One of the surest indicators of spiritual health is our capacity for gratitude.
Many cultures devote a time or season in which to express their thankfulness—a response to the goodness they see in their lives and in their families.
As the years wear on, gratitude seems increasingly hard to cultivate given our more natural tendency toward self-interest and greed. It’s almost cliché to point out that on Thanksgiving Day, we bow our heads to give thanks for what we have; on Black Friday we trample others for what we don’t. Given the state of American culture this year, gratitude seems very far away.
One Catholic writer has historically put it this way:
“Our basic attitude of life is one of claiming rights and shunning responsibilities. We have ceased to appreciate the blessings of life, such as health, the beauty of nature, human friendships and love, and then to respond to them with gratitude. Gratitude is the key to happiness. We feel that life owes us the fulfillment of every desire, and if we do not receive this we feel bitter and we feel entitled to take advantage of others. Any question of moral good and evil is eliminated.”
Gratitude withers under the weight of entitlement. Gratitude ennobles us to receive life’s blessings as gifts from God; entitlement insists that blessings come to those who deserve them, and all man’s happiness reflecting the supreme triumph of the will.
How do we cultivate a sense of gratitude in an age of entitlement? I think a clue comes from today’s reading in Nehemiah 9. As we’ve already observed in our series, the people had gathered for a ceremony in which they re-dedicated themselves to their relationship with God. Chapter 9 begins with the people gathering to confess their sin, their dire need for God:
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. 4 On the stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God.5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. (Nehemiah 9:1-5)
“Stand up and bless the Lord.” These words form more than just the words of an old hymn; they are vital to the cultivation of gratitude and joy. Entitlement looks inward, toward self; gratitude lifts the eyes to delight in things that lie beyond ourselves—the food on the table, the laughter of a child, the God in his heaven.
What follows in Nehemiah is one of the most beautiful yet overlooked prayers in all of Scripture:
6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. 7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. (Nehemiah 9:1-8)
We need a greater vision of God and a smaller vision of self.
So again: how do we cultivate gratitude in an age of entitlement? Let me spring off of this text in Nehemiah to offer three suggestions:
(1) Reject the vision of “supposed to be”
I studied chemistry as an undergraduate student. This meant spending considerable time in the lab, where we’d quickly realize that the principles in the textbook didn’t always look the same in nature. The tendency for young, unproven students was to approach the professor with a test tube full of…well, gunk is probably the most scientific word for it. “What’s this supposed to be doing?” we’d hesitantly ask. And our professor would amiably scold us, saying: “Don’t ask what’s supposed to be happening. Ask: what is happening?” Something is always at work, even if it’s not what you’d expected.
As humans we become far too attached to life as it’s “supposed to be.” When you’re young, you might start by thinking “I’m supposed to be finished college by now” or “I’m supposed to be married” or “I’m supposed to be having another baby.”
But this vision of life as it’s “supposed to be” obstructs our view of life “as it is.” When we anchor our joy in social (or personal) expectations, we will invariably find that we fail to fully measure up to what we think is “supposed to be” happening. But God is always at work, even if it’s not what you’d expected. We find joy in a God who numbers the hairs on our head, a God who is active in our lives as they are—not merely as we think they’re “supposed to be.”
(2) Reject the temptation to “comparison shop”
Related to this is our tendency to “comparison shop” through the windows of others’ lives. There’s a vital reason God prohibited his people from “coveting” their neighbors’ lifestyles. It’s extremely tempting to look at friends or family and think: “Man, I wish I had his success” or “I wish I had her figure.” Because the ugly flip side to this is to be thankful you’re not as bad as someone else, thinking: “I’m glad my diet’s working better than hers” or “I’d sure hate to raise my kids on his salary.”
Comparing ourselves to others effectively anchors our joy in human circumstance. It relegates joy to a system of metrics, fluctuating according to our relative success amidst our social circles. One of the Bible’s greatest song-writers once said to God that “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). In the original context, that meant that the lines that marked his property marked an amount of land he could be happy with. What he had was enough.
What if we could celebrate the success of others rather than window-shop in their lives? What if for us as well, the lines could fall in pleasant places, and we could likewise find delight in what God has done for us?
(3) Rejoice in what God does “instead”
Finally, we must learn to find joy in our circumstances not in our imaginations. Entitlement insists that happiness is found in my plans. Gratitude finds joy in what God does instead. Instead of that job we thought we wanted, God gave us a different path. That relationship? God steered us on a different course. At the time, these things seem like wounds—sometimes mortal ones. And this is to say nothing of the immeasurable difficulties that come in the form of medical reports and test results. Remember, dear Christian, that all these things are in the hands of a God who numbers every teardrop and promises to one day wipe them from our faces.
Entitlement may never be satisfied, but in Christ our joy may be complete. May each of us experience the true joy of the Lord today, whether around tables that overflow with food and family, or tables where chairs sit empty from loved ones that have passed on. We may be thankful for each year and for each table, because both are gifts of a God whose blessings transcend circumstance.