Gratitude and Good Intentions

November 24, 2014

This season shines a bright spotlight on our practices of giving thanks. What the spotlight reveals isn’t always pretty. In recent weeks it’s struck me that “thanks giving” is something that I treat a bit like housework: I know it’s important to do, and I mean to get around to it. But I keep putting it off while the clutter and junk stacks up–whether it’s in my house or in my heart. Then there’s a binge. With housecleaning, this usually involves my whole family and the better part of a Saturday. With giving thanks, particular points on the calendar and in the liturgical year of the church seem to elicit bursts of grateful praise. Whether it’s cleaning or thanksgiving, when I finally set aside the time to do it, I see and feel the benefits and wonder why I didn’t make it a regular habit, employing the discipline to make it part of my daily routine.

Perhaps that word discipline is at the heart of the problem. Too often, I wait for gratitude to spontaneously appear, rather than cultivating a spirit of thankfulness. And too often, when I feel an inner nudge to plant and water thankfulness, I neglect to pause, instead barreling ahead with my own agenda or trying to deal with the problems of the day. In short, the trouble with my thanksgiving is that I tend to “do gratitude” like Jonah.

From inside the belly of a huge fish sent to save him from drowning when he rebelliously tried to sail away from God, Jonah prayed what should have been a prayer of repentance and gratitude. Instead, Jonah focused on himself and retelling how he had nearly perished: the currents swirled, waves and breakers swept over him, the waters threatened to engulf him, the deep surrounded him, seaweed wrapped around his head, and he sank to the roots of the mountains (Jonah 2:1-8). It was God, he acknowledged, who saved him from the sea. But for the most part, Jonah’s prayer focused on himself and retelling his troubles, rather than a thankful account of what God had done to save him.

The big finale to Jonah’s underwater prayer promised that if God would bring him back to dry land, he would give thanks with fanfare, sacrifice, and loud praise:

“But I, with shouts of grateful praise,

will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will make good.

I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (Jonah 2:9)

A prayer full of good intentions.

My own experience with good intentions makes it easy for me to imagine Jonah in the belly of the fish, picturing himself on dry land, breathing clean air, soaking up seaside sunshine in a wild abandon of gratitude. He had every intention of following through on the extravagant thanksgiving that he promised: when this was all over, he would shout “Salvation comes from the LORD!” even as he dragged the biggest and best animals to the altar for sacrifice. From his miserable berth in the fish’s belly, Jonah assured himself that no matter who was watching or what he was doing, if ever he made it back to the land of the living, he would keep shouting out his praise while he fulfilled a vow that would prove just how well he understood what he owed the Lord.

Maybe Jonah made good on his vows. Or perhaps, when the fish vomited him onto dry land and into the light of day and fresh beach air, it occurred to him that he had gone a little overboard with his promises. Was shouting praise really necessary?

The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Jonah followed up on his promises. What we do know is that any shouts of gratitude from Jonah were soon overshadowed by bitterness and rebelliousness. For God didn’t rescue Jonah so that he could spend his days at the beach. Rather, God rescued Jonah to redirect him. He sent the reluctant prophet straight to where he was supposed to go in the first place: to Ninevah. Jonah went. He preached repentance. But it seems this was as torturous for him as his three days and three nights in the dark and putrid belly of a fish. Ninevah was so big that “it took three days to go through it.” When the people repented, Jonah did not give thanks. Every Ninevite, from the greatest to the least, from the king to the animals, joined in fasting and calling urgently on God. But Jonah, instead of celebrating God’s mercy, was livid. He prayed that the LORD would take his life. So much for shouts of gratitude.

Eventually, the prophet became so embittered that he sulked and pouted about the death of a plant that God had provided to give shade to him. Jonah spit out a response to God that was characteristically dramatic:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (Jonah 4:9)

We might be tempted to laugh at Jonah, were he not so pathetic….and so much like us. In the heat of the desert sun, tired, humiliated, and perplexed by how much God’s will differed from his own desires, he raged. Gratitude? A passing fancy.

I can relate to Jonah. Too often, gratitude is something I intend to do on another day–when I’m not so busy with the current crisis, when I can make a big show of how thankful I am. When things don’t go my way, it is easy to get caught up in the drama and fixate on the tales of woe–all the ways I nearly drowned, all the sins of the Ninevites, all of the intolerable injustices, all of the little disappointments, all of the ways I am sure that my way is the way things ought to be. I forget to sing God’s praises, to seek his will and a heart for him, to focus on his mighty power and saving grace, to tell the story of Jesus and his love. I lose sight of the real drama: the incomprehensible story of the Creator of the universe, rescuing us by becoming one of us and dwelling among us, giving us life by conquering death, making all things new.

Simply resolving to be more thankful doesn’t work. Despite my best intentions, I quickly forget, and instead fret after the desires of my sinful heart. It’s a rare day that thankfulness springs up spontaneously. And no wonder: “How can you say good things when you are sinful? The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34). My heart needs cleaning–daily. Regular house cleaning, if you will. My daily prayer must be, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). My heart’s store of reluctance and rebellion needs to be replaced with songs of thankfulness and praise, with prayers in tune with the psalms–prayers that focus not on me, but on God, what he has done, and my desire for him and his will. Today, every day, is the day to recount vivid stories of God’s goodness. Today is the day to shout: “My salvation has come from the Lord!”

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