By: Brian Harris
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say that Christians need to step up and be counter-cultural – well, I’d be rich enough to help fund multiple mission organisations.
Trouble is, the way it’s said often sounds so very like the culture it is supposed to counter. You know what I mean? Sweeping statements made about villainous others whose motives are entirely suspect – they are the enemy. And then there is the aggression with which it is spoken, as well as the demand for complete agreement with the stance taken. There are also the over generalisations, the tendency to catastrophise (all is lost if we don’t hold this line), and the sheer misrepresentation of fairly ordinary facts.
While there are often societal trends which should concern us, when we mimic the battle tactics and aggression of our age, our credibility is quickly lost. We do indeed live at an angry time in history and there is an inner rage inside many people which has built up as a result of too much change, an urban lifestyle which sees us disconnected from the earth God created, and far too many options (leaving us constantly anxious that we have made a poor choice and have missed out on something better). All of this sees us at risk of forgetting what it means to be human – and to forget who we are (creatures made from the dust of the earth and animated by the breath of God) is tragic indeed.
Let’s aim to explore a few areas where we should be counter-cultural, not because we are trying to score points but because being in a relationship with Jesus shapes us differently. They are also ways of being in the world that we don’t champion often enough – which is a pity as, in their own way, each is a winsome witness to the transforming power of God’s love.
For today I’m suggesting we take steps towards being counter-culturally grateful. In an age of self righteous entitlement, this is a different way of interacting with life. Actually, life is a lot less exhausting when we spontaneously spot things to be grateful for, rather than when we brood over what has upset us.
“In an age of self righteous entitlement, gratitude is a different way of interacting with life.”
The Apostle Paul is a great advocate of gratitude. In Philippians 4:4 he instructs us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” – and to make the point absolutely clear, he adds, “I will say it again, rejoice.” Note Paul doesn’t say “rejoice in your circumstances” – for they will indeed change like the weather. Our rejoicing is in the Lord, whose love never fails. In verse 8 he tells us to reflect on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. That’s a very positive mindset for someone who had to endure being whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and betrayed (2 Cor 11:16-33 makes for some pretty sobering reading). Oh, and let’s not forget that in the end he was beheaded for his faith. If at that point of execution you had called out to Paul, “So, are you going to rejoice now?” I strongly suspect Paul would have calmly quoted himself back to you, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Paul gives another take on gratitude in 1 Tim 6:6-8: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing we will be content with that.” Put slightly differently, Paul is saying be grateful because we have food and clothing, and that is more than we started life with. That gain should point us towards godly contentment.
For Paul, gratitude was not about whistling in the dark – desperately trying to find something to be positive about in an obviously bleak landscape. To the contrary, it was based on an unshakeable confidence in the goodness and mercy of God. He also believed in the providence of God – the God who sees when the sparrow falls is the God who sees me as well. Or as Hagar put it so many years ago. “You are the God who sees me” (Gen 16:13). Confident that I am known to God, I heed the writer of Hebrews instruction to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb 12:1).
In practical terms, what does it mean to move from a sense of entitlement (I am owed) to gratitude?
First it means I stand at the Cross of Jesus in awe and amazement. I hear the words of 1 John 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Not that we loved God… but that he loved us… If that doesn’t move us to gratitude, what will? I am shaped by gratitude because God has taken the initiative in reaching out to me.
Second, it reminds me to see life in its widest context. No matter what, I am God’s. Gratitude is not about silliness or heartlessness. It is not about pretending to be delighted in the face of tragedy or deep disappointment. But it is about an unshakable conviction, expressed so beautifully by Julian of Norwich when she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Of course this needs to be heard eschatologically. Actually, tomorrow could be an exceptionally difficult day. And so might the day after. But ultimately God has the last word. And God can be trusted.
Third, it means I notice the fingerprints of God in small things. The kind word spoken in the middle of a really difficult day; the thing that didn’t go as badly as I thought it might; or the strength I discovered when I thought I had none. Some advocate that we keep a gratitude diary, and it’s a great idea. Many of us instinctively gravitate to what we are worried about. Writing down things we are grateful for helps to reshape our focus.
Fourth, I am grateful because it doesn’t all depend upon me. At the start of the post I mentioned the sometimes too angry Christians instructing us all to be counter-cultural, and to hold the line. Up to a point that is fair enough, but I am so grateful that it doesn’t all depend upon us, and that the Lord of the Church will protect and build the Church. I am grateful that God calls us to carry some of the load (the race laid out for us), but that the real load bearer is Jesus. I think we all need to remember this.
Fifth, gratitude is a down to earth thing. It should be expressed (why not look someone in the eye and say “thank you”). It is also good if we are specific (“thank you that you take the time to listen to me, and that you notice when I am struggling and always find a way to encourage me.”)
Sixth, gratitude should be consciously cultivated. As Paul says, think about things that are good and noble and worthy. Take time to spot the multiple kindnesses that have been shown to you.
Seventh, being grateful does not mean that I deny difficulties. It simply means that I am confident that Rev 21:4 is true: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Yes, it says every tear. That’s an enormous claim. Every unresolved hurt and pain will be sorted. So even when the day is dark, embrace the darkness with the gentle confidence that another day will dawn.
Let me close with Phil 1:3 “I thank my God” (or I am grateful to God) every time I remember you… And I truly am.
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.