There's a medium-sized river birch tree in our backyard with a lovely shape and exotic, silvery bark that gleams in the sun. This year, the bark is hard to miss because the tree is leafless, stone dead.
This same time last year all the leaves turned yellow and fell off long before all the other trees on our property surrendered theirs up. Spring came and nothing green appeared on our tree with the metallic-looking bark. A few weeks ago, that bark split and startled me with a bizarre revelation: some plant had grown up under the birch's bark, encircled the delicate living part of the trunk, and strangled the life out of the tree.
I know of parasitic plants from the tropics that will girdle a tree, but I'm at a loss to explain this.
However, I'm not at a loss to explain what strangles the life out of Christians in America. In our materially wealthy country, more than one Christian walk has been girdled by thanklessness.
I'm not going to win any friends by saying this, but I'm going to say it right off—many people in America are ingrates, and that goes for American Christians, too.
Yes, we are the country famed for our one day a year in which we are thankful. Increasingly, I hear that day referred to as "Turkey Day" and not "Thanksgiving Day." One year, the well-known retail computer company I worked for jumped the Christmas stuff grab by opening for a half day on Thanksgiving Day. I still can't get over that one.
Regardless of whether or not there's a holiday set aside for Americans to give thanks, we live as ungrateful wretches most of the year. I believe that part of this is due to the fact we have so much money that we never have to truly rely on God for our daily existence.
For a few people, though, life is marked by losing rather than accumulating. My wife and I have been married for nine years and through much of that time we have been assaulted by loss. We take refuge in something and find it taken away as soon as we acknowledge how much it has helped us. Blink and it's gone.
What this has taught me is that the Lord alone is our daily portion. But it was only through loss that I learned this. Oh sure, if pressed plenty of people say they're thankful, but it's lip service. Take too many things away and they'll gripe like there's no tomorrow.
The other part of being thankless is that the blinders go on. We stop noticing how we are provided for by God. We stop noticing that other people are desperately lacking in the basics. Meanwhile, we moan because our kid got shut out of the exclusive Montessori school that all the VIPs send their kids to. We cry about the fact that we don't have the latest electronic gadget while the couple sitting next to us in church is facing foreclosure on their home because they cannot pay for their medical bills after a prolonged—and expensive—illness struck unexpectedly.
Thankful people, on the other hand, have their eyes made wide by God. They see what God has provided in the natural world and give thanks for it. "Isn't that butterfly gorgeous! Wow, look at the spiral web of that garden spider. Isn't God's world amazing?" They see other people's needs and they meet them. "I hear the Yoders' crops got burned up in this drought, hon. Let's call the electric company and offer to pay their utility bills for the rest of the year." They see hurt and they bring joy into the pain. "That old widow lady who lives alone, Mrs. Samms, had a stroke. Let's go to the hospital and sit with her for a few hours."
The ingrate says, "Look at what I have accomplished by my own effort! Look at all the things I have!" The thankful person says, "God, all I have is yours, even the hours of the day, and I am only the steward of your good provision."
We know about the root of bitterness from the Scripture. But I also wonder if there is not a root of ungratefulness that strangles just as well. Perhaps the two are the same wicked plant.
When we are filled with thanklessness, we
- Cannot forgive others because we are not thankful that we have been forgiven
- Cannot live in humility because it requires the death of the bragging self that takes credit away from God
- Cannot praise God because praise is the essence of thanksgiving
- Cannot pray because we have become self-sufficient and have no need of God
- Cannot love because love means acknowledging others, even when they have nothing they can give us.
In short, ingrates cannot know Christ, no matter how much they protest that they do.
The lesson of thankfulness is one I learned through suffering and fear of loss. I always thought I was thankful, but it wasn't until I understood that I could actually lose everything that I made every prayer I prayed afterwards begin with, "Lord, how thankful I am to You…." This is how I've taught my son to pray, too. Sadly, he does not get too many opportunities to have this truth reinforced by others around him. He once wanted to know why we are the only family that prays for our meals when we eat out in public. That's an especially difficult question to answer when you live in what many consider the very heart of "Jesusland."
There are times I believe that thanklessness is the number one reason that the Church in America has reached a plateau and can go no further. I believe that living in ungratefulness has stymied more blessings than nearly any other failure we can bring down upon our heads. Thanklessness is the very act of robbing God, and God does not suffer thieves who want to plunder what is rightfully His—even when they pretend to come in His name.
Thankfulness may indeed be a little thing, but the lack of it can choke the life out of us.