I was sitting in my church’s high school ministry service on a Wednesday night when it dawned on me how poor we are at seeing why we should be truly grateful. A young man was in front telling about his journey to 3rd world country and the poor and vile conditions that people lived in there. He continued on in his description and at the end he followed his diatribe with a praise of how grateful he became of all the things he has been blessed with in America. This bothered me, and I couldn’t think of why. Then it dawned on me – Jesus never, ever, talks like that, he never compares our situation to others, never says, “Look at the starving children, now look how much you have, now do you see how grateful you should be…” No, Jesus always is pointing to a different referent point. Jesus’ motivation for our gratefulness, for our rejoicing in blessing, orbits around something else.
It was almost irony as I then sat with my small group of high school boys and this same thought came up again. I asked them “What are some things you can be thankful for?” The first young man responded, “Well, that I have food, because not everyone in the world, like the people in …insert 3rd world country here…. has food.” It is a very sad thing that this is how we teach those who are given much blessing to think about why they should be grateful.
Our church has missed the point, we don’t get it, and we think ourselves very good when we say “How blessed am I compared to the Black-African children!” The sun around which Jesus’ motivation for our gratefulness and adoration of God revolves is not that he has made us and put us in a better position to receive blessing than another. If I may say, that sounds quite prideful. The reason for our gratefulness is because of the mercy bestowed upon us. The difficult thing for us Americans to swallow is that humans are not getting completely what they deserve. We think “how much better would the world be off if there were no more starvation, nor more disease, no more wars and fighting. They deserve all these things like we have.” I believe this is one of the major problems with American missionaries, that they are trying to make Americans out of the countries they minister to. We pity them, not firstly because they lack Christ, but because they lack food, they lack a peaceful city, they lack warmth. And we go into these towns, these countries, these cultures, and we think we have done them a great service if we have eradicated their diseases, given them electricity, established peace and given them a few t-shirts with catchy Christian logos on them. Then we leave.
And this is all about which I am speaking. We think ourselves to be in a better position than those in Africa, in China. In Christ’s mind, there is only one position that matters, and if you have all the food in the world, all the heat, the clothing, and the blessings and lack being in that one position, then all your food, clothing, shelter and blessings count for nothing. They are worthless to you. You must realize that you are much better off if you are in the right position with Jesus and live in a refugee camp, starving, in Africa, than if you live in America, in a comfortable home, with nice clothing and supermarket-bought foods, and stand outside of Jesus.
And this is how we are to see these blessings in our life. They do not flow to us because of anything other than sheer grace. Paul, in his speech in Acts, talks about how the Lord blesses the people with rain so that their crops may grow. Every simple act of sustaining you to live is a merciful action of the Father. The reason for being grateful is not that you have something that someone else doesn’t. The reason for being grateful is because you have something that should have been withheld from you, and rightly so. All the food in your refrigerator, heck, even your refrigerator, is a merciful blessing not a blessing of achievement. Every breath you draw in and exhale and repeat is a merciful blessing. God is not obligated to you. He owes you nothing – except wrath.
It is critical that we see ourselves no better than anyone. Yes, cures are good, healthy food is beneficial; strength to live another day because you ate well is a good thing to have from the Lord. But this it is a sad state when we try to conjure up gratefulness by comparing. It’s like comparing a dead apple to a dead orange and saying one is better than another. If all we have to offer to Africa is a cure for AIDS, then we ultimately have nothing to offer Africa. It’s time we start learning from our African brothers and sisters in Christ, who live lives in constant faith, trusting the Father that even their only meal the next day will come. If there is anything to draw from their situation, it is that. Your ability to work long enough and hard enough to pay for the good things you have is as much a mercy from God as it is for the poor around the world to eat a bowl of flown-in-rice, if I dare say, even more. This alone should drive us to our knees: that a God who is flinted on justice has abated for the time, and has unloaded the storehouses of Heavens mercies upon us opulent Americans, who so often neglect and reject this mercy. And this should be utmost in our consciences in missions, that God has been merciful to allow us to take his message of forgiveness without being hindered.
I wish this were the message we preached. Not: be grateful – you have more than others. But instead: be grateful – you serve a merciful God.