It was a brisk spring day on my college campus as I trudged alongside two of my best friends to the dining hall. With our empty stomachs and full backpacks, we all started to think about the countless hours of homework and studying that awaited us after we enjoyed dinner together. Soon, we verbalized our thoughts, turning our casual walk into a showcase in one-upmanship. We tallied up the assignments, readings and other time commitments, eager to prove how our own evening should evoke more dread than the others.
We engaged in this banter for a few minutes, preparing our next remarks under the disguise of compassionate listening. Suddenly, my friend interrupted me and said, “Jonathan, what are you thankful for?”
The question caught me off guard. My pity party had no room for gratitude.
Reflecting on this simple memory makes me associate so closely with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. God delivered them from slavery in Egypt only to hear constant complaining about what they no longer had. The Israelites lacked perspective when they clamored to return to Egypt and the oppressive circumstances from which God had set them free. In the same way, my desires for less homework, more time to play ping pong and better food in the dining hall made me forget the countless gifts I did nothing to earn or deserve.
Our conversation began to shift that evening, and I will never forget that dinner together. Sure, I don’t remember all the seemingly-trivial things we gave thanks for, but I do remember realizing in those moments the power gratitude can have in our lives. We left the dining hall not only with better attitudes and shrunken appetites, but I also think we all would look back and say we understood a little bit more about what living in God’s kingdom looks like.
I realize I come from a place of privilege when I say we have much for which to be thankful. People can have real difficulty giving thanks because of the harsh realities they are facing or have faced for a long time. In these circumstances, complaining seems as justifiable as it ever could be. But a spirit of gratitude is not a denial of the way things actually are; to deny the reality of our broken world is to deny the calling Christ has given us to be ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. In the face of injustice, gratitude cannot be used as an excuse to divert and shame the oppressed from pursuing what is right. Gratitude gives us the perspective the Israelites lacked, allowing us to remember God’s work in our lives and to work at making God’s kingdom become a reality all around us.
It’s easy to get caught up in complaining. Choose a spirit of gratitude, not to forget the hard things (or the things we think are hard) in our lives, but to open ourselves up to God and see how the Holy Spirit works in and through us.