Expressing Gratitude

This month every year in the United States, people are encouraged to pause in order to express thanks for blessings which have occurred in their lives over the year. A specific day has been set aside to do exactly this. The roots of Thanksgiving Day are found in the story of English settlers experiencing their first harvest in the new world.

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times.The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest, which the Pilgrims celebrated with native Americans, who helped them pass the last winter by giving them food in the time of scarcity.

Wikipedia

Thinking about the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving once again in three weeks prompted me to consider what it means to be thankful and show gratitude. To be a bit more specific, I have been thinking about gratitude in the light of my faith. Especially since the above words found in Wikipedia make mention of prayers and ceremonies among almost all religions.

There exist a variety of ways to express gratitude. Most often we think of using words to express gratitude. This may be as simple as saying, thank you, or may be longer by expressing exactly what prompts us to be thankful and how our life has been impacted. At other times, actions we take may be an expression of our gratitude.

So how do we go about expressing gratitude to God?

As a Christian, I believe that all I have and all that I am are gifts from God. God has chosen to bestow material items, means to purchase material items, talents I use, and knowledge which I have obtained upon me. God gives to me even the breath which I take and the food which sustains me. Nothing in my life exists except through the giving of it to me by God. So how do I express gratitude for my very life and everything within it?

Scripture contains suggestions which might be helpful:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micha 6:8

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Matthew 25:34-40

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

John 4:11

Many other passages can be found which prompt us to give thanks to God. I lift these passages up to you because they talk not about words, or even worship, but about attitude and action. God warns the people that they can do all forms of worship and abide by the sacrificial laws which existed for ancient Israel but that without the correct actions and attitude, their expressions are hollow. (See Isaiah 1:10-18) This warning leads me to think that the best way to express gratitude to God is through our actions and attitude. I think God finds this most pleasing.

So as you pause this month to consider those aspects of your life which generate gratitude in your heart towards God, I encourage you not to just express your gratitude in words but more importantly in actions and attitude.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

Word By Word

A variety of writing types are available for one to read. Each writing and book has its own purpose. Textbooks are intended to communicate knowledge to those seeking to gain insights into a particular field, skill, or set of facts. Volumes from throughout the ages contain poetry which are intended to inspire, comfort, encourage, or unleash creative thought. Other books are fictional in nature which paint stories for a reader to follow. Fictional books are intended to be for entertainment or relaxation. Some books actually contain elements of more than one of these genres. A book which contains more than one of these genres listed above is the Bible.

Within the Bible are historical facts and events. Some portions which give insights. Poetry and imagery is scattered throughout this book. Words of encouragement, comfort and inspiration are shared at various locations. You will discover stories that entertain, teach, and inspire. These wonderful elements written by different individuals over thousands of years are assembled in a book which we now call the Bible. The question is, what do you do with this book?

Some individuals have made an attempt to use the Bible as a history book. Others have chosen to look at this book as a rule book. Still other people see the Bible as just a group of fictional stories written by ancient people who were trying to explain the world which they experienced without any factual or scientific understanding. I would argue that the Bible was intended to tell the story of God, God’s people, and the world God created.

Here are some important realities which must impact our approach to the Bible:

  • Most of the writings included in the Bible began as oral stories passed from one generation to the next.
  • Writings are by multiple authors who lived in a variety of times and locations.
  • The cultures from which the stories and authors originated are in most cases not the same as your own but shape the way the stories, events and thoughts are communicated.
  • The original languages of the writings which we inherit are Greek and Hebrew, not English.
  • A fair number of Hebrew and Greek words do not have English equivalents.
  • Symbolism is frequent throughout the Bible.
  • Interpretation of meaning depends upon the interpreter.
  • Duplication of the writings before the printing press depended on a reader and a gathering of scribes who tried to write down what they heard read.
  • Edits of the texts have occurred from the beginning of sharing these stories.
  • The decision of which writings would be included in the canonized Bible was constituted by a group of humans.
  • While the writings were inspired by God, humans wrote them.

If you combine the different forms of writing along with the realities which I have listed, a great disservice is done to the Bible by anyone who would choose a literal interpretation approach when engaging with this book. Instead, the best approach is to look at a passage and seek the major meaning within that passage. Asking questions like,

“What are the key concepts presented here?”

“How might the people of that time understand this passage?”

“What is the overarching message here?”

are helpful. Doing a little research into the historical setting and the cultural background of the ideas will aid a person who wishes to place the passage in the correct context. Then you are able to find the connections with your own context.

The Bible was intended to give insight, not to be the sole source of understanding our relationship with God and each other. When you interact with all the elements of the Bible, you find it to be an enriching and a wonderful guide to deeper relationships. Do not take each word at face value or you will lose the true beauty of this book.