For a long time, I’ve heard thoughtful and honest people react to close encounters with poverty and hardship with something to the effect of, “It really makes me thankful for what I have.”
Maybe they’re on day two of a short term mission trip to a majority-world country, or on their way home from serving at the homeless shelter.
The comment is given with the best of intentions and in humility, even. It’s met with nodding, spiritually-minded approval by others who are also thankful for their apparent self-sufficiency.
But it’s a thankfulness that I think is severely misplaced and ultimately out of ignorance. I say that neither rudely nor casually. Our materialistic, existential culture is numbingly difficult to navigate through while clinging to the other-worldly, counter-cultural truth Jesus has given us. Inundated with messages from a completely different value system, it’s easy to become misguided and coached into thinking that the fundamental goals our culture pushes don’t conflict with Jesus’ teaching at all, but rather agrees with it.
This isn’t new. It happens everywhere and in every culture, and it’s dangerous every time. But even more dangerous is when we are unwilling to dig down and root it out. When we don’t, worldly truths and eternal truths get so twisted together that it all seems the same. Scripture is minimized and humanism, the worldview that tells us our own happiness and flourishing is more important than anything, becomes the definition of “blessing” and what God wants to give those He loves.
The point of going on a mission trip, locally or internationally, is not to come back essentially saying, “Whew! Dodged that bullet!” Rather, it’s a chance to learn and encounter how the gospel still fits (in fact, sometimes even better) into such a different world and value system than what we’re used to. It’s a chance to learn and be influenced and wrecked as much as it is about helping others. My fear is that one of the most common reactions, which we consider to be humble and thankful, is more akin to the heart of the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18 than the Good Samaritan from Luke 10.
That’s offensive and extreme. You don’t have to tell me. But it’s also why Jesus was embraced the least by those who enjoyed the laps of luxury and privilege in their day. And those with a lot of wealth who did decide to follow Him each reacted to His message with a radical, value-altering shift in their lifestyles and thinking. The rich young ruler thought he could handle it but he just couldn’t let go. He was too “thankful” for his lifestyle. Zacchaeus, meanwhile, didn’t even need to be asked.
Do you see how slippery of a slope this posture of “thankfulness for what we have” is? Especially in a materialistic culture such as ours? There’s nothing immediately wrong with being thankful for what we have. Of course we should acknowledge the roof over our heads and food in the pantry. But if we don’t also recognize that what we’ve been given is not ultimately for ourselves, or that it’s been given to us as tools to help us generously glorify God, we’re immediately in violation of the Greatest Commandment.
It can only be Satan who is making us think all this stuff is for us and that God wants to give us even more. The same God who sacrificed for us and asks us to sacrifice our own lifestyles to illustrate how much better He is than what we can see or hope for in this life.
What do we suspect was on the minds of the priest and the Levite as they crossed to the other side of the road to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan? As they passed by the unfortunate victim who had just been mugged, sympathy-born gratitude would have likely filled their hearts that what happened to this man did not happen to them. They could have even offered a prayer to God, saying, “How good you are to spare me of that!”
Jesus surprises all of His listeners when He brings the Samaritan– a citizen of a regretful class of half-breeds– into the picture and uses his generosity to redefine love for our neighbor. The man living in rejection from the privileges of his own society is apparently best-suited for obedience.
This lesson soars over most of our heads. It doesn’t register for many of us, who are mainly among the social classes who have all the opportunities and excuses to keep busy with no time to stop along the road. Make no mistake: we are the citizens who are most likened to the highly respected priest and the privileged Levite.
Let’s consider these passers-by. A priest would have likely worked extremely hard to get to such a position. As an extremely respected authority, he would have likely had more than enough resources (or even general influence) to help the man in the ditch. The Levite, who was born into his privilege, would have likewise been in a position to help the man. But neither of them stopped. Too busy. Too inconvenient. Most likely thankful, though, even if they were also thinking of some of the mistakes the victim could have made that ultimately led to such a regrettable circumstance.
This blows the lid off what Micah 6:8 means by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. It neglects everything about loving others as ourselves, the blessedness of the poor, and doing to others in the name of Jesus.
How useful is our thankfulness in those moments? What does it actually say about our hearts? What if we were to discover that the people we were pitying were actually more thankful, more blessed, and closer to God than we are? What if we actually believed the first would be last and the last first? How quickly would we flock to the side of those who are more-openly relying on God each and every day for their basic needs, just to witness and experience the blessing and goodness of God with them?
We are ignorant to not recognize that we are all equally dependent on God for our lives. A fatal car accident or brain aneurism doesn’t care if you know where your next meal is coming from, or if you’ve got a nice retirement prepared for yourself. We don’t will our hearts to beat. And so in that sense, it’s ridiculous to use the world’s standards of comfort to define how blessed and favored we are by God. That would instantly make Him cruel and miserly because the vast majority of the world is barely scraping by financially. It completely negates the fact that He is graciously sustaining each of us moment by moment.
There must be another purpose, then, for why He has allowed some to accumulate. And the only one I can think of that is consistent with the scriptures is that we are the vehicles He has chosen to help the downcast. We are the way He provides the gracious second chance that we would all ask for ourselves (loving others as we love ourselves). The gospel, which we are living ambassadors for, introduces and celebrates a God who would go out of His way to give of Himself for a group of people undeserving and helpless.
How can we illustrate this without giving of ourselves and what we’ve been given? Invest it, sure. But invest it to allow us to live simply and yet generously.
I know many people who are one paycheck away from homelessness despite working 10 times harder than someone who is worth millions. I’ve met horribly spoiled, rich kids who make worse decisions than a kid in the projects, and yet the rich kid gets off scot-free while the kid from the projects is locked up without even due process of law. He gets a criminal record that instantly makes him unable to get the job he grew up dreaming about while the rich kid is handed a golden key. I know people who were taken to prison because the only place they could afford to live while getting back on their feet happened to turn into the wrong place at the wrong time.
The reality is that we have no reason to have what we have. It’s a lie that our comfort is a blessing. More times than not, comfort seems to be the anesthesia used to keep us asleep and unaware of the real life happening around us. It keeps us sidelined and blinded to the miraculous show illustrating why God made the universe in the first place– to reveal His eternal and infinite glory and to be known as a forgiving and loving Father.
When we let our thankfulness stop at just being glad we don’t have it as tough as others, we miss the boat on the majority of what Jesus came to reveal. In that form of thankfulness, we are not seeing God as our most desirable possession and our resources as instruments of worship. We are expressing a subconscious belief that what we have and how comfortably we live is what life is all about. There is no gospel present.
This is far more obvious to unbelievers than we probably realize. And it’s hurting the Church because the message we share is horribly inconsistent with many of our accumulation-focused lifestyles.
The really terrifying thing about all of this is that Jesus is actually willing to let us count earthly, perishable things as our eternal treasure. He warned us. He told us that it’s all just water-weight and will be burned up in the renewing of all things. It’s on us now to believe that.
At the end of the age, we will receive the object of our deepest desire– whether it still has value or not.