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An unintended defining moment for basketball great Michael Jordan was his Hall of Fame speech a few years ago.
What made it so memorable was the context. Jerry Sloan, long-time Utah Jazz coach, spoke first, and his speech was an elegant thank you to a long list of people. He used his moment in the sun to credit people by name for their support; no one who heard the humble retelling of his life would forget it. When Michael Jordan came to the podium, then, you might have expected the same. Not so. What you got was a proud man reminding the room of his domination and even calling out for ridicule a few other ball players in the audience. If you judged his career by his speech, you would never have known that there were four other men on the floor when he played. He only wanted people to think more of him. Ironically, everyone left thinking less of him.
We appreciate gratitude. And we don’t think much of those who cannot show gratitude where it is due. I would suggest to you that God feels the same way.
At least that’s how I read the narrative of the 10 lepers in Luke 17:11-19. As you’ll recall, this is the snapshot of the lepers calling out to Jesus for mercy. Specifically, this call for mercy is a call for healing not only from the disease of leprosy but from the tragic life the disease created. No one in Jesus’ time was more desperate for a miracle than a leper, and you would expect that no one would be more grateful than a healed leper. Yet that is the ironic hinge of the story. Ten lepers are healed, but as they learn of their healing on the way to Jerusalem, only one comes back to thank Jesus—and he’s a Samaritan. Jesus’ response? “Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Judging from Jesus’ words, God actually anticipates gratitude. But why? Why should it matter if we thank God for anything?
First, we thank God because gratitude to God is a confession of him as life and faith’s first. If these men had what we now call Hansen’s Disease (and they called incurable), they were a case for priests, not doctors. Having been freed from the isolation and illness of leprosy, it is not hard to appreciate what it meant to return to your home. What if it were you suddenly blessed with healing and a homecoming? What are you doing on the sprint to get the priest’s blessing in Jerusalem but planning the first thing you’ll do when you get home? Consider the list: family things, work things, meal things, friend things, make-up-for-lost time things, and life-is-short-things. Who could turn around on the road to Jerusalem and go back to thank the rabbi Jesus with all these things pressing on you? And yet one man turns around and returns to Jesus to give thanks: “when he saw that he was healed, (he) turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet.” He made a big show of his gratitude, and it was completely appropriate.
We thank God first in order to confess Him as the first person, first truth and first hope. There are many and diverse people that make this life go round, but there has to be a first person, a thou. There has to be a ground, a story, a love from which all other things in your life begin. God is that first person, the first thing of the many things in life. We’re thankful to Him first because the heart of our story is not our loveliness but God’s willingness to love us in our weakness. We regularly and creatively destroy the best gifts from God, so we must conclude that God’s gifts reveal God’s goodness, not our own. Additionally, recognizing God lets us get away from all the second things that try to be First Things: the pride of self, the pride of control, the pride of independence, the pride of your own strength. You can only thank God as the first thing of life if you’re willing to give up the illusion that, like a god, you formed yourself from nothing. Surrendering the illusion of self-creation is a high price to pay, but that act alone will change your life. In terms of salvation, it may also save your soul.
Second, God expects gratitude so we can connect our deliverance to his hand. The Samaritan doesn’t go to a private place to thank God—he goes back to find Jesus and thank God personally. He makes the clear connection between his healing and the Lord. Jesus doesn’t need the meeting, but the man does. The man needs to know that God did this for him, a Samaritan leper. The man for whom no one would risk a thing finds God giving him his life back. That might change your mind about God.
Because I am too often guilty of the glass half-empty gloom, I regularly contribute small pieces of paper to a mason jar on my desk. Every dated slip of paper lists a specific occasion, event and person who exposed God’s grace to me. Every slip of paper is a concrete reminder of why I can be grateful to God. Writing these thank you notes to God is my way of turning around on a busy road to thank Jesus. It is a discipline, to be sure, but that jar continues to change me, especially when I dump it out, read the slips, and return to the many scenes of God’s mercy.
It is a good day indeed when we start to connect the dots and recognize what God has done for us. It is a different day of prayer when you begin to thank God directly and specifically for His work in your life. In time you become a different person—a grateful person. And if we agree on anything, it is that grateful people are the grandest people to have in our lives.
Mason jars are cheap. Get started.
The Rev. Christopher White, D. Min., is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Carrollton, Ky.