In a previous article, I argued that we need to retrieve a deeper appreciation of the place of gratitude in the Christian life. More specifically, I argue that gratitude is redeemed humanity’s fundamental response to God, and that the Scriptures were written in large part to teach us how to give thanks to the Lord. This is the inescapable conclusion that follows from understanding who the Lord is (Giver), what he has given us (everything), and how his grace enables our proper response (as Christians). Having already discussed God’s nature as Giver, let us consider how the world comes to us as a gift.
The World—and Everything in It—Is a Gift
Creating is an act befitting a God who is Giver, for creation was a way for God to give himself to people who were loved before they even existed (cf. Eph. 1:4). To imagine the scene poetically, the Trinity was so saturated with love and joy and gratitude that—like a river in flood season—God’s glorious grace-giving life spilled over the banks, creating a glorious grace-filled world (Gen. 1:1; Rev. 4:11). And his grace took the form of rocks and birds, stars and moons, image-bearers and fruit-bearing trees (Gen. 1:2–11). Thus, when Adam and Eve waltzed into a grove of orange trees that they did not plant, they found beautiful fruit easily divisible into little wedges, all bursting at the seams with sticky-sweet grace.
Such grace is God’s modus operandi, as Moses reminded Israel: “When the Lord your God brings you to the land that he promised to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he will give you large and beautiful cities that you did not build, houses filled with every good thing that you did not supply, wells that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” (Deut. 6:10–11, ISV).1 All this led Paul to exclaim, “What do you have that God hasn’t given you?” (1 Cor. 4:7, NLT).2 “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” the psalmist tells us (Psalm 24:1, NIV).3 Yet here we are in God’s world, invited to enjoy it (1 Tim. 6:17). In other words, the world—and everything in it—is a gift, and this truth has several significant implications.
The Givenness of Things
To call the world a gift (which it is) means that the things of the world are things that have been given. This truth, the givenness of things,4 touches on virtually every aspect of both theology, which looks to God as the Giver, and ethics, which anticipates man’s response to his gifts.5 In other words, gratitude (and the category of ‘gift’ to which the subject of gratitude belongs) relates to virtually every issue of our faith.
For example, life itself is a gift. We know this. It’s almost cliché to say so. Yet what I mean is that life is an utterly unique gift since, before this gift of life was given, we did not exist to receive it.6 Thus, to live is to accept a gift from God for which we ought to be grateful. In fact, our existence—even the very possibility for the rebel’s rebellion—only further establishes God’s claim on us (Rev. 4:11). Yet this claim, like all of God’s gifts, is extended for our good. We live in order that we might know him, and in knowing him, we know the joy of eternal life (John 17:3).
In view of all this, the ethicist Paul Camenisch rightly says, “Gift and gratitude language point the Christian to the general stand toward existence and the world which is appropriate in light God’s overwhelming generosity.”7 Or as Peter Leithart states in his masterful book on the subject, “[G]ratitude is the Christian’s fundamental stance in a world that is sheer gift.”8
The Goodness of That Which Is Given
Secondly, if all is a gift (and it is), then we do well to receive it as such, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20, ESV). Or as Paul says in another place: “[G]ive thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18, ESV).
“To live is to accept a gift from God for which we ought to be grateful.”—Doug Ponder
That much is uncontroversial, so allow me to stir the pot: If my decades of experience as a Christian and a pastor are in any way representative of that corner of Christianity known as “evangelicalism,” I submit that far too many have adopted a view of the world that sees God’s world as little more than a taxi to ferry souls to heaven.9 Not only does this a view contradict explicit scriptural teachings (cf. Rev. 21:1-5), but such a view can give little account for mercy ministries or matters of political justice—except as means to evangelistic ends.
Moreover, this quasi-gnostic thinking obscures the mission of God himself, construing salvation as escape instead of redemption (Rom. 8:19–25). It might be difficult to persist in this error, however, if we were actively engaged in thanking God for the world as it actually is (that is, as the Lord has given it to us). For gratitude involves an element of appreciation and enjoyment—one cannot enjoy the gift and despise the gift at the same time. In other words, I propose that we “taste and see that the Lord is good” in all things, that we might come to have gratitude to God for all things.
Receiving Every Good and Perfect Gift
The nature of the world as gift has tremendous relevance for how we “receive” it. Consider, for example, the dietary debates in the New Testament, which increasingly have relevance for our time as well. Speaking in the context of food, Paul summarizes the Bible’s teaching on all gifts: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4, ESV). This includes all the foods we have yet to discover or even invent, for God pre-loaded his world with potential (Gen. 1:28)—the kind that can make coffee from roasted beans, wine from fermented grapes, clothing from woven cotton, houses from harvested wood, lecithin from processed soybeans, and high fructose corn syrup from genetically-modified corn.
