building habits of ‘simple’ gratitude in a consumer culture

I’ve had a remarkably pain-free and privileged life.

Good health, loving parents, a wonderful wife and family, a job I enjoy, freedom to plan and travel, expectations of longevity, a good education, friends, a roof over my head, a guarantee of food to eat and clean water to drink, a stable democracy in which to live, and relative wealth compared to the vast majority of people on the planet.

All not to mention the richness of God’s grace in and through his Son and made present by his Spirit. Or the multitude of blessings associated with being in a loving local church community etc.

I could keep going.

So why is it that I moan so much? Why is it that I tend to focus on what I don’t have, or on what’s wrong (or might go wrong) rather than what’s right? Why am I so thankless? Answers on a postcard please.

Of course I could just be a miserable grumpy old sod but let’s quickly move on to wider possibilities 😉

This is prompted by (of all things) watching an interview with Gary Player at the Open last week. Player has made a life out of being Mr Positivity. He’s always tried 100% at everything he does, whether golf or fitness or business. He was a boyhood hero of mine. I was a shy introvert with limited self-confidence and his can-do attitude and apparently boundless self-belief was inspiring, He’s 77 now and can still do 1000 push ups and performed a nice high-kick for the interviewer.

Anyway, I digress. In the interview he came back to a favourite theme of his – gratitude. Now he didn’t say to whom (or what) he was thankful – perhaps it is God or ‘golf’ or maybe the Great Spaghetti Monster I don’t know. And maybe it is ‘easy’ to be thankful when you seem to have everything.

But it struck me how rare his words sounded in contemporary culture.

We live in an atmosphere of pervasive and manufactured discontent. One consequence is a dearth of thankfulness.

We are bombarded by countless messages every day designed to remind us of what we don’t have, what we don’t look like, what we have not experienced, where we have not been, what we have not eaten, what we have not worn, what we have not achieved, friends we do not have, cool technology that we don’t own, skills and qualifications we should have, life-changing wealth that is someone else’s and celebrity status we will never possess.

Gratitude and contentment are too dangerous to be allowed to flourish within an endlessly avaricious culture. We are made to consume. It is our purpose and right to have more. Hey, it’s even our national duty to buy to keep the economy going.

Frustration, envy, complaint, dissatisfaction, boredom, cynicism, acquisitiveness and thanklessness – these are the fruits of a hyper-consumer culture. For how can you be thankful when you never have enough?

So if my thanklessness is (at least partly!) a symptom of being conformed to and shaped by Western culture (or the ‘world’) the question is how to build in habits of mind and practice that are counter-cultural?

One simple but powerful example is giving thanks for our food. As an observant Jew, Jesus kept this Jewish practice (feeding of the 5000, Last Supper etc and taught it in the Lord’s prayer). In a culture of waste and excess, genuine thankfulness for food is dulled – which  is all the more reason to practice habits of thankfulness.

Elsewhere in the NT, the most common reason to give thanks to God is for the good news of what he has done in and through his Son. However you understand the wider context of Romans 7, verse 25 is an overflow of thankfulness for Jesus. “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” See 1 Cor 15:57 for the same sentiment and many other places like Revelation 7.11

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honour
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Paul frequently gives thanks for spiritual life in others – since they are evidence of the presence, grace and power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:4 for example, “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

He also rejoices that thanksgiving to God is happening or will happen. In other words, thanksgiving to God is a desired fruit of ministry. It is a sign of spiritual life, it brings right and proper glory to God. “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” 2 Cor 4:15.

And he pushes this attitude of thanksgiving wider – the Christian to be actively giving thanks to God for everything, whatever the circumstances. Most famously in Philippians 4:6 [“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”] but also in Ephesians 5:20 and Colossians 3:17,

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What I see here is a pervasive attitude of thankfulness to God out of which all of life is lived. It is an attentiveness to life – a thoughtfulness if you like – that takes time to notice things and give thanks to God for them. It is in a deeply Christian sense, a self-forgetfulness, a looking away from ourselves to seeing what God is doing elsewhere as well as through our lives.

What I don’t see in the NT is a ‘how to manual’ of developing such an attitude. I suspect that is a good thing. We love to feel we can identify a problem, apply a solution and bingo, problem solved.

So while I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer to fostering thankfulness, we can learn from each other. So, come on, help out an old grump,  I’d love to hear your thoughts and struggles on building habits of simple gratitude within an avaricious consumer culture.

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11 thoughts on “building habits of ‘simple’ gratitude in a consumer culture

  1. I agree with you Patrick, thankfulness is an essential spiritual discipline in our age of discontent. One that needs to be nourished.

    My wife would say that biblical lament is another key ingredient. Lament helps us identify what real suffering is and finds God’s hope in the midst of pain. If we know real suffering then we can identify what we should be thankful for as well. You can find more of her thoughts at http://thinkingworship.com/category/lament/

    Putting the two ideas (thankfulness and lament) together, I feel like modern life attempts to put us in a stupor in which we have a vague sense of something wrong and the vague hope that we can buy our way out of it. To overcome this, the Christian life needs to rediscover a vigorously affective response to the world. As we look around on creation we need to give thanks to the good God who is seen there and we need to cry out in lament to the good God who hears and heals what is not good. Then we would begin to overcome the stupor we are trained into.

  2. Patrick, You’re not an old grump! Yet!! Thought provoking and well written piece. So much to digest I cannot comment further at this moment. (But do keep going!)

  3. thanks Paul 🙂
    and thanks Andrew for that example of thinking with a Christand mind about lament and thankfulness.
    “I feel like modern life attempts to put us in a stupor in which we have a vague sense of something wrong and the vague hope that we can buy our way out of it”
    I like that – captures something true.

  4. An excellent and timely piece Patrick. We are all shaped by our culture and our climate of “pervasive and manufactured discontent, as you so excellently put it,shapes us all. I don’t think anyone is entirely immune. And then there’s life’s unexpected shocks that can knock gratitude out of you pretty quickly. For me creating space to simply “be” and “see” serves as a kind of seed bad for gratitude. When I slow down and stop thinking of all I have to do and begin to see see what has been done – and yes what I have done too – then a sense of thankfulness starts to at least poke its head above the soil. Someone, reflecting on his life, said to me recently “I have no one to thank and no one to blame.” Like you I have plenty to be thankful for but I am most thankful that I have someone to thank – that’s a gift indeed.

  5. Reading what you say reminds me of what Marva Dawn said when she was here. Her delight in Sabbath and refusing to consider those things that have to be done on that day. If one occured to her, she’s write it on a bit of paper, open her office dorr and and throw it in to be looked at the next day!

  6. My devotion a few days ago was “”Receive not the grace of God in vain.” 2 Cor 6:1.

    Went through an experience of showing grace to somebody and got slapped in the face in return. Then experienced the grace of God when His wisdom prompted me to do something which I realised later saved me from the blame of men.

    Then I understood what grace is. I tell myself not to be the fool who did not know when grace was extended. In order to do that, I realise thanksgiving is essential. And so is trust in God.

    “May the God of hope fills me with all joy and peace as I trust in Him, so that I may overflow with hope by the power of his Holy Spirit. (paraphrasing Romans 15 :13)” .

  7. welcome June. perhaps thanksgiving and grace are so closely related because they both orient us out of ourselves and towards God’s goodness.

  8. I’ve found growing a little food (even some herds) or baking bread is really effective at making me thankful because you realise that you depend completely on grace for the basics. Who can make the oats grow or wheat appear from the ground? Who makes the rain fall or sun shine? It’s all a gift of God, not Tesco, not even the farmer.

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