Essay / Culture

On the Difficulty of Being Thankful

We live in a plastic, disposable culture but to say that is merely to state the obvious. Many respond to this plasticity and disposability by becoming activists, either on the world stage or in their own communities and homes. Others have simply chosen to ignore this fact and to continue feeding the materialistic monster that lives and thrives so happily in the United States.

I mean, who can be bothered to recycle a tin can much less save the whales, install energy-saving light bulbs or care about underage children working in a sweat shop somewhere in Asia. No, it’s always easier to ignore these realities of the enlightened, modern world and simply focus on what is important — myself. For me, it’s easy to do this at least 364 days out of the year. That is, it’s easy for me to view my own personal problems as of infinitely greater importance than any other “issue” that either the evening news or some “celebrity” parades in front of me.

Let’s face it, most of us are more concerned about ourselves than anything else. We don’t care much about the neighbor who is losing her house due to foreclosure (“She shouldn’t have entered into such a foolish loan,” we say) or the man down the street whose insurance does not cover his daily need for dialysis (“Must have drunk too much over the years,” we say). We may give lip service to these “tragic” events, but we will not likely do much to alleviate the situation (of course, there are exceptions). Rather, we go through most of life thinking about that which is most important to us — ourselves.

Yet, each year, when the fourth Thursday of November arrives, we manage to find a minute or two to think of someone else. And then, once we’ve done this, we easily turn back to ourselves and our own goals, aspirations and “problems.” Here in California, the local news reminds us each year that even the Hollywood elite manage to find enough time to serve Turkey and stuffing to the homeless, attended by all of the requisite TV exposure for such self-sacrificing benevolence. A local television station shows a special by Bryant Gumbel who is highlighting the rich and famous who give so generously over the year. In fact, it’s amazing how many “celebrities” have managed to find the time to name a foundation after themselves. And surely tax breaks are not the sole motivating factor in such philanthropic endeavors! Even Oprah thought such generosity by the “haves” toward the “have nots” was worth noting on her own Thanksgiving episode.

The problem with all of this, and with myself, is that we are, in actuality, merely giving thanks for the overabundance of “stuff” that we’ve been given. Gumbel and Oprah talk repeatedly about those who give generously but I would be willing to suggest that such generosity is only a small numerical percentage of what these individuals actually possess. Perhaps it’s too easy to give $12 million to charity once a person already owns three houses, each worth more than $12 million. Perhaps some of these individuals just simply do not know what to do with all of their excess money (one does not need to be rich to have this problem). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that such benevolence is highlighted by the Oprahs of the world, thus giving someone the benefit of being lauded for their generosity.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am cynical. I am cynical about all of this supposedly self-sacrificial giving. I am also cynical about my own motivations for giving to charities and for giving thanks in general. Why? Simple: my inherent and unavoidable ungodliness and unrighteousness.

The apostle Paul reminds of this in Romans 1:18 when he writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” I believe that Paul is describing here “the way things are,” that is, he is merely describing the very heart of humankind. Whether we call this “original sin” is irrelevant here. What is important is that each of us is ungodly and unrighteous by our very nature, making it highly improbable that we are able to truly give sacrificially and to give thanks without some ulterior motive. And when we do give thanks, I believe that we only do so because we are thankful for those things that are “above and beyond” our daily bread, if you will.

In Deuteronomy 8, God tells the Israelites that they are to be thankful for forty years of manna. What? That’s like giving thanks for having the privilege of eating unsalted crackers for forty years! They were to be thankful that their clothes had not worn out after forty years of wandering. What? They are to be thankful to God for well-made clothing when God himself was the very person who “made” them wander somewhat aimlessly for forty years!

The point? The Israelites were to be thankful for the mere necessities of life. Though they were being promised a land flowing with milk and honey, their first order of business was to be thankful for the basics of life. It appears that God expected thanks for the “small things” before giving them something better (or at least something that appeared “better” from their own perspective).

So, what am I to do? What are we to do? Should we dispossess ourselves of all that is not absolutely necessary to our survival? Should I move out of my four-bedroom house and into something more “green”? No. This would only alter my outward circumstances, it wouldn’t change my heart. I would still struggle to give thanks. Our ability truly to give thanks and to truly give sacrificially is, in the end, a heart issue. It does not depend overly much on where I live, on what I do for a living or any other outward factor. To be ungodly and unrighteous and yet still be able genuinely to give and genuinely to give thanks depends on an inner disposition.

Again, Deuteronomy is instructive: “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (30:6). May we, though inherently sinful, make this our own prayer during these days of giving thanks. May God make us thankful for the “little things” and give us grace to possess the “greater things” responsibly.

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