It’s that time of year again. A time when pulpits, podcasts, newsletters, blogpost begin to wax homiletic about thankfulness and gratitude. And frankly, for the most part, they do a lousy job at it. Sermons and articles like these sound good (or at least satisfying and normative) to an audience of believers who are doing okay and not dealing with crisis or hardship, but they can be a dagger in the heart of a believer who is going through hardship. Be thankful and have ‘an attitude of gratitude’. I’m unemployed and my family and I are going to get evicted from my house any day now? Sure preacher, I’ll just write a big Thankfulness check to the landlord. My wife or child is dying in the hospital? I’ll just tell the doctors to inject 50 cc’s of Thankfulness and that should cure her just fine…. Such rhetoric also reduces not being thankful to being a vice or an oversight, like speaking profanities or failing to tithe. It fails to appreciate the true difficulty of achieving thankfulness–true existential gratitude toward the Creator of the Universe.
I took a strong dose of dramamine and read and listened to a dozen or so “gratitude” messages that pop up this time of year. Off the bat, I noticed that most of they tend to contain several core parts. One part is some anecdote about someone who is down on their luck and has experienced some tragedy or hardship–the point of the anecdote being either (1) your situation could be worse so you should be thankful, and/or (2) this person was thankful and you should be too. What is never made clear in this exposition is how God allowing some people to be in an utter state of suffering and destitution, yet magically exempting me from being one of them, should promote praise to the God of Israel…or any other state of mind other than repugnance at the world or existential terror.
Another part of this message is to quote Pauline verse. Always Paul. Always his epistles. And always just single verses, the most common being Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:15-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Philippians 4:6 with v. 12 sometimes thrown in for good measure. These verses are typically quoted in a fortune cookie exegesis manner without any explanation of scriptural context in which Paul was speaking, let alone Paul’s covenantal worldview or conception of Hashem that made him think a thankful attitude as something necessary and appropriate to please God. It may surprise some to learn that, back in Paul’s day, thankfulness or positive mental attitude toward a deity was not universally assumed by the religious as an essential part of worship. What was it in Paul’s learning or walk with Hashem that made him think differently? Rarely is this ever expounded on.
And that brings us to the third core part of these Thanksgiving messages: The bold, matter-of-fact assertion that you need to be thankful. That it is a sin to not be thankful. That it is a sin of hypocrisy to express thankfulness without truly being thankful. And if you are not a truly thankful believer, then there is something fundamentally defective in your thinking that is displeasing to God. Even more ominous is the connotation from certain Reformed ministers that a lack of thankfulness may signal a lack of election to grace or inauthenticity of Christian identity…pretty bad news to break to someone around the holidays. Any or all of these points may be true with certain people in a certain context, but they are frequently put forth by congregational teachers in a way that is confusing and unedifying.
Believers (including myself) for many personal reasons (including my own) have had periods where they simply do not and cannot feel thankful. This can be the product of clinical depression, or a reaction to overwhelming tragedy and hardship, or philosophical and theological angst from unresolved questions about God’s (in)action in a fallen universe. The later of these are theodicy questions that, with much prayer and study of Scripture can be answered, and answered effectively. But such answers are not evident to everyone at every stage of life, such as younger less-experienced Yeshua disciples or those who have recently experienced overwhelming hardship and testing. Thus Ya‘akov is wise when he says “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.” It is cruel to tell someone in a state of cacopathia to sing praises, and even crueler to declare his inability to do so as evidence of sin and unfaithfulness to God. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven….a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Thanks and praise delivered at inappropriate times would be just as displeasing to Hashem as Temple sacrifices offered at inappropriate times, or Holy Days celebrated at inappropriate times.
For example, if I found a $1 bill on the sidewalk, I could choose to be thankful and thank God for the windfall. But I could also ask myself why it wasn’t a $5 bill. Or a $100 bill. Or several million dollars, so I’ll never be in financial lack ever again. Or why does God leave us ever in a state of debt or want or weakness? Or any other believer? Or any non-believers, for that matter? Follow this path of thought to its natural conclusion and we are left with a frustration of not being God. Every day, we wake up and have to cope with a world where we are the object and not subject of the universe around us. Life happens to us. Existence happens to us. God happens to us. We are in a state of utter powerlessness against it, and against Him. Thus we see that, behind the simple concept of “thankfulness” and the whimsical, flowery homiletics that flows from this subject are some very profound questions about whether God is just to have made us and positioned us in the universe as he has. There are very powerful, primordial spirits, aware of mysteries from the Throne of Heaven and the birth of our universe, who fell to a demonic state and will burn in a lake of fire forever because they could not or would not be “thankful”. How then can we avoid such a fate, and acquire the understanding they could not?
The Torah discusses a “Thanksgiving” of sorts in Deuteronomy 8, an important passage about gratitude, often neglected in sermonizing, which may inform us on the subject:
You are to take care to do the whole mitzvah that I am commanding you today, so that you may live and multiply and go in and possess the land that ADONAI swore to your fathers. You are to remember all the way that ADONAI your God had led you these 40 years in the wilderness–in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His mitzvot or not. He afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you manna–which neither you nor your fathers had known–in order to make you understand that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of ADONAI. Neither did your clothing wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these 40 years. Now you know in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so ADONAI your God disciplines you. So you are to keep the mitzvot of ADONAI your God–to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For ADONAI your God is bringing you into a good land–a land of wadis with water, of springs and fountains flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey, a land where you will eat bread with no poverty, where you will lack nothing, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. So you will eat and be full, and you will bless ADONAI your God for the good land He has given you. (TLV, emphasis added)
Here we see that gratitude is the expected, commanded, appropriate reaction to Hashem from the people of Israel for his blessings. But it is the culminating mitzvah, reached over a lifetime and even multiple generations of testing and humbleness, hunger and manna, travel and discipline, battle and finally achievement of the Promised land. It is not a thankfulness that is simply a product of childlike trust of Hashem or naive admiration of his works (though it has its inception therein). It is a thankfulness wrought from a lifetime of Hashem working in and through an individual, and indeed a community of individuals. It is a thankfulness shaped in the wilderness, rightfully earned by a Father who nourished, cared for and disciplined his sons through years of childlike capriciousness and recalcitrance, bringing them through to a full inheritance of his rich bounty.
For those who have not reached this full level of “feeling thankful” yet (and, once again, that probably includes me) I would advise not to despair that your mental mood does not match your spiritual convictions. Trust in Yeshua, keep faithful to him and his commandments. Await the day when, after miraculous renewal, overwhelming victory over evil, and inheritance of an Earth made like Heaven over which he grants us the privilege to rule and reign. It is after such a consummation of his Kingdom that he will allow from us a true, perfect gratitude will shine forth from us in glorious luminescence.