomorrow isn’t worth the worry. Really? How, then, can I prepare?
These words from Jesus are an invitation to exercise the discipline of the present moment.
Each of us lives one day at a time. Rich or poor, young or old, we all experience time in a sequence of days. We cannot jump ahead by a day or a year. We cannot recreate the past, as in the movie “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray, a self-centered fool, is given the opportunity to live the same day over (and over and over) until he gets it right. No: the days march by in line, one after another.
Who came up with such an arrangement? Well, God did. Although he lives outside of time, he set the cosmos in motion, and in so doing, set us into a world of time. “So what?” we are tempted to think--until we consider that God looked upon all of his creation and said, "It’s good. It’s very good.” The goodness of creation reveals that the daily march of our lives, the day-upon-day progression of life, was set up by a wise and loving Father. He created time for our good. He created the daily, but we have added the grind.
Still, many of us feel trapped in the present moment. Our past has hemmed us in: we think our foolish choices have brought us this far and the present moment feels like prison. Others look forward from this present day and conclude the path of our lives is already set. Forces are in motion, we think. The future has been determined by past events. We begin to think our own lives are beyond control.
We’re not alone in these thoughts. Some of the greatest men of faith had remarkably bad days. Days in which they felt captured by the past or faced an uncertain future. Moses must have been having a really bad day when he began to pray the prayer in Psalm 90. Moses observed that God lives forever, and we are lucky to hit eighty years. Everything dies. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Moses must’ve been a real buzz kill at parties.
Then the Spirit of God hinted at what Jesus would teach years later: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:14) Moses began to get the message. The final verses of this Psalm/prayer begin to look up. God’s mercies are not yesterday’s mercies, nor are they a pipe dream for tomorrow. They're here now. In the present moment. There are new mercies for each new morning.
I like to imagine Jesus reciting Psalm 90 while he walked in the Galilean countryside. I can see him watching plants putting forth flowers, birds finding food, feeling the breeze on his cheek. Jesus smiled: perhaps he wondered what Moses was getting so worked up about. Jesus launched a message about today. Today, he said, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in. Maybe it didn’t yesterday, who knows what will happen tomorrow, but the Spirit is bringing the righteousness, joy and peace of the Kingdom right now to those who hear and rejoice.
His words are a call to practice the discipline of the present moment. Jesus is not against the past: he encourages us to remember the past, but only so we can have confidence that God is with us today. What he did for others in the past he will do for us. He’s not against the future. Dave Ramsey can relax: I’m sure Jesus had a 401K-retirement account. But he wasn’t invested in the future; his investment was all in the now. It’s common sense to learn from the past; it’s dangerous to live there. It’s prudent to plan for the future; it will drive you crazy to try to control it.
So we’re left with the wisest, most radical, sanest advice ever given:
“Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Some secrets are safe—even when you tell them to others—because some secrets must be lived, rather than known.
I found just such a secret buried deep in a stack of letters from a man stuck in prison, the kind of prison where you had to provide your own food and clothing, which was a problem because you were in prison. If you were out of friends you were outta luck. The kind of prison where you sat before you went to trial, wondering if you were going to trial. The man in prison had been beaten, healed, scarred, and beaten again. Shipwrecked three times, and far from home. Still, he had a secret, and he shared it with his friends:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:11-12)
This man, Paul, a follower of Jesus, was falsely accused and in prison awaiting trial for more than a year. He had discovered the secret of contentment. Can you imagine yourself, in the midst of all those circumstances Paul faced, content?
Contentment is perhaps even more of a secret today because the Western world is locked up in its own striving and appetites, wholly unaware of its blessings. Can we hear Paul’s whisper through the clamor of consumerism today? Consider just a few insights into his secret:
§ Contentment does not depend on circumstances: Paul could be content in the midst of plenty or little. In the Western world plenty is not enough: we are a people who cannot be at rest even when we are surrounded by every comfort.
§ Contentment does not mean giving up: Paul still had places to go and things to do. He was not a fatalist who accepted every event in his life as the final word. Yet even when he faced obstacles and frustration he found contentment within.
§ Contentment is not the result of positive thinking: There’s an old story about the child given a pile of horse manure for his birthday: he joyfully grabbed a shovel and said, “there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!” Not so. Sometimes there is no pony: life simply covers us with dung. The danger of positive thinking is that it comes from our own strength, and eventually that resource runs dry.
The secret of contentment runs deeper. It’s born out of relationship to an unchanging person and his unshakable kingdom. Let’s tune our ears and listen to the man in prison. His words are like a treasure map: hearing the secret is not enough; it must be discovered. It must be lived. At the end of the search we will discover ourselves to be the kind of people so in tune with the Kingdom of God that we can navigate difficult times, supplied not only with strength, but also peace.