Tag Archives: Thinking

Gratitude

Thanksgiving has come and gone and we now find ourselves fully immersed in the lead-up to Christmas.  However, one of the things Thanksgiving turkeys are known for is their encore appearances as leftovers.  It is in this spirit of culinary sequels from the fridge that I would like to spend some post-Thanksgiving time thinking on being thankful.

Thankfulness or gratitude is an idea that often crosses our mind (to a greater or lesser degree) on a daily basis as we pray before each meal.  Other times we encounter it as part of Sunday worship.  Yet other times we are grateful when we are blessed in a particular way or when a specific crisis is averted.  Regardless of the context, we typically think about thankfulness and gratitude as a feeling.  We feel thankful.  With this heuristic in place, we judge our degree of thankfulness based on the feeling of being thankful and seek to produce that feeling when we think we ought to be thankful.  There is a difference, however, between feeling thankful and being thankful.

To feel thankful is a feeling and, by definition, is something that is temporary.  It is therefore impossible that we should feel thankful all of the time:  this feeling will come and go as it replaces and is replaced by other feelings woven throughout our lives such as happiness, sadness, anger, cheerfulness, and so on.  Our feeling thankful will also be affected by things such as how tired we are, where our attention is focused, and a whole host of other factors beyond the other feelings coming and going from our consciousness.  The sum of the matter is that our feeling of thankfulness ultimately comes up short as a means by which to evaluate whether we are living our lives with gratitude or not:  it is too vague and volatile a thing.  For example, we may become especially adept at producing this feeling of gratitude by our own efforts at the times we deem appropriate.  Yet, in spite of our feeling the right way at the right time, we may not possess the least bit of genuine gratitude.

This begs the question:  what is gratitude?  What is thankfulness?  From the above we can glean that it is not a feeling as we often suppose at first glance.  The feeling stems from something else and is an echo or footprint of that something else.  When we attempt to artificially produce this feeling, we are no closer to gratitude than an artist attempting to convey the idea of a cat by drawing only its tracks.  We may be very good at drawing paw prints, but that doesn’t mean we know what a cat is.  Nonetheless, we can learn some things about a cat by its footprints and the same holds true with gratitude.

Gratitude invariably shifts us out of the center of attention and instead focuses on something outside ourselves.  It goes against the grain of the self-made man or woman that is idolized by our culture and instead acknowledges the fact that, while we exercise agency and stewardship in our lives, we did not create ourselves.  From here, it is not difficult to see that gratitude is a very close relative of humility and has a large chunk of the same DNA.  As such, being thankful means that we are necessarily humble.  Being thankful, just like being humble, translates into action and how we live our lives.  It seeps into our attitudes and dispositions.

Rather than a feeling, gratitude is what we might call an attitude of the heart:  something that is near the core of our being and that affects everything which proceeds from our heart, be it word, thought, or deed.  It is not something that we turn on and off at will.  Of course, there are times when it closer to the forefront of our minds than others, but this does not affect its presence and influence in us.  As we grow in our relationship with God, gratitude becomes a stronger influence in our lives.  This is because we come to rely on God more fully and keep Him in mind in all we do.  Gratitude is a natural outcome of growing intimacy with God.  It proceeds from an increasingly God-centered view of the world and of ourselves.

Gratitude is a topic that is worth thinking on and digesting as we move into the Christmas season and Advent.  With reminders of Christ’s first coming so readily before our eyes and minds, it is a fitting time to consider our response to the love that God shows us.  Do we take it for granted or do we respond with thankfulness?

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Square One

There are times and stretches of time in our lives when it seems as though there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope of something better.  Or, even if we can envision something better, it appears to be forever out of our reach.  God seems distant and disinterested as we view our faith as more of a nice thought than anything of substance.  What do we do when everything seems so messed up and out of joint with both ourselves and the world in general?

What I wish to offer here is not any sort of quick-fix solution to magically solve all problems or a list of platitudes that just tell us to feel better, for hope is not built upon such things.  Instead, what I aim to do is present starting points, a series of “square-ones” as it were.  These are facts that help us to take our next step in the right direction and, just as important, help us to not give up.

1)  Jesus Christ is in Heaven.

 Yes, this seems like a rather vanilla statement, but we ought not to lose sight of what it entails.   Christ has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven:  He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world and was elevated to the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 8:1).  There, having returned to His place at the Father’s side and opened the way for us to be reconciled to our God, Christ makes intercession for us to the end that we share in the fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:25, John 17:20-26).  We are never so far removed from God that we cannot reach Him and He cannot reach us.  When we come to God and throw ourselves upon His mercy, we have Jesus Christ as our Advocate, to speak for us and support us.

2)  The Spirit dwells in us.

 Though Christ is in Heaven interceding for us, we have not been left alone.  He, Himself, promised that a Helper, the Holy Spirit, would come to us and abide with us (John 14:15-18).  Through the Spirit’s indwelling, God dwells in our hearts so that He is always near.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us in life to help and to guide us.  He is our advocate as we live on earth, reminding us of our true North and directing us closer to God.  In the midst of our weakness, in our hours of darkness, He also helps us by speaking on our behalf when we do not know what to say (Romans 8:26).  God is near to us even in the thick of the fray and is active in our lives even when we feel far from Him.  The Spirit helps us, speaks to us, and makes God known to us (John 16:13-15).

