Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Whither Gratitude?
Over at Piebald Life Alex, Marshall and I started an irenic discussion on the place of gratitude in the Christian Life as it relates to obedience. I'm posting my response here. Make sure you read his post first, though.
The motivation that is almost universally trotted out as the modus operandi for Christian living, namely gratitude, is almost never used in Scripture. There are literally thousands of verses about obedience, almost none of them explicitly link our obedience with gratitude for what God's done in the past.
For the sake of argument (though not because I'm necessarily convinced), I'll go with you on the fact that obedience & gratitude are rarely explicitly linked in the Scriptures.

But off the top of my head, it seems to me that the Parable of the Prodigal, the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, and Jesus' interactions with the lepers he healed ("Where are the others?") are some first starts to seeing gratitude playing into obedience in an implicit place in the Scriptures.

We do this kind of hermenutical & theological work all the time when we see the implicit linkages in Scripture and give them names. In fact, this is the work of Theology: to find good words to describe the relationships we're seeing in Scripture. Of course, some words are better than others (which is the whole point of this irenic dialogue), but as a knock-down argument for why we should reject "gratitude," I am less than convinced.
Motivated to obedience out of gratitude often turns into what Piper calls "the debtor's ethic." . . . What it incorrectly does is frame our response in such a way where we are now charged to attempt to 'pay God back.'
This is not a problem with gratitude per se. Piper properly identifies an anathema to the Gospel, but mis-diagnoses the cause.

The problem is that those following "the debtor's ethic," and Piper himself, go about the circle of analogical predication the wrong way. They are loading "gratitude" with man-centered value, rather than re-orienting their view of gratitude in light of who God is. Gratitude, I believe, properly construed, is thankfulness and right action. To be thankful without right action is to be, well, ungrateful. (To not be thankful in the first place is also ungrateful, for those playing along at home.) Can we be obedient without gratitude? Of course! And we shoudn't be disobedient simply because we don't feel grateful. But the best is to have obedient action motivated by gratitude (as I have, I hope, robustly defined it).

Those that are thankful and then try to "repay" God are simply doing horrible theology and clearly misunderstand both gratitude and the magnitude of the Father's action in Christ by the Spirit on their behalf.
Gratitude is an emotion. As such, gratitude ebbs and flows.
Love, Joy, Peace - fruits of the Spirit - are also emotions which ebb & flow, yet Paul talks about them as fundamental to our life in Christ.

The point isn't whether a motivator ebbs & flows. Clearly, our actions ought to be based upon, even motivated by, Love, Joy & Peace, yet at the same time we're called to "pursue Love" (I Cor 14:1) while we do other things. What this tells me is that there are proper emotions for motivation (of which I include, gratitude) but that we are to strive for right actions (obedience), even while we pray for the right emotions (motivation). So it seems to me improper to dismiss gratitude as motivatior in part because it's an emotion.

One might say, "but there is a deeper Love, a deeper Joy & Peace than merely 'emotion.'" And I would agree. And we know this because we've gone about the circle of analogical predication the correct way with Love, Joy, & Peace. We ought to do the same with gratitude.

Let me also add that the work God has graciously done for us has only one proper response: worship & obedience.

Worship & obedience are one response. It seems that you do your argument a disservice to talk about Gratitude being a proper motivation for worship, but not obedience. Worship & Obedience are perichoretic, imho. (And, Dude, I love using that word. What a great word.) Worship is a subset of obedience in that it is an act of heart & will as well as being something that is mandatory. Obedience is a subset of worship, in that worship in its fullest sense is a life obediently lived in the Lord. And yet they both are categories in and to themselves. So I'm going with perichoretic: they inhere & cohere together without confusion. And if gratitude is improper for motivating obedience, how is it proper for moviting worship? Alternatively, if it's proper for motivating worship, how can it be improper for motivating obedience?

Finally, after all of this, let me say that I'm not going to die on the theological Hill of Gratitude. After all, it may just not be the best way to talk about what I'm trying to talk about. In fact, in some ways, I am simply using gratitude as a shorthand for "Faith, Hope & Love." That is, to respond greatfully to God necessarily entails a Faithful & Hopeful response of Love towards God, which leads inexorably to obedient action.

And while, perhaps, I won't die on the theological Hill of Faith, Hope & Love, I am willing to be horribly maimed on it.

Other Kith & Kinners (including all you Lurkers out there!) are, as always, welcome to jump in at any time. I would be, er, grateful for your feedback.

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