Sierra Leone in February, Mexico in March. Phew! To any of you who travel regularly for your job or even for fun, I applaud you. It’s valuable, but hard. I enjoy travel, but love home. So I’m thankful to be here, typing away at my own desk in my own bedroom.
After two missions trips in the last two months, I’ve heard a common comment from my fellow travelers. It came from my own mouth, too, after my very first mission trip in High School. By ‘it,’ I refer to this often repeated sentiment: Seeing how little they have makes me so thankful for what I have! Or some variation on the same tune. You’ve probably heard it or said it too.
But, for a few years now, this sentiment has bothered me. In processing my recent missions trips, a couple reasons for my unsettled feeling about this common response are becoming clear.
The first component of this response that bothers me is that it is based on comparison. But, should comparison be our source of gratitude OR dissatisfaction? Comparison is an unhealthy standard by which to perceive and approach the world around us. God doesn’t recommend we look around and itemize our possessions and other’s possessions and then, when we’ve found someone who has less than us, then and only then, give thanks. He tells us to look up to Him, the Giver of every good thing, and give Him thanks and honor and glory and praise!
That’s not to say that recognizing how much we, as Americans, truly have and enjoy is a negative thing. We MUST remember that we are in the extreme minority. We cannot become so accustomed to our ease of infrastructure and access to necessities that we lose sight of the blessing they truly are. We need to pursue a more complete perspective of the world around us so that we don’t take for granted what we experience.
I love that my youngest child, on our drive back from Mexico, kept asking me if it was OK to flush the toilet paper, or brush his teeth using the sink water. As a five year old, his eyes are being opened. Experiencing a different culture is a tangible and memorable way to remind him of the blessings of ease and comfort God has given us, even though we are undeserving.
So I guess what I am saying it this: comparison CAN lead to gratitude, but it cannot be our only complete source of gratitude. It is a shallow foundation upon which to build a life of thanksgiving.
“In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”1 Thessalonians 5:18
If comparison is our guide, what do we do with verses like, “in everything give thanks”? When trial or poverty come, is the answer to look around for others whom we determine to ‘have it worse’ than we do? It begins to sound a lot like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who thanked God that he was so much better off than the tax collector. It is a slippery (and prideful) slope to bolster ourselves upon the debasement of another.
Another frustration I have with this over-simplified sentiment is WHAT is being compared. Riches, possessions, ease, comfort. Perhaps such evaluations reveal an idol in our hearts. Aren’t there vastly more important things to be thankful for? Aren’t all believers, regardless of income and possessions, abundantly rich with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)?! All things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter1:3)?! My sisters, and fellow pastor’s wives from other countries, Coni from Mexico and Rachel from Sierra Leone, are equally as rich as I am. We are equally as rich because of our shared inheritance in our Savior! Praise and Thanks to God!
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”Ephesians 1:18-19
The command to give thanks in everything is universal. It is given to the family living in the dump in Mexico and to the Wall Street mogul earning $2000 dollars a day. It is given to the mother in Sierra Leone who has been abandoned by her husband because of her faith in Jesus, as well as to the middle-class, stay-at-home mom, typing out these words you read. Our thanks can, yes, arise from physical circumstance. But, this source is not sustainable. Our thanks must arise, in even greater degree, from spiritual reality. Money creates a false dichotomy that Jesus has abolished. Haves and Have-Not’s can all be rich in Christ!
If this isn’t a firm foundation upon which to build our gratitude, I don’t know what is. We must lift our eyes to greater reality, to God’s reality! We must Aim at Heaven.
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”James 1:17
If you’ve never had the privilege of going on a short term mission trip, I strongly encourage you to bump it up to a higher spot on your list of priorities. You will be challenged. You will grow. You will be changed. It is awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to be a witness of God’s diversity and creativity among people as well as His undeniable involvement in the hearts of people all over the world. When you go, I pray that gratitude will be one of the outcomes of your experience. Gratitude for your tangible blessings, yes. But more importantly, a deeper gratitude for all God has done, is doing, and will do in you and the whole world.