Friday, November 18, 2011

God's Gifts Oblige Us

On New Year's Eve we give attention to past accomplishments, and new resolutions; during the Christmas season we give attention to giving and receiving; and on Thanksgiving we consider the things for which we are grateful.  I love each of these seasons for various reasons and they each hold a special place in my heart.

For this Thanksgiving season, I have taken note of a few texts of scripture that touch on the theme of gratitude.  My thoughts have been drawn particularly to Psalm 100 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.  I also searched throughout my library to find and read portions of books on the subject of gratitude.  The following books provided some helpful guidance: Jerry Bridges's chapter "Gratitude," in The Practice of Godliness, Nancy Leigh DeMoss's Choosing Gratitude (which came highly recommended to me by my wife), and Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge.

I found help in each of these titles and would like to share some of the lessons learned and shared in a recent sermon.

What is Gratitude?
Simply put, gratitude is the recognition of a giver's kindness.  Not all gifts are tangible.  Some are merely a complement, however, all gifts can be collected under the label of "kindness."

I am a Christian, and I want to know what gratitude is from God's perspective.  At this point I found most of the resources I consulted to offer a very similar definition of Biblical gratitude.  Jerry Bridges offers the following definition which is clear and concise: "Thankfulness is the recognition that God in His goodness and faithfulness has provided for us and cared for us both physically and spiritually."

Note these key aspects of Bridges's definition:
  • God has provided for you.
  • God has cared for you.
    • Both physically
    • And spiritually
Consider Your Very Existence
When a child is born we rightly speak of the miraculous gift of life.  Our very existence as human beings comes from God.  Adam, the first human being, was "formed from the dust of the ground and [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature" (Genesis 2:7 ESV).

The Breath of Life
A quick survey of scripture's perspective on "the breath of life" will be helpful at this point.  First, Job stated with conviction, "In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind" (Job 12:10 ESV). Second, Elihu affirmed the same truth in the middle of one of his speeches saying, "The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life" (Job 33:4 ESV).  Third, the psalmist sang, "When you send forth your Spirit [or breath], they are created..." (Psalm 104:30 ESV).  Fourth, and finally, Paul argued in the Areogapus the "he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25 ESV).

In chapter one, "God the Giver," in Free of Charge, Miroslav Volf argues that, 
The very existence of human beings comes from God.  We live, not so much on a borrowed, but on a given breath.  We work, we create, we give, but the very ability and willingness to work, along with life itself, are gifts from God.  They are gifts that, like breath, must be given over and over for us even to exist, let alone accomplish anything.
Take a breath; and another.  Now consider, that God is giving, and giving, and giving you each and every breath.  
Volf argues that, "Most of us don't quite 'get' the extent of God's gift giving."  We are not only created but also are being sustained by the almighty, creative Spirit of God.  "As creator, God is giver" (Volf).

Psalm 100 is a psalm for giving thanks (or a Thanksgiving Psalm) which centers on God our Creator, the giver of life and breath and every good thing.  Verse 3 declares,
Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
At the center of the worship service is found the ancient confession of faith in the One True God.  In our Presbyterian liturgy we include an opportunity to join with the Church universal in confessing our common faith using the Apostles' Creed.  We typically enter into this portion of our worship with the question, "Christian, what do you believe?"  The psalmist invites the nations to enter into confessing faith in the One True God with the word, "Know."  This simple, ancient confession proclaims that...
  • Yahweh, the uncreated, self-existing One, is God alone!
  • He is the Supreme Being
  • He is the Strong One
  • He is above all and Sovereign over all
  • He has no rivals; no competitors
  • He is God!
And what does he do as God? He gives life and breath.  That is, "He has made us, and we are his."

What else does he do?  He gives us every good thing.  Verse 5 declares,
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever
and his faithfulness to all generations.
The extent of God's gifts are summed up in that he gives life, breath, and everything. So...

To What Does the Knowledge of the Extent of God's Giving Oblige Us?
Volf reflects:
To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given. 
But if God is the giver and I am dependent upon his gifts every moment and am obliged to be grateful and attentive to his gifts, yet I find that I am often ungrateful and out of sync; what then am I to make of God's giving?  "God continues to give," writes Volf, "refusing to make giving dependent on our receiving things rightly.... Indeed, since our very existence is a result of God's grace, if God were to stop giving, we would stop existing."

