Christmas may be long past, but the One who gave us His Son wrapped in strips of cloth that day is the Giver who keeps on giving. He gives the gift of gratitude to His people day-in and day-out. The gift is hard to hang-on to even though in Christ we are greeted each day with a superabundance of gifts for which we want to give thanks. Trusting in Christ’s promise of new life and deliverance pours gratitude into the way we think and the way we experience life.
All parents know how difficult it is to teach children to say, “Thank you.” A pastor who had earned his doctorate in clinical psychology once called the ways baby behave a “proof” for original sin. Infants present living pictures of what Luther meant when he said sin turns us in upon ourselves. They continually demonstrate they are convinced the world revolves around “me” and everyone else is there to serve me.
As we grow a bit older, we may think saying “thanks” comes naturally to human beings. But saying thanks is hard to do. Our sinful selves accurately assess expressions of gratitude as confessions of dependence and obligation, however limited that might be, depending on how we estimate the worth of the gift. The New Testament scholar John Barclay, in his brilliant study of the apostle, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, 2015), notes that in Paul’s Hellenistic world, we can detect a half dozen types of giving, some with no strings attached and some with forms of expected return. Paul’s understanding of God’s gift in Jesus Christ, the gift of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, fits into the category of an unconditional gift, Barclay demonstrates. Our propensity to want to avoid dependence or obligation brings us to feel compelled to give in return, not so much out of gratitude, but to make it clear we owe nothing in return anymore.
God’s gifts do not expect or demand a return gift. They are gifts which transform. His gift of new life in Christ transforms us from those who are properly defined as lacking the heart of their humanity. Something of this echoes in the Yiddish expression, “Be a Mensch!” Often, this is an admonition to act like a decent human being instead of one turned in upon self. For thanksgiving as a natural reaction to our God is built into our God-given humanity, but it slipped away from us. Nonetheless, we cannot enjoy the fullness of being God’s human creature apart from a joyful appreciation of Him as the giver, as well as the wonder of His gifts. Being grateful to Him is an integral part of our humanity.
God’s gifts do not expect or demand a return gift. They are gifts which transform.
Too often we fail to regard His gifts as gifts from our Creator, and we look upon them as our own property. We view our acquisition of them as our own accomplishment. That leads to trusting in the insufficient sources of protection, provision, and power which define everything and everyone in whom we put our trust apart from our Creator. Therefore, because being thankful to God is not as easy as it looks, we are called upon to make a conscious effort to turn our thoughts from such baseless ideas back to seeing God’s gifts as just that, coming from their Maker. It is very easy to take His giving for granted simply because He gives so bounteously and so continually. When He makes us wait for the gift of a vaccine against a virus, we may grumble to Him. But when the vaccine becomes available, we presume virologists have done their job and get vaccinated without much thought of the One who has given us virologists and vaccine.
We have fallen into the pit of self-absorption in our attempt to free ourselves from a God-fashioned shape of humanity. It is dark in the pit, and we cannot even see ourselves clearly, to say nothing of anyone or anything else. Thus, we make idols out of His gifts. When we do that, they rot and rust, they get infected and die. Only through God’s gift can we be hauled out of that pit. Only then can we renew or reclaim their full usefulness for gifts we have tarnished with our selfishness. Being able to be fully human again and thus to have the capacity of saying “thank you” is His gift that makes proper use of all His gifts possible.
We speak of our gratitude as a “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” but thanksgiving is really no sacrifice. It costs nothing. It is, in theory, the natural reaction to a gift; our “Wow!” in the face of another blessing of God. The challenge is to see in what God gives—both great gifts and tiny ones—the hand of our generously giving God. This “sacrifice” richly rewards those who practice it, as we gain the joy and fulfillment which come from receiving the love of our Creator, who restores us to life and gives, gives, gives. He gives shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and property, spouse and children, fields, livestock (including household pets) and all property, along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life, to say nothing of protection in the face of evil, preservation and shielding against all hostile forces that undermine our gratitude. Luther expands this list from his explanation of the first article of the Creed in his explanation for “Daily Bread” in the Lord’s Prayer: God gives, “…food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
The challenge is to see in what God gives—both great gifts and tiny ones—the hand of our generously giving God.
These gifts fill the life of faith. Gratitude for them is a profound expression of our faith in Jesus, of our dependence on Him. Gratitude expresses our acknowledgement. This is what Luther observed about our relationship with God as the One who out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in me has given me all that I am and have. For this reason, Luther wrote, we naturally feel obliged to thank and praise our God and to serve and obey him.
This wisdom is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the major catechism of many Reformed churches. Written under the leadership of Zacharias Ursinus, who had studied in Wittenberg, the Heidelberg Catechism incorporates some elements of Luther’s catechisms in its text. Ursinus outlined his instruction in the Christian faith in a similar way to one of the earliest expansions of Luther’s Small Catechism, by his devoted student Joachim Mörlin. Mörlin taught the children that the catechism had three parts: Law, Gospel, and the table of Christian callings. Ursinus divided his catechism into three parts, “The greatness of my sin and misery,” “How I am redeemed from all my sins and misery,” and “How I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.” Luther, too, viewed thankfulness as a prime expression of trust in Christ, the underlying attitude of Christian living in our several callings.
The “-tude” in gratitude, like the “-ness” in thankfulness, expresses, according to Merriam-Webster, the “state, condition, or quality” of whatever word to which it is attached. Gratitude or thankfulness is more than an act, a single reaction. Gratitude and thankfulness denote the very condition and state of the mind that has been turned to Christ and fashioned in His likeness. Faith in our Lord creates a reaction of all-engulfing appreciation for our salvation. His saving work opens our eyes and ears to all His other blessings. We recognize in faith that gratitude stems from God’s grace, from His graciousness. Gratitude is the reasonable reaction to His grace.
Gratitude and thankfulness denote the very condition and state of the mind that has been turned to Christ and fashioned in His likeness.
The word “thank” is related to the word “think,” from which it comes. Accurate assessment of our life, arising from our trust in God, leads us to acknowledge we rely ultimately on His giving hand and, therefore, to be thankful. For the situations in which we find ourselves arouse in us the recognition that we are dependent, we have received many things apart from anything we have done to deserve them. Even those who think they stand on their own two feet must acknowledge they are not self-made but parental products, who would not have survived to be able to stand, walk, or work without the care of not only parents but many others. The demands of the infant turned-in-upon-self are met by a God-created parental care, concern, and love and by the in-born reaction of all adults toward little children. Those who are able to think from the origins of all that exists in the words, the speaking, of our Creator cannot but be thankful.
Gratitude toward our Maker, the Giver of all we are and have, is the hug that the child of God gives the Creator and Re-creator of our lives. Such hugs of thanksgiving are confessions of our trust in the One who, we know, will never stop giving.