The Impossibility of Thanksgiving
A YouTube segment from Conan O'Brien's show entitled "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy," with guest comedian Louis C.K., has been making the rounds. In it, Louis talks about how he was on a plane that offered in flight Wi-Fi access to the Internet, one of the first planes to do so. But when it broke down in a few minutes, the man sitting next to him swore in disgust. Louis was amazed, and said to O'Brien, "How quickly the world owes him something that he didn't know existed 10 seconds ago."
Louis then talked about how many of us describe less-than perfect airline flights as if they were experiences from a horror film: "It was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn't board for 20 minutes! And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there in the runway for 40 minutes!"
Then he said mockingly, "Oh really. Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? … Everybody on every plane should be going, 'O my God, wow!' … You're sitting in a chair in the sky!" And then he mocks a passenger who, trying to push his seat back, complains, "It doesn't go back a lot!"
The segment is humorous because we recognize ourselves in it. That's human nature. We take things for granted so quickly, so easily fall out of a state of gratefulness.
This week, we'll hear plenty of stories that show our ungratefulness, along with admonitions to be more thankful. Some pleas will be appropriately sentimental or patriotic. But when we think about gratefulness theologically, we find that such pleas are, in the end, not very helpful. We discover that gratefulness is a human impossibility—and a gift.
Several biblical passages talk about thanksgiving, but few get to the heart of the matter better than Ephesians 5:20, where the apostle Paul says we should be " … giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The idea of giving thanks is central to Paul's entire ministry. We see it not only here, but in many of his letters.
For example, to the Colossians he writes, "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father … " (1:11-12) To the Thessalonians he says, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Many other examples abound.
And he practices what he preaches. To the Romans, he says, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you" (1:8). In his first letter to Corinth, he writes, "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus" (1:4). To the Ephesians he explains, "I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers" (1:16). And on it goes.
Paul is a thanksgiving junkie. And he is so because he understands that thankfulness is not one of many virtues that characterize the Christian life, but the characteristic of faith.
To look at it from the other side: It is not pride nor greed nor lust but ungratefulness that he says has caused so much confusion and despair on the planet: "For although they knew God," Paul writes of humanity, "they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom. 1:21). From there, he describes how things just got worse and worse and worse, so that in the end, he can only describe humankind as "foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (1:31). And it all begins with ungratefulness.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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