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Of Gratitude and Grumbling and a Cheerful Heart

 

Exodus 16:2-3
Proverbs 17:22 ; 15:15
2nd Corinthians 9:11-12
Colossians 2:7
John 16:33

I: — Petulant whining, complaining, grousing, grumbling; it always strikes us as so very childish. It rains on the day of the picnic. The child pouts and sulks, mumbles and mutters. Finally her mother has had enough. “I can’t to anything about the weather,” mother says, thinking that her reasonable word to the child will undo the child’s irrationality and sweeten the child’s sourness. Not a chance. The child seems to prefer to mumble and mutter petulantly, seems to enjoy being miserable. Mother, still assuming that her rationality can undo her child’s irrationality, sweetly replies, “All right; so we can’t have a picnic today. Just think of all you have to be grateful for.” Petulantly the child mutters that she can’t think of anything at all. Of course she can’t. Ingratitude shrivels hearts and distorts perception and perverts understanding. At this point mother shakes her head and finds consolation that one day her child will be an adult and will see such matters as powerlessness over weather from an adult point of view. At which time gratitude will appear and life will be assessed quite differently.

Yet there are some adults who, while “adult” in the sense of being post-adolescent, never mature. Ingratitude born of short-sightedness never gives way to gratitude for blessings visible everywhere. An unthankful spirit, worsened by petulance, is always a sign of childishness, to say the least.

But more than the least has to be said. In other words, while ingratitude is a sign of childishness, it’s also a sign of something worse than childishness. It’s a sign of grave spiritual sickness.

When scripture speaks of ingratitude and the grumbling that noisily advertises ingratitude, it gathers up the inner attitude and the outer manifestation in one onomatopoeic word: “murmuring.” Everywhere in scripture unthankful people are said to murmur.

We first read of God’s people murmuring when they are in the wilderness, halfway between Egypt and the Promised Land. Earlier they had been slaves in Egypt , and had found slavery unendurable. They had cried out in those days, and God had been moved by their outcry, since they had grounds for crying out. God had delivered them with his outstretched arm. Then he had forged them into a people after his own heart at Mount Sinai when he had given them the Ten Words, a way of living that would end forever the social chaos and the spiritual disintegration they had seen in the pagan nations. The only thing left them to do was to fall on their faces in gratitude; sheer, adoring gratitude. After all, they had been spared the misery and humiliation of slavery as well as the confusion and corruption of ungodliness. In view of what God had spared them, the hardship of the wilderness – rigorous to be sure – would nevertheless have been inconsequential. However, as their gratitude evaporated, reasonableness evaporated too. Now they wanted to go back to Egypt . “At least we had lots to eat in Egypt ,” they whined, “even if we were slaves.”

Are the ungrateful people, now advertising their ingratitude through grumbling, willing to forfeit their calling as God’s people? Do they really want to hand themselves over to the indignity and dehumanisation of slavery? Do they really want to embrace the spiritual vacuity and the amorality of the nations that haven’t been to Mount Sinai ?

Yes. Insanity of the sort just described is a spin-off of ingratitude. In view of what God had done for them; in view of what God continued to do for them; in view of all this, ingratitude could only spell disaster as surely as gratitude would have guaranteed their faithfulness as God’s people and guaranteed the fulfilment of their vocation as a light to the nations.

I am moved whenever I read the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563. The Heidelberg Catechism is the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings. It is a gem. The first section of the Catechism is titled “The Misery of Man.” Ten questions and answers realistically probe and portray the human predicament in the era of the Fall. The second section is titled “The Redemption of Man.” Seventy-Five questions and answers tell us of God’s glorious mercy and patience and persistence, all motivated by his oceanic love of sinners. The third section is titled “Thankfulness;” simply that: “Thankfulness.” This third section begins by posing the question, “Why should we obey God?” It doesn’t answer that we should obey him lest we provoke his anger. It doesn’t even say that we should obey him out of enlightened self-interest (things will go better for us if we obey him.) It says that we should obey him out of gratitude to him for all that his goodness has done for us. In other words, according to the Heidelberg Catechism the whole of our discipleship, our obedience, whatever renunciation is asked of us; it’s all motivated by one thing: thankfulness.

By the time the Catechism gets around to speaking of prayer it’s at question #116. “Why is prayer necessary for Christians?” Why do you think prayer is necessary for Christians? Because it’s the instrument for getting what we need? Answer #116: “Prayer is the principal element in the thankfulness God requires of us.” Every aspect of our response to God derives from our gratitude.

