A grateful heart

Long ago I read someone complaining that all the good domain names are gone. Someone else replied that, no, we haven’t begun to tap into the great domain names—it’s just that our imaginations are failing us. Sometimes I think the same thing about Christian writing. We go over the same played-out ground again and again, as if surely this time our diligence and good intentions will cause fruit to spring forth. Meanwhile, there are vast fertile areas that go unexplored, mostly because we don’t even think to look there.

I always enjoy it when Amy Scott strays off the well-beaten path and starts exploring in the tall grass. It usually begins with a look at a topic that is conventional enough, like her recent reflection on gratitude, but then takes the reader to unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable places. In this case, she ponders how we aren’t grateful enough—as well as how disappointed we are when others aren’t sufficiently grateful for our good works.

I definitely agree that gratitude is an attitude that needs cultivating, and that the payback is tremendous when we do. But I think we need to distinguish between having a grateful heart, and the desire to experience the gratitude of others. As exquisite as that experience might be, it really does nothing to cultivate gratitude or any other good quality in us. As Jesus points out:

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:7-10)

Since it is the good works that spur the gratitude which are important, and not the gratitude we get in return, perhaps it is best to view that gratitude as gravy.

Gratitude may not be the fundamental concept here. I thought for awhile about how men don’t care so much about experiencing gratitude ("Twarn’t nothin’, ma’am!"), but decided that they want the same thing in different wrapping, namely recognition of their accomplishments. Maybe credit is the right word. Women take theirs in the form of love, men as respect (husbands love your wives, wives respect your husbands ….) but it boils down to the same thing—we’d like the reward for our good works now, thank you.

I like and don’t like the aphorism "There’s no limit to what can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit." In corporate America I saw this used by managers on subordinates, insisting that credit didn’t matter—so as to make it easier to steal the credit from them. But there is a truth there. Long ago I stopped worrying about recognition. I don’t know why, exactly. Part of it came from pondering Jesus’ teachings about laying up treasure in heaven, but not the largest part by far. Part of it was made possible by q growing confidence in my own ability to judge the quality of my work, good and bad; I learned that others were generally pretty poor judges of my work, having opinions based more on their own issues than on what I actually did.

The biggest part—and this is one thing I wish more Christian writers would explore—was the payback I got from adopting this attitude. The best way to express it is freedom. I was increasingly free to do what I think is the right thing because (a) I was increasingly confident that I know the right thing, and (b) I was less and less concerned about other people’s differing ideas about the right thing. (Caveat: by this I don’t mean that I know better than they do, but only that they don’t know any better than I do, since otherwise I would gladly submit to their thinking.)

Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.

There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them. So I’m excited that writers like Amy are pushing into new territory, turning over rocks that the traditional institutions do their best to avoid. Let’s pray these writers have the strength and will to continue pushing until they can present us with answers that satisfy.

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