One evening after dinner several years ago, I sat at our kitchen table savoring a delicious piece of apple pie.
Our son Samuel was playing nearby. Feeling generous and benevolent, I approached him with a forkful behind my back and asked him to open his mouth and close his eyes. Inserting the pie, I waited eagerly for his reaction.
He chewed, then scrunched up his face and began crying. Shocked, I asked him what was wrong. Between sobs, he whimpered, “I wanted ice cream!”
Desire Diminishes Gratitude
“We want what we don’t have — until we have it. And then we want something more or something else.”
That story is a parable of how I have often lived my life. My focus on what I don’t have has blinded me to all that I have received from God. Desire has diminished gratitude. And I know I’m not alone. Many of us live so focused on what we don’t have that we miss the present gifts we could be enjoying. We’re blessed and discontented, with lowered joy and heightened dissatisfaction.
Singles pine for marriage; couples for freedom. The unemployed long for jobs; workers for weekends. Childless couples yearn for a baby; parents for sleep. We want what we don’t have — until we have it. And then we want something more or something else. Men lust after images of women who are not their wives. Women envy other moms with well-adjusted children, immaculate houses, and successful careers. We live in a world of no thanks, almost physically unable to enjoy what we have.
Birds in the Bush
Our ingratitude is encouraged and enflamed by the modern consumeristic culture, which is set up to create a state of permanent discontentment — and is wildly successful at doing so. A 2006 article in the London Times entitled “The Haves and Have Yachts” distinguished between the “merely rich” (the top 1% of the population, with an annual income around $1 million) and the “super rich” (those who earned beween $4.5 and 20 million annually).
The article reported, “There is little love lost between the groups, with the former not only envious of the latter’s fortunes, but also resentful of the means of acquisition.” The merely rich were described in the article as “irrelevant,” “impoverished,” “pathetic,” and “struggling to keep up.” This is a group defined as making at least $1 million per year, and yet they’re unhappy, insecure, and discontent.
The bird in your hand may be worth two in the bush, but you won’t be very thankful for it if you’re consumed with longing for the other two.
Enjoying Gifts, Not the Giver
“When we receive gifts without returning thanks, it’s a massive exercise in missing the point.”
Of course, we’re not always moping for what we don’t have. We’re not afraid to enjoy the good things of this world. Billions of people daily experience trillions of moments of pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. But this creates another massive problem: Most of those moments are enjoyed without any response of thankfulness to God.
Even when we don’t miss the gift, we often miss the Giver. This thanklessness deeply troubled the apostle Paul, who diagnosed it as an act of rebellion against God: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).
Paul connected the sin of thanklessness with idolatry. Instead of thanking God for what he gives, we assign ultimate value to things God made, worshiping and thanking them instead of God. It’s what Israel did at Mount Sinai: claiming the golden calf had brought them out of Egypt, they gave honor and thanks to a pile of gold.
Centerpiece This Thursday
God created food — and, by extension, every other good thing — in order to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3–5). God designed a great circle of thanksgiving: we get the gift, and he gets the gratitude. When we receive gifts without returning thanks, it’s a massive exercise in missing the point.
“Millions of Americans will sit down this week before a splendid dinner God created, but will not thank him for it.”
Millions of Americans will sit down this week before a splendid dinner God created, but will not thank him for it. Instead, many of us will overeat, showing our devotion to some food goddess, and then collapse into a soft chair to worship the great football gods. The guy who gets the winning touchdown will almost certainly receive more praise (and definitely more headlines) than the God who made the whole day possible. The delicious turkey will be praised more than the one who created every living thing.
As Christians, we can commend the goodness of God by cultivating thankful hearts this week, and year round. Let’s examine our lives for patterns of thanklessness. Are there God-given gifts (health, friendships, accomplishments, material blessings) that we haven’t been thanking God for? Let’s be different this Thanksgiving, and celebrate God’s goodness by returning thanks.