The old sports-related saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” I think there’s a spiritual correlation, too. It’s not about whether or not my trust in God’s goodness is rewarded with personal victories over temptations to sin but whether or not I’m being grateful for everything He puts in my path, including obstacles that can cause defeats. Brennan Manning wrote, “The foremost quality of a trusting disciple is gratefulness. Gratitude arises from the lived perception, evaluation, and acceptance of all of life as grace – as an undeserved and unearned gift from the Father’s hand. Such recognition is itself the work of grace, and acceptance of the gift is implicitly an acknowledgement of the Giver.” A while back I was concerned about the quality of my prayer life and needed tips on ways to improve it. I purchased Larry Crabb’s insightful book, “The PAPA Prayer”, and it helped a lot. Something I’d been leaving out of my God-time was expressing sincere thanks for the many favors He grants to me, my family and friends. He wrote, “Our relationship with and worship of God lead us to prayers of thanksgiving, for Him and for all His blessings. It should be noted that only when we’re first overwhelmed with who God is can we be properly thankful for what He provides. Skip over prayers of relating and worship, and a hint of shallow, silly entitlement slips into our gratitude. Efforts to worship God without first getting to know Him tend to reduce worship to mere appreciation when God cooperates with our agendas.”
One of the fundamental things we should all be grateful for is our very existence. It’s important to remember that God didn’t have to create any of us. The decision of “to be or not to be” was not ours to make. Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher who authored many profound essays. In one he tells of a day when he found himself – a world-renowned, seventy-seven year old sage – skipping across a hilltop in Toulouse and shouting to the heavens, “I’m alive; I’m alive!” He confessed to having received a sudden and utterly surprising epiphany about the gift of life, the joy of being invested with existence, the privilege of being rather than not being. He said he sank to his knees whispering words of praise and thanksgiving. Now, God doesn’t require anybody to run to the nearest park or meadow and imitate Maritain’s unabashed display of sheer ecstasy but surely we can thank Him for allowing us to breathe in and out. In doing so we may rediscover what a gift we’ve been given – the one we too often take for granted – and revive the spirit of gratefulness we’ve been hoarding like some kind of paranoid Silas Marner. We must remind ourselves that the third person of the Holy Trinity literally lives inside us to not only heal our wounds but to help Jesus’ immensely encouraging words, “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10) glow in our psyches like a fluorescent neon sign.
A few days ago my family celebrated the first birthday of my grandson, Jensen. It was a joy to watch him, his cup running over with the gift of life, toddle around the room with a huge grin on his dimpled face that excitedly exclaimed, “Check me out. I am! And it’s so amazing to be alive!” The graveyards are saturated with the ashes of people who’d give anything to be alive again and have one more chance to worship the God they ignored while walking this earth. When someone says, “I didn’t ask to be born!” I wonder if they savvy what that statement implies because without God they never would’ve known a single nanosecond of love, kindness or beauty. They’d be a nonentity, unsubstantial as the ether between celestial orbs and would’ve never entertained a single thought, good or bad. That’s why suicide is the saddest demise of all because of what the self-victimizing human voluntarily gives away. They overlook the miracle of life completely. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “We need only to know who and what we really are to break into spontaneous praise and thanksgiving.” Disjointed, confused and messy though we may be, an appreciative awareness of our uniqueness and awesome designation as an adored, adopted child of the God of the Universe, energized with the vitality injected into our souls by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, should overwhelm our self-pity and cause us to declare like David, “I thank you, Lord, for the wonder of myself” (Psalm 139:14). When we’re grateful we fertilize the seeds of trust. The ancient wisdom of Epicurus rings true centuries later: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
In his book, “The Saints Among Us,” the famous poll-taker and steadfast believer George Gallup Jr. stated he’d found true holiness to be most abundant among folks who lived where poverty, illiteracy and oppression thrived. When asked to explain that statistically-proven fact he said, “In many cases there are people who’ve known dire economic straits, yet their trust has enabled them to step outside their grim conditions and to find joy in life, so they run against the grain. The fact that they are downscale suggests that, though they’re burdened by economic problems, they’re not overcome by them. They’re more forgiving, more grateful and more likely to be unprejudiced, as well as twice as likely to be involved in outreach to neighbors, as persons at the lower end of the spiritual commitment scale. In other studies we’ve done, such as financial giving, we found that the poor give a larger proportion of their income to charity than the rich. Being surrounded by misery, they see opportunities to help on every side. The rich, especially now, with the widening gap between rich and poor, have a tendency to cordon themselves off and therefore don’t see much of the grimness of life.” Brings to mind the incident recorded in Mark 12:41-44, “Then he [Jesus] sat down opposite the offering box, and watched the crowd putting coins into it. Many rich people were throwing in large amounts. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny. He called his disciples and said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had.” The widow had what all the fat cats lacked – trust.
