Friday, 15 October 2010
Hungry to Give Thanks
Giving thanks has become a cultural trend in America these days. I see it encouraged on social media and vaunted on talk shows. I hear it in the rise of “thankfully” as the adverb of choice for newscasters and rock stars. You might say we’ve become hungry to give thanks.
Out of all possible trends this one is better than most. It’s positive anyway, better than tossing bombs or sending hate mail. In fact positivity is the selling point. Giving thanks is being trumpeted as the best way to send positive energy into our world and into our lives. Gratitude is being heralded as an agent of change.
Becoming more thankful definitely produces benefits. You’ve probably experienced that personally. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher at the University of California at Davis highlights these ones:
- gratitude mitigates against consumerism. You focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have.
- gratitude encourages humility. The thing you’re thankful for came from outside you.
- gratitude benefits society. When we’re grateful we tend to “pay it forward,” and so does the person we thank.
- gratitude boosts our mood. It can fight depression, anger, anxiety and a host of other negative emotions.
All these are true, but at this point the emphasis has changed. Gratitude is seen as the emotion produced by giving thanks, not the act of giving thanks. We are now focused inward instead of outward. The original act, the thing we are giving thanks for, is no longer center stage. And since the inward state produces so many benefits, we are encouraged to cultivate it. For the good of society. And me.
Gratitude has turned out to be quite useful. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing except that it short circuits the whole thing. Let’s start over.
Something good was given to me. I didn’t deserve it. Maybe I didn’t even ask for it. But plop, here it is, in my hands, in my life. Given that fact I really only have two questions. before me. Who gave it? And why?
It’s important to thank the right person. I was reminded of that at a dinner party a few years ago. The meal took place at an expensive restaurant. It was unclear if we were supposed to pay our own way or not, so we had an eye on our wallets as we made our selections. Our dinner partners offered to share a bottle of wine with us. That would help.
At the end of the meal we waited for our check nervously. The waiter came over and bent low, “Your bill has been paid.” We turned to our dinner partner and gasped, “Did you…? Thank you!!” He shook his head. “No, the host picked up the tab for all of us.” We looked up and saw him heading for the door. I’m not sure how we got there in time to thank him, but we did. We had to.
In the same way we look around this world to see whom to thank for our various blessings. A mother, a friend, a great aunt in Peoria may be the one to thank for some of them. But for the bulk we look up. I once asked a Buddhist friend, “Who do you thank for the sunset?” “The universe,” she replied without a pause.
But she’s wrong. It’s the Creator of the universe who picked up the tab on that one.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
She hasn’t thanked him as far as I know. At least not yet. But has he ceased giving her sunsets? No. He keeps sending them, as well as good gifts of family and friends and business success. All plopped into her empty hands. All received as a gift, but from the wrong giver.
Why would he do that? Because he’s good. He does good because he is good. So good that he blesses his enemies as well as his friends. So good that he sent his Son to die for his enemies and turn them into friends.
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:45b
In fact pouring good gifts into empty hands is one of his favorite ways to get us to look up in astonishment. “Did you…? Thank you! But why?”
Because he’s so good he wants you and me and my Buddhist friend to receive his best gift. Himself.
Let’s be hungry to give thanks this Thanksgiving. But not because it benefits us. Thanksgiving is not another self-salvation project.
It’s the only sane response to a wildly extravagant God.