Ganging Up on Gratitude
The Bishop and the Atheist Warn of Too Much Thanks
A Thanksgiving Meditation
These are days of strange alliances in evil. That is what evil has always done. Remember how Pilate and Herod were adversaries until their common abuse of Jesus knit them together? “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12).
That’s the way it is with the bishop and the atheist. They are united in blasting the power of God and the cross of Christ as putting poor Christians in the pitiful position of permanent gratitude.
The atheist is Christopher Hitchens who just published the book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He recently debated Dinesh D’Souza, a fellow at Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the debate Hitchens said that those of us who believe in the God of Christianity are “condemned to live in this posture of gratitude, permanent gratitude, to an unalterable dictatorship in whose installation we had no say."
The bishop is John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his recent book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, he blasts the miserable condition of gratitude that the cross of Christ has produced for centuries.
What does the cross mean? How is it to be understood? Clearly the old pattern of seeing the cross as the place where the price of the fall was paid is totally inappropriate. Aside from encouraging guilt, justifying the need for divine punishment and causing an incipient sadomasochism that has endured with a relentless tenacity through the centuries, the traditional understanding of the cross of Christ has become inoperative on every level. As I have noted previously, a rescuing deity results in gratitude, never in expanded humanity. Constant gratitude, which the story of the cross seems to encourage, creates only weakness, childishness and dependency.” (277, empasis added)
What can we say to this ganging up on gratitude?
To the Atheist:
Permanent, unalterable gratitude to an infinitely glorious Creator who loves us is what we were made for. The fact that we had no say in our creation is what creation means. It’s also what birth means. Neither God nor Mother Nature gives anyone the choice to be created or born. There is a lesson in that. We are dependent. That’s not debatable. It’s just the way it is. But if you embrace the reality of dependence and follow it all the way to the free gift of salvation through Christ, it is not condemnation but liberation. It does not feel disempowering to be called a “fellow-heir of God" (Romans 8:17).
To the Bishop:
“Yes,” Bishop Spong, “‘a rescuing deity results in gratitude.’ That’s true. We cannot stop the mercy of God from doing what it does. He has rescued us from our selfishness and its horrible endpoint, hell. Our hearts cannot stop feeling what they feel—gratitude.
You say this encourages “weakness.” Not exactly. It encourages being strong in a way that makes God look good, and makes us feel glad. For example, Jesus said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So his dependence made him stronger than he would have been otherwise. He is strong with the strength of Christ.
You say this “constant gratitude” produces “childishness.” Not really. Children do not naturally say thank you. They come into the world believing that the world owes them everything they want. You have to drill “thank you” into the selfish heart of a child. Feeling grateful and saying it often is a mark of remarkable maturity. We have a name for people who don’t feel thankful for what they receive. We call them ingrates. And everyone knows they are acting like selfish children. They are childish. No, Bishop Spong, God wants us to grow up into mature, thoughtful, wise, humble, thankful people. The opposite is childish.
In fact the opposite is downright cranky. C. S. Lewis, before he was a Christian, really disliked the message of the Bible that we should thank and praise God all the time. Then everything changed. What he discovered was not that praising and thanking made people childish, but that it made them large-hearted and healthy. He said, ‘The humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds praised most while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.’ That is my experience. When I am ungrateful, I am selfish and immature. When I am overflowing with gratitude I am healthy, other-oriented, servant-minded, Christ-exalting, and joyful.
To the Atheist and the Bishop:
You both seem to assume that the affection of gratitude is puerile and unsatisfying—something we need to grow out of if we would be deeply joyful and useful people. Presumably you feel that way because, in your experience, being self-sufficient and being thanked is more satisfying than feeling dependent and thankful. I have tasted this pleasure you seem to prefer. It is the pleasure of power—the pleasure of being above others so that they must give you thanks rather than the other way around.
This is what Jesus warned against when he said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors” (Luke 22:25). “Benefactors”—people who don’t want to say thank you to others, but like it when people say thank you to them. Your discomfort with gratitude—your sense that it is an unhappy and dissatisfying disposition—is not auspicious for your souls. It is very dangerous.
May I humbly invite you, and others you have influenced, into the lowly ranks of the dependent, thankful, happy, children of the living God on this Thanksgiving Day. There is great grace. Great forgiveness. All-supplying mercy. All-satisfying Beauty. Inexhaustible wisdom. It is all in Jesus Christ. And it lasts forever. May we say together, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable Gift.”