Wednesday, January 6, 2016


My wife read an article over the weekend that sparked off a good conversation. From what she said, the author took to task an idea that seems, at face value, uncontroversial: The notion we should all actively cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

“Well, that’s just crazy,” I initially thought as Tabitha described the argument. After all, our church’s 2010 Thanksgiving focus was…Attitude of Gratitude. And I remember being quite proud of what we did in discussing said attitude for several weeks, praying for it, developing ideas for including more gratefulness into our routines. All that led to a successful collection of food and funds for people in need on Thanksgiving Sunday.

So what’s wrong with an attitude of gratitude?! “Honey,” I therefore considering saying, “You’re wrong!” Fortunately, I didn’t butt in immediately (this time) and let her finish. Turns out that the article didn’t critique thankfulness, per se. Rather, its target was a certain version of gratitude cultivation that’s become a bit too common in our culture.

And that is the use of gratitude to make us happy.

I’m sure you’ve heard a version of the following self-help advice: Instead of spending mental energy cataloging what you don’t have or why you’re upset, count your blessings and meditate on what you do have and why you’re grateful. That’s mostly good advice, I think. In fact, just last week I read another article that included gratitude in a list of health essentials. Alongside sleep, good eating and exercise, it counseled weekly time “contemplating what you’re thankful for.” That- it claimed- improves blood flow, energy and positive self-regard, all of which is apparently what we need to be happy over the long-term. And that’s our ultimate goal, isn’t it? Happiness…?

Well, sure. But not really. At least not exclusively, right? As Christians, Christ said to pray for “God’s Kingdom come on earth” (i.e. God’s reign of love and justice to rule in our lives and societies). Notably, that’s a prayer for not individual, but collective salvation.

In other words, focusing on our own happiness isn’t a bad thing; it’s just not the only thing. Indeed, the main thing for Jesus was that all life- including you!- have enough to live abundantly (John 10:10). Which isn’t the same as living luxuriously. But rather, that we a) yes, focus on blessings we have without obsessing over what we lack, yet also b) ensure that those who aren’t sharing in the world’s abundance get what they deserve as God’s beloved children.

Put plainly, an attitude of gratitude that’s solely concerned with what you have verges on selfishness. Which is ironic, since thankfulness done right should increase a person’s humility, amen?! It ought remind us of all the ways we’re dependent on others, on God, on luck for what gives us sustenance, what provides us joy. In turn, we should be more willing to share what we have since it isn’t all ours anyway. Our lives, rather, are gifts; from our ancestors, our neighbors, our Creator. As such, God calls us to be gifts to others, to be Jesus’ hands and feet.

So here’s my suggestion for cultivating a proper attitude of gratitude: Count your blessings while also thinking of others who could really use your time, your influence, your commitment so they don’t starve, so they’re less oppressed, so they’re not kept from their divine birthright of abundance.

Gratitude without compassion is vanity. But gratitude-inspired action has a staying power that just feeling bad for another’s plight can’t match. After all, if you’re regularly reminding yourself that- thankfully, by God’s grace- you have enough, you’re less likely to hoard your stuff or spend all your time keeping others away. Instead, you’ll stick beside a friend, say, as she slogs through another chemo treatment, or help a neighbor for the seventh time get back on his feet. Because that’s what grateful Christians do. We find happiness in helping others, in building the Kingdom of God.

How we each make that work, of course, depends on our unique situations. But I hope you’ll pray about, this week, using what you’re grateful for to make more a difference others.

Grace and Peace,
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