Since God is a giver and...
since all of his gifts are good and vital to our very existence...
and especially since we are unworthy recipients of his grace...
we are obliged to return thanks! 

We find that saying "thank you" is often very difficult.  In some respects, saying "thank you" is humiliating because, as Volf notes, it places us in "a relationship of dependence and inferiority."  At times, we merely get caught up with the gift and neglect the giver.  Oftentimes this is unintentional, but nevertheless it is an egregious error.  Finally, we often chafe at the understood obligation to say "thank you" to givers (as when our parents would chastise us through their teeth to "say thank you!").

At this point, Volf cites Ralph Waldo Emerson, who although exaggerating, does not go too far when he wrote, "We do not forgive the giver.  The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten."

What benefit is there to saying "thank you"?
  • Gratitude expresses appreciation not only for the gift, but also for the giver.
  • Gratitude honors the giver.
God's gifts oblige recipients in a handful of ways and Volf identifies four: Faith, Gratitude, Availability, and Participation.  Here are a few highlights from Volf's development of these obligations.
  1. Faith, or a posture of receptivity
    • Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver.
    • To receive from God in faith is the height of human dignity.
    • Hence faith doesn't tell us how little we are and what we can't do.  On the contrary, it celebrates what we most properly are - God's empowered creatures - and it frees us to our greatest accomplishments.
    • Faith is the first part of the bridge from self-centeredness to generosity.
  2. Gratitude
    • When we "give" thanks, we impart nothing to givers.
    • Those who thank God tell the divine Giver that they appreciate the gifts received; they honor God for that.
    • When I have faith, I affirm explicitly that I am a recipient of God's favors, and implicitly I recognize and affirm God as the giver.  When I am grateful, I recognize and honor God explicitly as the giver, and I implicitly recognize and affirm myself as a recipient of God's gifts.
    • Faith receives God's gifts as gifts; gratitude receives them well.
    • God's gifts establish.  They come with the message, "You are loved, and therefore you exist."  With that message, gratitude becomes easy because it is not primarily gratitude for getting what we lacked and could have acquired ourselves if we were not so insignificant, but gratitude for the wonder of just being there as fruits of God's creativity and objects of God's blessing.
  3. Availability
    • God gives so that we can help others exist and flourish as well.  God's gifts aim at making us into generous givers, not just fortunate receivers.
    • God's gifts call on us to make ourselves available to their Giver.
    • We are not doing God any favors.  We give ourselves for God's use to benefit creation, not benefit God.
    • God the giver requires a living sacrifice, ready to do God's work in God's world.
    • God sets the purposes and commands us to realize them.
    • [A]vailability means that we don't live in the world as we see fit, but are willing to be and act in the world as we see God being and acting.  God provides the model, and we are ready to observe and imitate.
    • Today most of us want to be agents, not instruments.  We want to act, not to be acted upon, not to be used by another who acts.
    • To be available for God, to be made and instrument for God, is to be available for mistreatment - or so it might seem at first glance.
  4. Participation
    • Indeed, in addition to making us flourish, giving to others is the very purpose for which God gave us the gifts.  To pass them on, participating in God's gift giving, is the fourth thing to which God's gifts oblige us.
    • [Luther argued:] "Surely we are named after Christ, not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us; that is, because we believe in him and are Christs to one another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us."
    • Luther described the way God works in in a memorable phrase: God never works in us without  us.
    • Christ's indwelling presence has freed us from the exclusive orientation to ourselves and opened us up to two directions: toward God, to received the good things in faith, and toward our neighbor, to pass them on in love.
Volf concludes, "Every gift [we give] breaks the barrier between the sacred and the mundane and floods the mundane with the sacred.  When a gift is given, life becomes extraordinary because God's own gift giving flows through the giver."

Concluding Scripture Selections on the Above Themes
  • John 15:13 (ESV) - Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
  • 1 John 4:8b-10 (ESV) - ...God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
  • James 1:17 (ESV) 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.
  • John 3:16 (ESV) - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Gratitude - Nancy Leigh DeMoss profoundly summarizes the theological progression from gifts to gratitude when she writes, "Undeniable guilt, plus undeserved grace, should equal unbridled gratitude."
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV) - Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
May the Lord help us to be truly thankful! SDG.