When thankfulness dishonours God
Often I hear Christians talk about how they are greatly thankful to God for certain things. And while at the surface that may seem to be signs of a life that glorifies God, I am not always entirely sure that is the case. And if we look under the surface we may find something very troubling…
In an earlier post I wrote about how hatred of sin could in fact dishonour God. Today in a similar way I want to point out how our thankfulness to God is not necessarily the same as love for God. And in fact our thankfulness could mask the ugly face of idolatry.
Consider the following situations:
At the front of our house spiders sometimes build their webs across the path. And it’s a real pain to walk into one. And so if I can find a stick to swoosh the spider webs aside, that is excellent. It saves me a lot of trouble. It means that I don’t have bits of spider web in my hair and on my clothes when I’m rushing to someplace important. And so yes, I am thankful for the stick. It performs a useful function for me. I couldn’t have done it without the stick. But of course I don’t love the stick. No way!
I have many good things in my house: large televisions. shiny gadgets. expensive artwork. And of course, I’m exceedingly thankful for the roof that protects all those things from the rain. It is such a strong and dependable roof. I would be lost without that roof, really! All those things inside my house would have been completely damaged long ago! I don’t give my roof much thought – but yes, there’s no doubt about it, I’m hugely thankful for my roof.
Of course I am thankful for my husband. He is so good to me: he fills the bank account every month, he drives me to the shops, he waits for me while I try on clothes. And yes I do have to make sacrifices – we all do, don’t we? He wants me to be with him, he calls on me to give away some of my clothes. But despite those sacrifices I have to make, he is still so good to me.
Yes, thankfulness is a mark of true Christianity (eg. Rom 1:8, Col 2:7, Heb 12:28). And it may seem that, by at the virtue of giving thanks to God for things, this is in itself a pleasing thing. Because look at all those people who don’t give thanks to God (eg. Rom 1:21)! At least I acknowledge God as the one who saves and protects and provides!
But be careful: we may be thankful of something or someone, grateful for something, because it is helpful for us in achieving what we really desire. Because it is helpful to us in preserving what is our greatest treasure. But that treasure may not be God at all! Yes God is thanked, but merely because he is a helpful ally in getting and preserving this other thing which I really have on my heart.
And so one might be thankful to God because he has given us a good life in Australia, because we got into a good course, because we avoided a serious health scare. But that does not necessarily mean that we love God – it may simply mean that we love prosperity, we love academic success, we love to cling on to life. And God? well he is only a useful stick. a convenient means for securing what I have really longed for all this while.
Sure, in this account I might acknowledge God to be a uniquely powerful stick. I might testify that there is nothing that I could have used that could have equalled his power in giving me a good life – but ultimately, he is still a stick. a tool. To help me achieve what I desire most of all.
We see this dynamic at work in John 6 when Jesus feeds five thousand people – with extra to spare! But later in the chapter Jesus has strong words for those who track him down and follow him to where he has gone. He tells them off for not recognising who he is through the miracle – and for only wanting him for the loaves that fill their bellies (John 6:26). You can see that this kind of ‘worship’ is rejected by Jesus. This ‘worship’ which sees him as only a useful means to something else does him no honour – and in fact dishonours him!
And so thankfulness, gratefulness does not necessarily honour God. It may actually dishonour God, as we treat him as our useful servant. Thankfulness is not necessarily the same as love!
Pastorally, it can be very useful to observe the things that people are thankful for – and the things they never give thanks for. Because these can reveal what is truly on our hearts. Does their praise centre on the cross? or on material blessings alone? Does their praise even encompass the loss of material blessings, if that loss has led to a greater love for God? or does thankfulness only come when material blessings mount up? You can see that the circumstances and object of gratitude can give telling clues about what it is that a person loves.
Christians should be a thankful people. We should be overflowing with thankfulness (Col 2:7), and we should be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thes 5:18).
But thankfulness to God is only pleasing when he is the object of our love. When it is an act which floods out from a love for God.