“Gratitude for what?” someone asks. All Christians, together with our Hebrew ancestors in faith; all Christians have stood at the edge of the Red Sea; all Christians have stood at the foot of Sinai; and all Christians have stood, above all, at the foot of the cross. We are the beneficiaries of God’s goodness so many times over that minimal spiritual sanity means maximal gratitude. Ingratitude, murmuring, can only mean that we are so blind to what we’ve been given as to be insane.

II: — “Is unthankfulness as serious as that?” someone asks. “Is grumbling that dangerous?” Yes it is.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard Jesus points out that ingratitude, grumbling, reveals resentment and reinforces it. In this parable some men are hired to work in the vineyard. At the end of their eight-hour shift they are paid the agreed-upon sum. Other workers, hired late in the day and therefore who have worked only four hours or two hours or perchance one hour; these other workers receive the same sum. This parable, we should note right here, has nothing to do with economics or labour relations. This parable has rather to do with God’s grace and mercy and help. You see, in ancient Palestine day-labourers, the bottom rung of the working class, were paid at the end of each day. They had to be. They lived so close to the line that they had no savings at all, nothing in reserve. With the money they were paid for that day’s work they fed their families the same evening and next morning. The men in the parable who had worked a full day were given one day’s pay – and immediately used it to sustain themselves and their dependents. The men who had worked less than a day were nonetheless given a full day’s pay. Why? Because anything less than a full day’s pay would have been useless. If they had received a quarter of a day’s pay for a quarter of a day’s work, they and their dependents would have starved. Because the owner of the vineyard was generous, all the men were given what they needed regardless of what they deserved. Even so, says Jesus, people with ungrateful hearts murmur and mutter and grumble at the vineyard owner inasmuch as they resent seeing others appear more fortunate than they. Had they been grateful themselves, they would also have rejoiced to see other needy people given as much as those people needed.

A clergyman who had served in the prairies during the Great Depression told me of the joy in his village the day a boxcar of vegetables from the east was uncoupled from the train and left in the village. People were given cabbages and turnips and carrots and corn and ever so much more. It so happened that the postmaster was the only man in the village with a permanent job. Therefore he was extraordinarily privileged. And when the vegetables were distributed, the old clergyman told me, this postmaster denounced the fellow-villager who had been given a slightly larger turnip. Ingratitude reveals resentment and reinforces it.

Ingratitude does something more: it cloaks a mean spirit. Thankfulness publicises a generous spirit; unthankfulness cloaks a mean spirit.

A woman fell at the feet of Jesus and poured out on his feet the costliest bottle of cologne as she wiped his feet with her hair. Why did she do this? She did it out gratitude to him for all that he done for her. Mark tells us that several bystanders, people who plainly were possessed of no gratitude at all, carped and complained, muttered and murmured, groused and grumbled, “This money could have been given to the poor.” Since when were these grumblers concerned with the poor? When have complainers ever been concerned with the poor? Every time Jesus had eaten with the poor the murmurers had murmured. They weren’t concerned with the poor. They were ungrateful people whose mean spirits found them relishing every opportunity to complain.

The price of the cologne indicated the depth of the woman’s gratitude. Then how grateful was she? She had spent 300 denarii on the bottle of cologne; 300 denarii, an entire year’s income. Luke tells us that the woman was a harlot. In those long-ago days of sweaty-hot Palestine when bathtubs and water were scarce, harlots used cologne as a tool of the trade. In other words, her gratitude moved her to a public renunciation of her sin and her sin-begotten employment. Her gratitude moved her to a public penitence. Her gratitude moved her to a costly sacrifice, for this woman had given up her livelihood.

How grateful are you today? And I? Grateful enough to renounce sin and proffer penitence and gladly make that sacrifice whose cost we count only to forget? Are we so grateful that compared to our gratitude the sacrifice our Lord asks of us is nothing?

Bystanders who watched the woman carped at her and complained, ungrateful grumblers that they were. Their inner ingratitude and their outer murmuring merely cloaked a mean spirit.

Ingratitude is lethal for yet another reason. Inner ingratitude and outer murmuring blind us to God’s breaking in upon us in the most ordinary moments and circumstances. It’s just the opposite with the grateful heart. The person whose heart is characteristically grateful recognises the incursion of God in her life in the most ordinary circumstances and in the most undramatic ways. The grateful person instantly, gladly, gives thanks. Whereupon she finds herself discerning more sensitively even more subtle incursions of God in her life. Once again she instantly, gladly, gives thanks. Whereupon she finds herself discerning even more sensitively the even more subtle incursions of God in her life. It all keeps spiralling up as her gratitude is rewarded with discernment and her discernment with greater gratitude and her greater gratitude with still greater discernment.

