It gets harder every year.
If you’re a parent, you probably understand what I mean. I try so hard to keep the focus on Jesus during this Christmas season. I mean, cue all the cliches, right? He’s the reason for the season! You can’t spell Christmas without Christ. And all those familiar sayings. We do a daily devotional and advent readings. We participate in all the wonderful giving opportunities our church hosts.
And yet every year it gets harder and harder to compete with the increasing secular-ness of Christmas. Especially as the presents under the tree pile higher and the light in my children’s eyes get brighter. I mean, I get it. I do. There are some fantastic not explicitly Christian parts of Christmas I enjoy too. (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, anyone?) And, even though I hit forty this year, getting gifts is STILL exciting and fun. The mystery of what’s inside that shiny paper and the anticipation of waiting…it’s all very, very good. It can be hard even for me to keep my mind and my heart focused on Jesus. I always try to re-direct my children but I also give them a little bit of slack, too.
Something that happened a week ago, however, caused me to sit up and take notice.
After our advent reading, I asked my son to pray for us. Knowing he wanted to hurry up and get to the opening of his advent calendar, I could tell he was rushing but, again, tried to give him a little grace. His prayer went a little something like this:
“Dear Jesus, thank you for this day. Thank you for the presents under the tree. Thank you for the new Legos coming in my advent calendar. Thank you for the chocolate. Amen.”
Both he and his sister then rushed off to pop open the corresponding day on their calendars. But I remained on my spot on the couch. Something was bugging me. I knew my son’s prayer wasn’t exactly earth-moving, but he’s a child, praying on a basic level, and eagerly anticipating the small gift he knows is waiting for him as soon as he finishes. Again, grace and patience. Right, parents?
But still, something didn’t feel quite right.
Then it finally hit me. Though I loved how my son was praying for the things he had received–and that he was recognizing the source of these blessings as God–I didn’t just want him to just be thankful for the things God was giving him. I wanted my son to be thankful for who God is.
The great theologian Jonathan Edwards maintained that there were two different types of gratitude. One of them is obvious: we thank God for His innumerable gifts, such as food, shelter, health, family, and yes, even Christmas gifts. This is what Edwards called “natural gratitude.” Just like in the instance with my son, it’s easy to be thank God for the things He gives us.
The second type of gratitude doesn’t come as instinctively. Edwards called this type “gracious gratitude,” and it involves, not just being thankful for His gifts, but being thankful for God Himself.
The truly astounding thing is we can get so distracted by God’s gifts that we forget the gift-giver! The sheer enormity of our blessings shows us just how generous and loving He is. His creation shows us His majesty. His material blessings show us His delight in us. The people He puts in our lives show us His compassion. Most of all though, His Son–the death and resurrection of Jesus–show us His mercy, His grace, and His unstoppable love.
Yes, He has given us countless gifts–but those gifts should only enhance our understanding and appreciation of the God who created us, loves us, and died to save us. Those gifts should lead to outpouring of “gracious gratitude” for Him, not just the things He lavishly bestows on us.
Why is it so important to practice this second form of gratitude? Because even though God’s blessings upon us never stop, there will be times and circumstances in our lives when it might feel like it. When streams of health and wealth dry up and we find ourselves in a physical, emotional, and/or spiritual desert. In those times, even though God’s blessings can still be found, they can be a little bit harder to see. And if we are thankful only for the things He can give us, when those “things” appear to dry up, that’s when our hearts can be tempted to turn bitter, resentful, or worse–turn from God completely.
We must cultivate an attitude of gratitude that goes above and beyond the things we can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. While it’s important to recognize our many blessings, we must make sure to praise the Gift-Giver over His gifts. And isn’t that what Christmas truly is all about? The greatest gift of all wasn’t a thing; it was God Himself, come to earth as a baby, who would someday grow to a man–a man who would suffer and die for the salvation of His people. In the hustle and bustle of this holiday season, may that truth grab hold of our hearts and fill us with a gracious gratitude that sustains us long after the last of the wrapping paper has been shredded.
Merry Christmas, friends!