To be sure, God’s gifts can be soured by our sinful misuse.10 Consider the use of powerful drugs as a case study. Our nation has been in the midst of “an opioid epidemic” that is claiming the lives of many thousands of people through what are commonly referred to as “deaths of despair.” Clearly, these drugs are powerful, highly addictive, and potentially lethal. Nevertheless, the same drugs (and others belonging to this family) are routinely used in hospitals for their pain relief and anesthetic purposes. This would seem to be the modern equivalent of God saying, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distresses” (Prov. 31:6 ESV). Even strong drugs, therefore, are a gift when used in ways that do not exhibit ingratitude for God’s other gifts.
So, then, there are ways of using any gift (such as the gift of wine) that make it a blessing to the user (cf. Psalm 104:15), even while there are ways of using the same that make it a curse to the user or to those around him (cf. Prov. 20:1). Yet in neither instance is the problem the thing itself. The wine remains a gift, for abusus non tollit usum—abuse does not take away the use. Though it is hard for some to see, the same could be said even of the powerful drugs in question.
Thus, the proper use of a gift is governed by whether its use by a certain person in a certain way for a certain reason brings harm to the user or another person in such a way as to constitute a lack of gratitude to God for other gifts.11 In all these things, then, we must never let the refrain of our posture toward God’s gifts to become “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21). For that is how the Pharisees see the world—not as a gift, but as a trial. Instead, the main message of the Bible concerning God’s gifts, once again, is simply this: “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4, ESV).12
- I just want you to know that I’m about to use three different Bible translations in the span of three sentences. You need to make your peace with this. Feel free to check the Hebrew and Greek (like I did) if it helps you sleep better. ↩
- As a formal defense of the previous footnote, please note that the Greek of 1 Cor. 4:7b says “τί δὲ ἔχεις ὃ οὐκ ἔλαβες.” This is more straightforwardly translated as, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (so CSB and ESV). However, I have opted for the NLT’s more dynamic rendering for two reasons: first, the meaning is synonymous, since the source or cause of our receiving is God’s gracious giving, and second, because too many people are not sufficiently versed in English (and logic) to grasp the former on their own, hence my preference for the translation that makes God’s gracious act of giving abundantly clear. ↩
- Look, nobody uses the word “thereof” anymore (except for SNOOTs). This is why I didn’t quote Psalm 24:1 from the ESV, despite the typical strengths thereof and the precision usually found therein. ↩
- I have borrowed this phrase from Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things—a book with a title that surpasses its contents. ↩
- On this point, Anglican theologian John Milbank makes the following observation: “Gift is a kind of transcendental category in relation to all the topoi of theology, in a similar fashion to ‘word.’ Creation and grace are gifts; Incarnation is the supreme gift; the Fall, evil, and violence are the refusal of gift [i.e., ingratitude]; atonement is the renewed and hyperbolic gift that is forgiveness; the supreme name of the Holy Spirit is donum (according to Augustine); the Church is the community that is given to humanity and is constituted through the harmonious blending of diverse gifts (according to the apostle Paul).” See Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), ix. ↩
- In one sense, therefore, God’s gifts are such that they create their own recipients (cf. Gen. 1:1; Heb. 1:3). In another sense, however, we might also see our existence as a gift that God gave to himself (cf. Isa. 43:21; Col. 1:16). ↩
- Paul F. Camenisch, “Gift and Gratitude in Ethics.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 9, no. 1 (1981), 26. ↩
- Peter Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), 8. ↩
- N. T. Wright famously critiques this view in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), and he returns to the theme again in chs. 5, 10, 11, and 12 of Surprised by Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014). I’d be remiss not to mention that one of the eponymous astonishments in the latter book is N. T. Wright’s surprise at Scripture’s clear rejection of egalitarianism, which is really no surprise whatsoever to those who have read the Bible and/or 2,000 years of church tradition. But I digress. ↩
- Indeed, I suspect some of you are alarmed to find soybeans and GMOs among the gifts of God. But these things have their place. In fact, many studies have shown that without GMOs of some kinds, the environment would suffer, economies would crumble, and a portion of the world would starve. So, three cheers for good GMOs, and may their tribe increase. ↩
- Thus, the aforementioned opioids that are presently being abused to tremendous harm still remain actual gifts, not just potential ones, for the problem lies only in their ungrateful use by persons who abuse them to the neglect of God’s other (and greater) gifts. ↩
- Of course, this demands that we carefully define what receiving God’s gifts with thanksgiving entails—which is exactly what I’ll be doing in the third and final article on gratitude. ↩