Gratitude … and the Day After Christmas

First of all, just let me say that I believe gratitude is a good thing.  Not only is it a good thing, it is a Biblical command – “Give thanks in all circumstances …” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  But there’s a problem with gratitude.  Gratitude looks back at what’s been done, given, or accomplished … therefore is an inadequate motivation for looking forward to tomorrow (John Piper helped me work this out years ago in my favorite book of his – Future Grace).

You and I said “thanks” for our gifts on Christmas morning, but we need something more to motivate us the day after Christmas.  What is that something more? Looking forward to the gifts that God continually bestows every day until He returns and for all of eternity!  That’s what Piper calls “faith in future grace”.  Here’s why I think this is a big deal:

We know what’s expected of us

It’s easy to be grateful on Christmas morning.  Most of us that have reached an age of understanding social norms recognize that we are supposed to say “thank you” to grandma, and express appreciation for what we were given whether we like it or not.  Any moralistic, behavior-oriented, socially-aware individual can do that (most of the time).  We are conditioned to perform, and even “giving thanks” can become a conditioned response.  I’m not suggested that we don’t say “thanks”, I’m just suggesting that we recognize where our gratitude can malfunction, and that there is more to gratitude that often gets revealed the next day.

When the expectation to perform is no longer present

In our house the day after Christmas ends up being the day to return what you didn’t like, didn’t fit, or want the cash from to buy something else.  Gifts cards that were gratefully received on Christmas get bartered away between siblings for cash to get what you really want.  Of course there isn’t anything wrong with returning gifts, it just alerts us to the great reality that the gifts of yesterday don’t satisfy in being the gifts of tomorrow.  We want more, different, or even if we loved what we got we want that feeling of pleasure to last as long as possible (I’m still basking in the glow of my Apple Watch, but it’ll fade over time).  My point?  The expected social gratitude … and even the proper Biblical heart response of gratitude is a flawed motivation for tomorrow.  It’s always looking backwards, and it’s often seeking an experience or feeling.

We get pleasures forevermore … greater than Christmas morning

The truth of the matter is that for the follower of Jesus even if everything falls apart the day after Christmas, we still have the greatest gift one could ever receive.  The kids can complain, the relatives leave grumpy, the house left in shambles, but Jesus is still enough.  The new year may hold suffering, disappointment, and broken relationships, but the Spirit of God is still at work sanctifying and conforming you into the image of Christ.  If we are merely motivated by gratitude when this stuff hits, then there is nothing to be grateful for anymore, and you have to coax up some regurgitated gratitude of days gone by to get you through.  But if motivated by faith in the future pleasures of God then we can face the day after Christmas … and everyday knowing that God is at work … and it only gets better!

So be grateful … I’m sure you have much to thank God for.  But be a person of faith … we have a God who gives good gifts to His children every day, and never ceases to make the delights of the Gospel precious to those who seek Him.

What Might Star Wars and Your Church Have In Common?

This morning I heard a movie critic on the news describing the blockbuster-opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie. At one point he was celebrating the communal event of everyone in the theater together. I’ll admit I gasped! Communal event? Then I thought, yeah that’s probably right … that is the definition of a communal event in our culture – A lot of people in the same place united by a common pleasure who don’t know each other and leave feeling just as alone as when then arrived. I wonder how many people have that same communal event experience at their local church? They hear the words community, fellowship, and relationships, but have neither given nor received anything close to what those rich Biblical terms promise. Just what is the communal event that the Bible offers and what is being asked of me to participate in that event?

It requires inner attitudes other than those of consumers

 A consumer heads to the theater expecting to be entertained. He purchases a ticket in anticipation of being “wow-ed”. Once he enters his particular hallway he searches for a seat that gives him just the view he wants and situates himself in a way designed to repel others from sitting next to him. He’s quickly annoyed if someone forgot to silence their cell phone or a child becomes disruptive. And he leaves having formed his review to post online long before even opening his car door to head home. I’ll just say, as a pastor, that scenario is one of the most important things we combat in the local church. There is nothing in that movie-going description that should mirror that of a child of God entering the doors of his local church. He should head into his local assembly eager to worship the King of Kings in spirit and in truth. He has purposed in his heart what he will give to the work of the Kingdom. He looks for brothers and sisters to interact with, sit next to, and encourage through his engagement in the service. When the inevitable disruptions come he is patient with people in process, and those children being taught how to sit through a worship service. He isn’t quick to rush out, and hasn’t formed his lunchtime complaints. Rather, led by the Spirit, he looks for new people to introduce himself to, faithful friends with whom he can share the weeks heartaches, and people in need of a genuine embrace.

 It requires outer actions other than those of superficiality

 Now some people “get into” Star Wars and the new movie. They come dressed as movie characters, equipped with light-sabers and their childhood action figures. They may interact with one another, exchanging memories of days gone by, favorite scenes, or the buzz they read online about the direction this movie takes. But none of that touches the soul, nor lasts past the final credits … it just doesn’t have the staying power of relational depth. As the body of Christ we are to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the movie we just saw, it just means that we won’t only talk about the movie we just saw. Maturing followers of Christ push for spiritual transactions not merely superficial interactions. Here’s a few descriptions of what those look like:

  • Selfless Questions – You don’t ask the question that you can’t wait to answer, you ask the question that invites someone to share life knowing they’ll be listened to. Selfless questions come from a heart that is ready to have self forgotten should nothing be asked in return. They are motivated simply out of a desire to serve another and the healthy human need to speak of their experiences and feelings.
  • Thoughtful Input – Do you ever prepare for a conversation you intend to have with someone on a Sunday morning? Yes, I mean you actually come with a plan to pursue seeking a particular someone out to share something you have been thinking through – a word of specific spiritual encouragement, insight God gave you as you prayed for them this week, an observation about their life that has taught you, etc. Input doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t always be) spontaneous … you can plan to give input.
  • Vulnerable Sharing – You get to let people into your life, even when they don’t ask. It’s called asking for help. Go to a friend (old or brand new) and ask them to pray for you. You do have needs don’t you? Why not think through what is weighing heavy on you, what is causing tension in your soul, or what is approaching fast that makes you fearful. My guess is that your step of faith in being vulnerable will be met with at least one question in return. Sure, some will feel caught off guard, but most will feel honored that you trusted them.
  • Godward Praying – When in doubt, pray. No really, if you don’t know what to ask, don’t have any Biblical insight to offer, and aren’t ready to share something about you … just ask if you can pray together. It might be awkward (at first), but imagine a truly communal event where people are actually being the community of God’s people. They don’t just chat, hang out, or rub shoulders … they turn to the Lord together with grateful hearts for the work of Almighty God who always cares for His children.

None of that stuff happens at movie openings … but all of that should happen at local church gatherings. So, practice community … then go see a movie together!