I recently had lunch with someone shortly after we both returned home from a cross-cultural trip. As we settled into the upscale restaurant, she commented, “It’s strange. Before our trip, I thought I’d feel guilty for all that I have when I got home. But I didn’t feel guilty; instead, I felt grateful!”
But she seemed to have a different tone in her comment than many people do, and, fighting the instinct to pre-judge, I tried to probe her intentions more deeply. I came to understand that her gratitude was like that of Zacchaeus, whose response to encountering Jesus was to become uncommonly generous to others—a response that radiated out from his gratitude (see Luke 19:1-10). In a similar way, my fellow traveler was grateful to have the means to respond to what she had seen and experienced (which she promptly did, very generously).
A gratitude-induced response is far superior to a guilt-induced response. The latter is ultimately begrudging, something like paying a luxury tax for being one of those whom Ron Sider refers to in the title of his seminal book: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
Successful real estate developer David Weekley articulates perfectly what my generous lunch mate felt:
No longer do I feel guilty for what I’ve been given; rather, I feel incredible gratitude that I am able to serve and to give. Out of that gratitude comes a deep sense of responsibility to use what has been entrusted to me in ways that honor the Giver of all gifts. When I act on that responsibility and give freely of my time, talent, and resources, I feel an awesome joy.
Did you catch the progression there? Gratitude leads to generosity, and generosity leads to joy.
Cicero, the ancient Roman orator, opined that gratitude “is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.” In other words, all virtuous action emanates from an attitude of gratitude. As it was for my lunch companion, gratitude can be the perfect place for us to start when we realize that we are fortunate to be in a position to give, to respond, to advocate—to somehow act.
No other response than action does any justice to our claims to be followers of Jesus, who was himself the consummate act-or.
When someone suggests being grateful for what you have as your best response to the suffering of others, find the words and energy to politely move beyond and improve on that notion, piling on more and better responses, responses of action.
Prayer is action. Learning is action (though indirect in itself, it can lead to wiser action and more informed prayer—as exemplified so well in Gary’s quote that begins this section). Donating, being a voice and an advocate, directing investments toward social uplift, reviewing our lifestyle choices and their impact on the marginalized—these and other responses are far more germane, and humane, than mere gratitude. After all, we are blessed in order to be a blessing.
Shortly after I wrote the preceding paragraphs, my seatmate on an airplane happened to be reading a newspaper article about the oppression of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I asked her about it, and she said, “It sure makes me grateful that I live in America, and that this wasn’t the reality for my daughter.”
The old frustration welled up in me a little bit, and I tried out my more expansive response, agreeing but not stopping at gratitude. “Yes, it does make me grateful, but it also makes me want to help the women and girls there and make a difference for them.” We proceeded to have a cordial but circular discussion. My seatmate raised skepticism after skepticism indicating that these issues are unsolvable or beyond her control. What became clear was that she had truncated her circle of concern to only her local community.
When she retires in a few years from her corporate leadership role, she wants to help youth in her area, because “we certainly have enough needs here.”
Looking back, I wish I had said to her, “If the woman living in the house next to yours were being battered or oppressed by her husband, I can’t imagine that you’d consider it a sufficient response to simply declare, ‘As a woman, I’m sure glad I live in our home and not theirs!’ I think you’d have to do something about it, something to help your neighbor.
“Further, if the police came to investigate a domestic homicide in that house and interviewed you, and you admitted to knowing all along about the escalating abuse but never addressed it, it would be considered scandalous. ‘How could you know, yet do nothing?’ the news and social media outlets would scream . . . and who would disagree?
“Responding to the needs of people who live farther away from us isn’t any different. Are they not also our neighbors?”
Indeed; how can we know, yet simply be grateful for our own lot and do nothing about theirs?
-Taken from After the Trip by Cory Trenda. Copyright (c) 2018 by Cory Trenda. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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