The broken-but-patched-up souls (of which I am one) who regularly attend Celebrate Recovery meetings may have money in the bank but are cognizant they’re plumb broke spiritually. Together we’ve come to understand what Jesus meant by “Happy are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:3). We experience happiness because we’ve discovered, through the safe fellowship the ministry provides, the kingdom of heaven is going to be populated by others just like us; folks who know they screw up daily and fall so short of holiness it ain’t even funny. We’ve put our trust, not in yet another 12-step program, but in a person who won’t turn us away – Jesus Christ. Manning wrote, “Underlying every cry of the grateful sinner is an unshaken trust in the person and promise of Jesus.” The authentic testimonies and applicable lessons we’re privileged to hear at our meetings give credence and weight to the Lord’s parables found in the New Testament. Stories that shine a light on the concept of amazing grace. The late-arriving vineyard workers who receive a full day’s pay (Matthew 20:1-6), the ostracized taxman whose repugnant life gets redeemed (Luke 18:10-14), the panhandlers and the physically handicapped who get seated at the head table of God’s scrumptious banquet (Luke 14:16-24), the repentant prodigal son returning to his dad whose unconditional forgiveness breaks all the rules of traditional, man-made religions (Luke 15:11-32). The hope those parables offer is like rain on parched, drought-stricken land and they urge us to trust without reservation in the awesome generosity of our Heavenly Father. What happens at CR is real. There are no judgmental, robed overseers stalking the room. No sentimental, hallelujah-shouting fanatics making a spectacle where none is needed. No finger-shaking legalists taking names and keeping score. Only sinners rejoicing in the knowledge they’re not battling iniquity alone, that they’re in the company of others who’ve acknowledged they need divine help to overcome their deficiencies.
I’m gonna stick my neck out here and say something radical. I’m grateful for sin. Say WHAT? You heard me. I’m grateful for sin. Why? Because when I saw firsthand how my sin had hurt my loved ones, how it was eroding my marriage and turning my heart coal black, my awakening to sin’s maliciousness made me turn to God. If sin hadn’t festered and grown in me to the point where I finally saw it as the hell-bent monster it is underneath its alluring mask I’d still be lost, chained to my own lustful desires. Thus, I’m grateful for sin making me spiritually sick enough to seek out the Master Physician at His hospital. Henri Nouwen wrote, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we’re only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we’d like to remember and those we’d rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we’ll soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.” As the song made popular by Rascal Flats expresses, “It’s all part of a grander plan that is coming true/God blessed the broken road that led me straight to You.”
