Thankfulness – A Matter of Perspective
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
“The chief sin of mankind is ingratitude.”
In the late 1990s, I heard those words at a Nazarene college where I was listening to a Roman Catholic priest named Brennan Manning speak to the college students and community. He was there to talk about his gritty way of describing God’s grace in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, but the line in his talk that stood out that day was, “The chief sin of mankind is ingratitude.”
In a season of my life when my ministry as a pastor was just beginning and I was busy serving and leading and pouring into people, these words stopped me short. I asked questions of myself. Am I grateful? Is my heart overflowing with thankfulness for God’s grace and kindness? Do I live a lifestyle of thankfulness? I knew the answers. It’s why that sentence stood out to me. I was too busy being busy to be overflowing in constant thankfulness. I was too busy doing the things others would be thankful for to be thankful myself.
The One Who Gave Thanks
Jesus tells a story that is instructive of how to respond to God’s grace. In Luke 17, we read that Jesus is travelling between Galilee and Samaria, between Jewish and non-Jewish territory. In this culturally mixed area was a group of people who shared a common bond of leprosy. Shared disease had a way of erasing cultural distinctions. Ten men called out to Jesus when he approached them. All of them were social outcasts. All of them were told by Jesus to go to the priest and present themselves to them. All of them were healed of their disease. One of them returned to Jesus to thank him. Only one.
For Jews listening to this story, to hear that the one who thanked Jesus—the good guy in the story—was a Samaritan would not have gone over well. The wrong guy was the good guy. The Jews who were healed should have been the ones who thanked Jesus who did the healing. Not in this story. Ten lepers are healed. Jews and Samaritans. Insiders and outsiders. The outsider returns to give thanks. This is a sign of what was to come. The insiders, the Jews, rejected Jesus. The outsiders and a few insiders accepted Jesus.
In the story, only one came back. Only one honored the source of healing. Only one showed gratitude. The point is to be like the one. Be thankful for what God has done and honor the Lord as the source of all goodness. The call is to thankfulness.
The Chief Sin
Later, I questioned Brennan Manning’s “the chief sin of mankind is ingratitude.” Is it really? The chief sin? British lay theologian C.S. Lewis argued that something else is the “chief sin.” In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through pride that the Devil became the Devil: Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind.” In other words, pride, not ingratitude is the chief sin of mankind.
What Lewis wrote makes sense. A sinfully proud person puts the self and nothing else in the center of existence. A sinfully proud person is insatiable in his or her desires. A sinfully proud person when asked how much is enough will answer simply: more. A sinfully proud person must stand out or above all others to feel good about himself or herself. A sinfully proud person is often not thankful because they are too busy being right, richer, louder, or, in general, better than most. Or so they think.
Pride is the chief sin, but ingratitude is a sign of that sin.
Entitlement Kills Thankfulness
Pastor Craig Groeschel tells the story of a woman who made a video to raise funds for new playground equipment at church. “Our children deserve this,” the narrator said at one point in the video. A man came up to the woman who made the video and took exception with the language. He had just returned from a mission trip to a poor part of the world. The people in the village he served didn’t have running water, plumbing, or electricity. They fought daily to get enough food to survive. Most people died early, either from starvation or some treatable sickness. He told the woman all about the trip and showed her pictures of the kids who had nothing.
Then he said, “Next time you make a video to raise money for a luxury like a very expensive playground, maybe you shouldn’t say that our kids ‘deserve’ it. They really don’t.” She understood, agreed, and changed her approach.
The issue here was one of entitlement. One writer defined entitlement as, “an unrealistic, unmerited, or inappropriate expectation of favorable living conditions and favorable treatment at the hands of others.”
I have noticed a rising sense of entitlement among people lately. Not long ago, I met with a city employee who told me of the significant growth of entitlement among citizens of his town since the pandemic. He described the attitude of “you owe me” or “I am entitled to this” at levels he’s never seen before.
The problem is that entitlement kills thankfulness. You can’t be entitled and thankful at the same time. The two can’t coexist. Nobody can say, “I am so grateful for my life and many blessings, but still, the world owes me something.” The more thankful you are, the more you realize how much has been given to you. Life, mercy, forgiveness, love, grace have all come from God in Jesus Christ. It is hard to feel entitled when you realize all is given from and by God.
Grumbling Kills Thankfulness
It is not just entitlement. Grumbling also kills gratitude. Grumbling is different from complaining. Many people in the Bible complained to God. King David complained to the Lord in the Psalms. Jeremiah and Habakkuk complained too. The difference was these people didn’t focus on themselves. They took their complaints to the Lord in hopes of God helping the problem that led to the complaint. They knew they could call upon God, and God would respond.
Grumbling is focusing only on oneself. Grumbling is what the Israelites did in the desert. They were hungry and thirsty. They wanted to go back to slavery and were mad at Moses for taking them away from the known life with predictable patterns. All they could see were their circumstances. They thought only of themselves. They thought nothing of God.
Grumbling kills thankfulness. It is a lack of perspective. We grumble when we don’t get what we want or when our children don’t get what they want. But we lack perspective when we do so. We have so much, so many advantages, so many material possessions compared to many in this world. Even our poorest and most needy in this country fare better than the world’s poor and needy. We forget that there are families whose main concern at night is whether a snake or scorpion will crawl into bed with their children and bite them. It’s awfully hard to grumble when we have our eyes open wide to the multitude of blessings.
The way to battle entitlement and grumbling is to live a life overflowing with gratitude. The remedy is thankfulness.
That is easier said than done. Most of the time, those who are entitled or those who grumble are not self-aware about it. In the case of the ten who were healed, the other nine were so consumed by the change in their circumstances, it didn’t even occur to them to go back to the source of the change and express thanks. Or, as is the case for many people today, the pace of life has them so focused on the details of daily life that they forget to step back and express gratitude to God and others.
If the chief sin of mankind is pride and ingratitude is a sign of that pride, then it is time to reset basic attitude. It is time to live a life overflowing with gratitude. It is time to be the one who goes back to Jesus with a “thank you.” It is time to be thankful for everything.
Tips to Foster Gratitude
How do you develop a life of gratitude? Start by expressing thankfulness for everything. If you are thankful, write it, say it, pray it, or live it. I enjoyed this short list of tips from Psychology Today on how to foster a life of gratitude. Consider these for your own life journey.
- Keep a journal of or in some way note big and little joys of daily life.
- Write down “three good things” — identify three things that have gone well for you and identify the cause.
- Write thank-you notes to others.
- Think about people who have inspired you and what about them was most significant.
- Engage in “mental subtraction.” Imagine what your life would be like if some positive event had not occurred.
More than those tips, start by remembering who God is and what God has done. Because of God, your every sin is forgiven, your eternal life is secure, your whole being is filled with God’s presence, and you are part of a community of people to journey with through life. What else can you say in response to that, but “thank you?”
As we move through the month that holds our National Day of Thanksgiving, commit to live a life of thankfulness. Be the one person whose blessing from God you recognize by thanking Jesus. Be the one who rejects the mindset of entitlement and refuses to grumble. Be that person who is thankful for everything.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.