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The Best Way to be Thankful

Here is a thoughtful reflection by Anne Kennedy on the best way we can be thankful.

I don’t know about you, but inevitably, in the mad dash from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and from thence to Easter, I become entangled in the law.

 Surely you must know about the law. It comprises various rules and regulations sometimes known and articulated explicitly, but more usually hiding in every corner ready to pop out at you and smack you as you walk by. The law can start with words like ‘Don’t’ or ‘You Shall’ but very often it devolves into the smaller and more nasty phrase ‘I have to,’ and ends with deep feelings of frustration and regret.

We human people like laws, even when we say we don’t. I don’t mean the baldly stated ones, the ones printed clearly on the page, or demarcating the road and how fast to go down it, or anything that limits one’s behavior in the moment. If I feel like doing something, I should be allowed to do it. Which sounds like freedom, except that my feelings have essentially transmogrified themselves into the very law I thought I was attempting to get away from.

The best kind of laws, the most pleasurable to live by, are those that we secretly make for ourselves and others. The ones driven by private, hidden expectation, by a desire known only to the one wielding the power. These laws are made and applied to ourselves and others without the hassle of having to pause and think about what we’re doing, and what will happen when we fail and other people fail and the whole world fails. These are best and most precious when they are never spoken, never given the scrutiny of light or air.

The first time I noticed these kinds of laws was several years ago when I kept running into the word ‘grace’ in various blog posts around the inter webs. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with this nice biblical word, but after much consideration and gnashing of teeth, I concluded  that the word grace was being used as if it itself were a part of the law. It was always joined with the words, ‘you need to’ or ‘we need to.’ The posts were always titled stuff like Homeschooling with Grace or Laundry and Grace.

When you come to words like ‘grateful’ and ‘thankful’ it can be even worse. The law of thankfulness, which surely must be the antidote to all your sinning, provides the daily, weekly, and monthly opportunity for you to fail even further. Because now, on top of everything else, you can feel guilty not just about your behavior, but also about your attitude. But then one day you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, develop the perfect system, market it on the internet to other failing mothers, and Voila! Your way is made. You have ascended to the heights and can bask in the misery of all your fellow creatures.

The problem is, the antidote for your failure to keep the law isn’t to try to follow another law. When you sin, the last thing you need to do is just try harder, digging yourself single handedly out of the depths by working really hard to undo the effects of your failure. If you commit murder, you can’t raise the dead, or just make it better by just not murdering any more. You need outside help. You need someone who has the power to forgive you and then to alter the nature of your very person so that you don’t do it any more. And also to raise the dead.

Murder is obvious though. What happens when you inadvertently offend Great Aunt Euodia? She has a secret law written on her heart and there’s no way she is ever going to tell you about it. And when you break it, even if you apologize and seek some kind of restorative action, she will never forgive you. Or worse yet, what if you come to mid December and discover that somehow, without trying, you believed of yourself that you would personally carve tiny nativity scenes out of the sorrow of the earth with your bare hands for all the children of the world, and here you are on the first figure of the first set, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to do it. You look out over all the piles of dust and feel like you can never forgive yourself, and all the children of the world will starve and die because of you. The solution in that case is not to add another law, to transfer all your miserable expectations into the perfect Christmas center piece.

Giving thanks can be just another opportunity to make and break another law. You better be thankful! And extend grace! And be gracious! And have an attitude of gratitude! You lather your efforts at thankfulness all over the piles of broken law, both the real ones that Jesus gives, and all the dumb ones that you make for yourself. It’s like the crowning cupcake in the faltering tower of Pinterest failure. Then you go hide, or just stuff all the misery into a cupboard, letting it sit and fester so that you can pull it out and try it again next year.

No, gratitude isn’t the antidote to sin. It’s not the way to fix that problem. Jesus is. When you do something wrong and terrible, something that you can’t undo, however small or however big, when you go to him and give it to him, he has the power to forgive you, having purchased that power at the cross, and then to undo the effects and troubles wrought by that sin. And honestly, the more time you spend considering who he is (mainly by reading the Bible, as I have mentioned before) the clearer you’ll be about what is actually sinning, and what is you just holding yourself to an impossible and ridiculous standard of your own making.

Then you can be grateful–not conjuring it up to save yourself and the world and your hopes–but relishing it for the gift that it is.

Indeed, all the things that God commands you to have and to be–patient, kind, long suffering, prudent, joyful, forgiving, grateful–he will give you without you having to anxiously strive. You just have go to him and concentrate on his person. You feel like you’re working really hard, and you are, but then you look up from your pie crust, or your vat of safely boiling oil, having gently lowered your turkey into its dark depths, and discover that Jesus gave you freely the thing you’d been striving so hard to hard to attain on your own. As a gift. A gracious one that you didn’t deserve.

You can just have it and enjoy it, waving your cheerful surgery fingers at Great Aunt Euodia struggling into her coat, sending her on her way with her laws and offenses, tucking her expectations into her purse when she isn’t looking and sending them out the door with her. In fact, do the same with yours. Shove them in a bin as the week is beginning. It’ll make it easier to be thankful as the days go by and work mounts up.

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