It’s just the opposite with the ungrateful grumbler. Everything spirals down for him. Jesus quietly announces that he is the bread of life, that gift of God no less miraculous than the manna which sustained God’s people day-by-day when they had no other resources. Immediately the murmurers around Jesus begin to murmur. “How can he be the bread of life? We know his mother and father. He’s nothing more than a carpenter’s son. He’s too ordinary to be God’s visitation and God’s definitive blessing.” Murmuring shrivels our heart, dulls our understanding, numbs our spiritual sensors. Murmuring invariably blinds us to those moments, ordinary to be sure yet not ordinary, when we know that God has spoken to us, whispered to us or shouted at us, nudged us or shaken us, startled us or quieted us, convicted us and corrected us yet also finally comforted us. We alone are aware of it inasmuch as the public event surrounding it is so very ordinary even as the private event within us is overwhelming. Ungrateful grumbling blinds us to this. Ungrateful grumblers find it all spiralling down as ingratitude is punished by non-discernment or insensitivity, insensitivity by colder ingratitude, colder ingratitude by still duller non-discernment.

It’s plain that prophet and apostle weren’t exaggerating when they insisted that inner ingratitude and outer grumbling were together a spiritual sickness severe enough to find the ungrateful person soon on the critical list. Neither were prophet and apostle exaggerating when they insisted that gratitude, thankfulness, wasn’t merely a sign of spiritual health but even the way to better health.

III: — It’s plain that prophet and apostle agree with the writer of Proverbs, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine; a cheerful heart has a continual feast.”

Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. Words like “continual feast” are therefore especially telling. “Continual feast” suggests “continual thanksgiving.” And continual thanksgiving is precisely what we find everywhere in scripture. The thanksgiving we are to render God, say prophet and apostle, is never grudging, never paltry, never “once-in-a-lifetime.” The apostle Paul says that the heart of the Christian “overflows in many thanksgivings to God.” As “grace extends to more and more,” he tells the Christians in Corinth , it will surely “increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” He tells the same congregation that God’s goodness enriches us “in every way for great generosity” to others, and our “great” generosity in turn moves these other people to great thanksgiving to God. He tells the Christians in Colosse that they are to treasure Jesus Christ, with the result that they “abound in thanksgiving.” The psalmist tells us he customarily joins fellow-worshippers at church in “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.”

Clearly the picture painted for us is a picture of the heart throbbing with thanksgiving. It’s the heart that “abounds” with thanksgiving, “overflows” with thanksgiving, is “greatly” grateful. It is this heart that is cheerful and has a continual feast.

Then do we ever have grounds for grumbling? Of course we have grounds for grumbling. In everyone’s life there is a ceaseless undercurrent, an undertow even, of stress, difficulty, suffering, disappointment, apprehension, uncertainty, illness, grief. Therefore there are grounds for grumbling.

Then is grumbling finally permitted, even though scripture insists, and we saw earlier, that grumbling is spiritually lethal? No. Grumbling isn’t finally permitted. It’s not permitted for one reason: our grounds for grumbling are always less than our grounds for gratitude. In a verse from John’s gospel that I memorized when I was barely past infancy (and therefore the last thing I’m going to remember when I’m a senile old man in the nursing home) Jesus tells his followers, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Our Lord has overcome, has already overcome, everything that is grounds for grumbling. In other words, our grounds for grumbling have been eclipsed by our grounds for gratitude.

Several years ago my mother had a major heart attack and was hospitalised for 75 consecutive days. In the course of visiting her I noticed that she never complained about her damaged heart or her restricted activity or her protracted institutionalization. On the contrary she always appeared grateful for the slightest service rendered her. When I visited her on Thanksgiving weekend I noticed on her tabletop her church bulletin, in which she had written fellow-parishioners thanking them for their many kindnesses. At the conclusion of her note she had written, “Psalm 59:16.” I looked it up. Psalm 59:16 is an exclamation of thanksgiving to God. “I will sing aloud of your [i.e., God’s] steadfast love, for you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.” Since the fortress and refuge of God’s steadfast love were known and dependable; since tribulation had already been overcome, her grounds for gratitude would always be greater than her grounds for grumbling.

It is the ever-grateful heart that is ever-cheerful, and this ever-cheerful heart has a continual feast.

Blessings on you, every one, on this, the festival of Thanksgiving.

Victor Shepherd
Thanksgiving 2004