3)  We have the power to choose.

Because of what God has done for us, we are no longer slaves to sin or ignorance.  Instead, we have the help and tools before us to make meaningful decisions in our lives.  We can choose what kind of person we are going to be and what we are going to make of our current circumstances.  We can choose to remain faithful even when we feel so distant.  Even when we feel powerless, we are still able to make choices of eternal significance.  When we stumble and fall or are plain knocked down, there are always at least two options:  to stay down, or to get back up.  This is a choice that we and we alone can make.  We make it countless times throughout our lives and we make it especially often when we are struggling with sin or facing a difficult life situation.  No matter how many times we have to make it, it is always ours to make.

The points above remain constant, regardless of where we find ourselves in our Christian walk.  The worst thing that we can do is give up and succumb to despair, for then we have shut out hope ourselves.  However, if we can keep the above in mind, it will help us to remember the eternal hope we have and, in light of that hope, continue to put one foot in front of the other in our current situation.  This may be seeking out the help we need, it may be continuing in prayer despite being pressed by desolation, it may even be as simple as choosing to smile.

In spite of the darkness that may surround us and give us a bleak outlook on life, there is a light and power within us of great and eternal significance.  It is a light and power that is cared about by God and that He wishes to nurture and grow.  He has given us a key role in this process.  We can choose what to do with it at any given time and the hope that is thereby placed before us is a solid footing.


The Value of Effort

In the world of Pokémon, you will find that Pokémon raised by trainers are consistently stronger than wild Pokémon, even those of the same species and level.  They will have higher stats (attack, defense, special attack, special defense, and speed), making them more effective and more capable than their wild counterparts.  If we take a peek behind the scenes, we see that the reason for this is a system based on effort values (EVs).  When a Pokémon is victorious in battle, it gains a certain number of EVs based on the Pokémon it defeated.  These EVs come into play when the Pokémon levels up.  Each time a Pokémon increases in level, its stats increase, making it progressively stronger.  (Hence why a level 65 Charizard is significantly scarier than a level 36 Charizard.)  EVs add a bonus increase to stats on top of the increase that comes with the level-up.  Therefore, a Pokémon who works with a trainer will be stronger than a wild Pokémon of the same level.

There is something to be gleaned from this game mechanic to illustrate a mechanic of our spiritual walk.  Our faith is often tested as we proceed through life:  it is challenged by tragic experiences, tough questions, and valleys of uncertainty.  We have a vibrant relationship with God, so why did our loved one die so early?  We serve an all-powerful, all-good God, so why is there so much evil in the world?  Things have been so dry and empty in our spiritual life lately, was there anything to it to begin with?  It is not a question of if, but when we will be confronted with questions like these that upset our applecart and force us to critically think about our faith.  As disheartening as these struggles are, we grow and come to better understand our faith as we work through them.

These struggles make us look under the hood of what we believe and force us to answer the question of why we believe.  This does not mean that we will have a perfectly packaged answer for every question.  What it does mean is that we have tempered our faith with these questions.  We can learn a stupendous amount of information about the world around us through the many sciences and disciplines that have blossomed from the collective human psyche.  However, there still remain questions that stubbornly evade the reach of these tools.  These are questions addressed by faith and religion.  They persist because they cannot be answered purely through logic and reason, we simply do not have the information at our disposal to do that.  Thus, we find ourselves coming to grips with these problems, and, sometimes, God Himself, in a much more personal way.  We come to God without pretense and with our hearts open to Him.

Of course, it is certainly easier to simply regurgitate a stock answer (a Sunday School answer, as they’re sometimes called) and thereby avoid engaging God or those things which question our faith.  It is functionally little different than pulling the covers up over our heads.  Sure, they let us move along, but we do not grow.  Interestingly, there is another parallel we may draw from Pokémon.  There is an item in the games called “Rare Candy.”  Giving a Pokémon a Rare Candy makes it automatically level up using the minimum amount of experience needed.  They can be useful if one needs to level up immediately, but there is a profound catch:  levelling up with Rare Candy does not earn EVs which means that the bonuses they provide to stats will not be applied.  The result is that a Pokémon levelled up using primarily Rare Candy will be weaker than a Pokémon who levels up by earning experience in battle.  Likewise, if we constantly feed ourselves platitudes, we may be able to maintain our faith and say that we have been a Christian for years, but we will find that our relationship with God comes up woefully shallow when we need to draw from it.

Putting in the time and effort to train Pokémon with EVs yields stronger, more capable Pokémon.  Similarly, when we put in the time and effort to think about and better understand our faith, it strengthens our relationship with God.  In fact, it is not merely a matter of applying our faith but of letting our faith permeate the entirety of our lives.  We do not withhold anything from God as if He were ineffective, but trust and lean fully on Him to help us and guide us through life’s challenges.