One of the reasons we need to express our gratitude to God for His blessings in our prayers is that, otherwise, we’re prone to forget to offer Him thanks. We get so caught up in our busyness, hurts, hang-ups, habits and mindless distractions we don’t stop to be grateful. Our preoccupations with television shows, movies, sports teams, gossip, politics, etc. can cause us to put our Savior on the back burner with the heat off. There’s an old story about a determined truth-seeker who climbs a mountain to learn wisdom at the feet of a respected guru. The first question he asks the recluse is “What must I acquire to become fully enlightened?” The guru simply says, “Awareness.” The disciple ponders that for a while, then asks the guru to elaborate. The guru gives him a stern look and says, “Awareness, awareness, awareness!” When life gets rough and we start feeling the whole universe is conspiring against us it’s vital we pause and take note of God’s goodness as it manifests itself through a beautiful song on the radio, a patch of fragrant roses growing on the side of a featureless office complex, a smile from a friend, the majesty of a clear aqua blue sky, a mockingbird’s chortle, a spectacular sunset or sunrise. God proves his trustworthiness every day in hundreds of palpable ways. We simply need to train ourselves to be more aware of His glory in order to better show our gratefulness. What we’ll inevitably find is that our attitude of gratitude will be contagious. David Steindl-Rast said, “It is not joy that makes us grateful, it is gratitude that makes us joyful” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
But the point I want to get back to is that, by intentionally expressing our thanks to God, we feed and nourish our maturing trust in Him. G.K. Chesterton is credited with remarking that the worst moment for an atheist is when he/she feels grateful and there’s no one to thank. Jesus taught us over and over that we shouldn’t harbor any doubt about who to thank – the Father in heaven. Gratitude was the hallmark of Christ’s life while He was here on earth. In Luke 10:21 we find Him in front of a crowd of regular folks saying, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will.” We don’t even have to be specific. David sang in Psalm 107:1, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love is everlasting.” If we don’t exude an air of gratitude the dangerous trait we invite into our behavior is one of the least attractive of all – a grouchy countenance. Grumbling is an outcropping of self-induced stress and anxiety over unmet expectations. We start imitating the prodigal’s jealous older brother and the workers who’d been at it all day that resented the landowner who gave the latecomers the same wage they received. They aired their grievances openly about how unfair it all was, that they were underappreciated, that their boss was an insensitive jerk. Not unlike the old-school contingency who bellyache that upstart liberals are destroying the sanctity of the church and that conservatives aren’t being stern or incensed enough to shout them down and restore order. The griping ingrate concentrates on what’s wrong with civilization instead of emphasizing the blessing that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness is still freely available to all of mankind. We forget that the world Jesus and His apostles lived in was just as unethical, wicked and immoral as 21st century society. Yet Christ and those who followed His teachings always spent time every day thanking God for their daily bread even when it was in short supply. They prayed for the Roman occupiers who were making their lives miserable, attempting to corrupt and destroy everything they believed in. They conveyed to their Maker gratefulness that they weren’t made for this world and that someday they’d live forevermore sans all hardships in their true home, the kingdom of God.
There are some so beaten, bruised and battered by what’s happened to them or their loved ones in this life they may feel they have nothing to be grateful for at all. Just recently I’ve seen the disturbing news coverage of the refugee crisis going on in the Middle East and Europe. Millions of people left everything behind and are running for their lives out of fear of being devoured by the despicable forces of evil destroying everything in their path. I doubt that even the believers among the fleeing throngs would say they feel blessed right now. My heart goes out to them but despite their situation I know that, if they let Him, God will eventually turn their sorrows into gladness. Gratitude fertilizes the seeds of trust. Crabb wrote, “I yearn for you to know the Spirit of God has placed something alive and clean and good and whole in the heart of every Christian. We are now wonderful, unique, terrific people. The actual life of Christ is now in us, infused into the center of who we are, waiting to be poured out toward God in profound worship and toward others in healing grace. There is good stuff beneath the bad.” Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise to God at midnight while inhumanely shackled in a cold, unlit, rat-infested jail cell because they knew their trust in His goodness would be hollow unless they professed their gratitude for being granted another day of life in which they could spread the Good News of the Gospel to others. I’m sure they would’ve told you it was anything but easy to do that. Manning wrote, “To be grateful for unanswered prayer, to give thanks in a state of interior desolation, to trust in the love of God in the face of the marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life is to whisper a doxology in darkness.” May we all be so grateful.