When Gratitude Turns Ugly

Do you like to receive gifts? Absolutely! So do I!  Some people like to receive teapots while others prefer workout equipment. We are all different but before that box is open we are all alike. We are excited and we are, hopefully, grateful. Sometimes gifts cannot be contained in boxes or bags neither will they wear a bow. A handmade gift from a child, a gift of time from your husband or the gift of your favorite thing in nature from God.  I love all three. My favorite gifts of nature from God are rainbows and the ocean. But not in that order. I love being at the ocean. Because I can’t tolerate heat I have to watch the waves roll in from a vacation condo window. In fact, we have discovered that our favorite place to be is twelve stories up facing the water head on. The weather can never ruin a day at the beach for us. The water is beautiful to us in a storm while nursing a hot cup of coffee.  Lightening streaking across the water is a light show! My husband and I are the only people I know who can go to the beach  for a week in the rain and love it!  My favorite  part of a beach vacation? Waking to the sound of the beating waves, making my coffee and sipping it slowly as I look down at the beach and far into the ocean while curled into a soft sofa. Yesterday, I found a book I had made of our family recipes that I had not seen since we had moved over two years ago. As I thumbed through the faded handwritten pages, I saw, there among the recipes, a paragraph on lined paper.  It was a paragraph I had written a couple of decades earlier. I will share if you promise not to laugh. But a big smile is okey.

“There is something about the ocean that makes me feel as if I were present at the beginning of time. I can sit before her for hours marveling at her horizon, her gentle restlessness that breaks into violent episodes of grace at my feet.  Every movement is new yet as ancient as her depth. I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember.”

To me this is a blessed gift of God. It is like salvation only in the sense that it is free to me and I revel in it . A free grace. Don’t think I am making any other comparisons. But the sea is something I often thank God for. I never attempt to pay him back or to work harder at my Christian life because he gave a gift of watching the ocean roar from 12 stories up. I accept it with empty hands held high in joy!

Did you ever want to pay someone back for something you received as a gift? How about the gift you received from a coworker on your birthday? When her birthday rolls around do you feel obligated to find her something of comparable value?  Be honest. She gave you a gift now you need to give her one. Is it a form or payback?  What was offered  freely  can sometimes be  accepted with distorted gratitude. Perhaps you really didn’t care much for her and would never have given her a gift had she not initiated.

At Christmas have you ever called it exchanging gifts instead of gift giving? That seems even more blatant. And, more truthful. We give something because something was given to us.  We have been trained since we were children to reciprocate a kindness. I’m not denying there is a joy in giving someone a gift even if you know it will be reciprocated, nor am I suggesting we stop teaching our little ones to return a kindness. But neither should gratitude be cheapened by giving back out of obligation.  We experience real joy when we give our child a monetarily expensive present and they give us an invaluable popsicle stick picture frame. Gratitude springs from the heart without strings, bubbled by joy!

Let’s bring God back into the conversation. I have given you some examples of how thankfulness looks when it is received with pure joy and when it starts to turn ugly. Do you try to live your life as a way to pay Christ back for saving you? “He has done so much for me, this is the least I can do for Him.” He gave His life, at least I can give Him my time.” Think of your own similar phrase here that you may use to encourage yourself to work for God or for your church because Christ has done so much for you. Many of us do it.  But where in the Scriptures can you find that we are told to serve out of gratitude for our salvation? Can Christians only be moved to obedience because of their gratefulness to God for his past actions in their lives? I know that last question can make you feel the hair on your neck rise. And, I agree that true gratitude for God’s salvation is a beautiful thing!  But where in Scripture do you see God prompting us toward obedience using gratefulness as his call to action?   Does he say we are to love our neighbor because we owe it to God because of all he did for us?  Are we told to serve each other out of gratitude for our salvation?  God loves a grateful heart but he does not use it as a source of motivation.If we have been getting it wrong all this time then why do we obey?  Scripture gives us examples of disobedience in the Old Testament in which ingratitude was not the reason for their disobedience. It was a lack of faith! One example is found in Numbers 14:11 when in spite of all the good God had done for them they refused to obey: “How long will they refuse to believe in me in spite of  all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” It does not read:  How long will they be unthankful for all the signs which I have performed.  Their disobedience happened because they didn’t believe! Not because they were ungrateful. (John Piper) A lack of faith was tied to their disobedience. Just as it is tied to ours. It wasn’t their ingratitude to Him that upset God, but their lack of faith. Faith should be the driving force behind our obedience. We obey because we believe. We are thankful because we have grateful hearts that enjoy God. But we believe because we know his grace will   continue day after day to spur us on to more obedience. His grace is sufficient for me! (2 Corinthians 12:9) And I will praise you loudly with thanksgiving! (Psalm 26:7)  Both not either/or. Faith and thanksgiving. Splitting hairs? I don’t think so. I think it is freeing to know that we do not owe God anything. We do not respond to our salvation with good works spurred on by guilt. He loves and inhabits our praise but the debt has been fully paid.

Let’s go back to the beach for a minute. Something so big and given with such freedom! That is definitely like salvation. I don’t even think of paying God back!! Like a small child, let’s celebrate all gifts from God with eager hands and broad smiles!!  What special gift has God given you besides salvation that you too revel in?

Footnote: Starting the first week in September I want to share a family recipe we use during the Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of my recipes are old and the origin is unknown (do not read complex!) but if I know where it came from I will give credit where credit is due. I will not look up recipes just to recount. These will be the actual ones we have used for years and years. I hope you will find something you like that you will want to add to you holiday celebrations!

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