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And be thankful

October 27th, 2009

And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. Colossians 3:15-17

We are almost at the end of the harvest thanksgiving season. I have been asking myself, How thankful am I for all the good things in my life?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, long-time Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and now at Yale Divinity School, suggests that it might be wrong to think that faithfully carrying out one’s obligations is basic to the Christian life and that joy and gratitude are things we are obligated to feel. Gratitude is basic, and obedience is the proper expression of gratitude, rather than the other way round.

In support of his argument Wolterstorff calls on no less a writer than John Calvin. As Calvin sees it, recognition of the goodness of God, and the practice of gratitude that goes with that recognition, is what evokes and sustains faith. Faith does not arise out of the recognition of the sheer power of God. Neither does faith arise out of fear of eternal punishment. Faith arises out of a perception of God’s goodness, received with gratitude.

Briefly, he alone is a true believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation. Institutes III, II, 16

Calvin also says

Let all readers know that they have with truth apprehended what it is for God to be Creator of heaven and earth, if they first of all follow the universal rule, not to pass over in ungrateful thoughtlessness or forgetfulness those conspicuous powers which God shows forth in his creatures, and then learn so to apply it to themselves that their very hearts are touched. The first part of the rule is exemplified when we reflect on the greatness of the Artificer who stationed, arranged, and fitted together the starry host of heaven in such wonderful order …….

There remains the second part of the rule, more closely related to faith. It is to recognise that God has destined all things for our good and salvation but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise and love him. Institutes I, XIV, 21-22

Calvin’s point is quite clear. The fundamental response on our part to God’s good gifts is gratitude, grounding even faith itself. Gratitude, says Wolterstorff, lies at the foundation of Christian existence. From this, everything flows.

As difficult as it is in the modern world, we must cultivate a sort of meditative reflection on God’s wisdom and goodness as they are seen in God’s works of creation, providence and redemption. here is a lovely passage from Calvin:

There is no doubt that the Lord would have us uninterruptedly occupied in this holy meditation: that while we contemplate in all creatures, as in mirrors, those immense riches of his wisdom, justice, goodness, and power, we should not merely run over them cursorily, and so to speak, with a fleeting glance; but we should ponder them at length. Institutes I, XIV, 21

Then he adds something of interest about people…

…who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom.

Wolterstorff says that if we are true to what we are, we will be eucharistic beings who break out into song, as Paul encourages us to do, and then go forth to perform works of obedience as acts of gratitude.

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