Giving Thanks — for God Is Good!
by William R. Matthews (November / December 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 6)
The sufficiency of gratitude
Such a spiritual waste to lament the supposed superiority of another's job, children, spouse, school, home, or physical body. Such a joy to celebrate what we have been given. In Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Only he who gives thanks for little things, receives the big things. We prevent God from giving to us the great spiritual gifts he has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts."1
Gratitude accepts each moment as gift. But made in God's image, graced with free will, I continually act as though I were creator and giver. Like Luther, it may take death to acknowledge I can do nothing except accept. "We are beggars; this is true."
According to Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. in Theology as Thanksgiving, the worship practice of ancient Jews was essentially todah, "...a thankful, recitative description of how God has chosen to redeem human life by being involved in human life."2 I am to be ever grateful for my long years, talent, energies, ambition, refusal to retreat, and especially my ability to love. Unfortunately, I often am not.
|When we can achieve this attitude-sufficient unto the day-then we have opened the best gift of all: a life free from worry or frustration. "I gave you this and this gift," says the Lord. "Use them to bring into being more love for me and my creation."|
The Garden of Eden-God's perfect environment for human beings-was never perfect enough. Human beings seem always to insist on "more." But holy living does not depend upon "how much" but upon "how well." Everyone is graced by talents. The true measure of gratitude is how I use what I have been given. In his book In Praise of Gratitude, Robert Raynolds insists: "Our time of life is now and our place of life is here. When we are not grateful we have no home in time or in place. When we are not grateful we have no home in the presence of God, and cannot love."3
I must turn my devotional life around to being grateful for and using what I do have rather than begging for what I don't have. Most things I crave, like Christmas toys, will be broken before nightfall or be put away at the back of the closet.
Grandsons Who Model
How much I have learned from my two deaf grandsons. I am grateful for their appealing personalities, their obvious happiness, the blessing they have become to all of us who know and love them. God loads me with gifts, more than I can exhaust in a single lifetime, and wants me to use them to the fullest. No back of the closet here. I must live as God's partner, doing my utmost to use my gifts.
Gratitude requires regular attention to vocation day by day. For me this means writing. For others it can mean striving for perfection by plastering, painting, teaching, or preaching. Human beings were created to contribute to the universe by using their talents. God leaves a lot up to all of us.
But how much I under-use my gifts, even as I lament life's insufficiencies. I forget that as God's partners human beings are responsible for much. After being led through the desert, the tribes reached the river bank and saw the Promised Land on the other bank. For 40 years God had fed and taken care of them, but here at the end they were on their own. God tells us every day: "Help each other to cross. Trust me; you will not drown." Raynolds writes, "Our true work is not alone, but work of I and Thou together, and if our word to one another be holy, then the work I and Thou do shall be hallowed in help of one another."4
The most simple, yet most profound biblical text on gratitude is found in Psalm 118: "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever." Humans don't usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment-a day, a week, a month-complaining that we never have enough time. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best, no worst hour. There is only now.
When we can achieve this attitude-sufficient unto the day-then we have opened the best gift of all: a life free from worry or frustration. Gracious gratitude means acceptance-a freeing of self from the trammels of time.
Starting with Mundane
I begin the journey to gratitude with the mundane: give praise for the simplest act, see in the most ordinary experience the bounty of God. How deep is my gratitude as I feel my wife Irene's hand seeking mine when we awaken each morning. How thankful I am for my clothing, for those people somewhere-probably women in the Orient-who have cut and sewn these things for my comfort. Where does what I take for granted in life come from? Meditation on that leaves nothing but gratitude.
The white toothpaste comes from the top of the tube. I am grateful my aged fingers are strong and flexible enough to grasp and twist off the cap and squeeze. Then I brush my teeth-the act itself a miracle. Because if I do it well, often, and regularly, I am spared discomfort in the dentist's chair. I go to breakfast and consider my bagel another spiritual gift. In the wilderness the Jews spread it with manna; now we both have cream cheese.
If we could spend a single day living in thankfulness for all the small and great things that occur in those 24 hours, we would surely be drawn closer to the giver of all gifts. God is a gracious giver. There is no way we can pick and choose. We are required to give all to the Lord, because he first gave all to us.
So I think about these gifts-simple and complex-having faith that they have been given for my best as God sees it, not necessarily as I see it. I will live from now on by two words: Be grateful. And I will let all else be added unto me, or not added unto me, in God's own time and according to God's own purposes regardless of what I think ought to happen. Most of life's misery comes from believing we don't have what we ought to have. A life lived in gracious gratitude for what we do have floods us with joy.
My part, of course, is to use the gifts of my human talents in love for the benefit of others. My prayer is one of thanksgiving that right now I can still help others, serve, and inspire them along the way to the Lord's dominion. As I write day by day, I am grateful for the confidence that as I do my part, so will God. So I work as hard as I can, meditate upon the words I write and the ideas they are to communicate, and asking for God's presence and guidance.
All that I face in life, all that is set before me to do, is God's challenge to me. "I gave you this and this gift," says the Lord. "Use them to bring into being more love for me and my creation."
William R. Matthews, an emeritus professor of English from Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a religious essayist from Harrisonburg, Virginia.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper, 1954), p. 29.
2. Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. Theology as Thanksgiving (New York: Seabury, 1981),
3. Robert Raynolds, In Praise of Gratitude (New York: Harper, 1961), p. 111.
4. Ibid., p. 103.