Life, and Abundantly: Gratitude in the New Year

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Visiting another church yesterday morning, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a sermon on the theme of abundance. (Part of a series, actually.) It’s territory too often ceded to the worst of the Prosperity Gospel crowd. Which is a shame, since it’s possible to take seriously Jesus’ promise in John 10 without defining abundant living in terms of material wealth, social status, or other worldly measures. (Tellingly, the Apostle Paul refers most clearly to abundance in a passage on giving, not possession.)

Lewis, The Screwtape LettersBut listening to the sermon, I realized that I’m prone to another error. To the extent that I think or speak about abundance, I do so primarily in the future tense.

And never more so than at this time of year, when I’ve moved past reviewing what was and am fully engaged in looking ahead to the potential of what’s to come. And that’s good, to a point. But it reminds me again of advice that C.S. Lewis’ devil Screwtape delivered:

It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities.

If I think of life in Christ primarily in terms of life that I will have abundantly, I’ll be tempted by the vices Lewis most associated with the Future: avarice, lust, and ambition — as well as the fear that my hopes will go unfulfilled.

And resentment when abundance isn’t lavished on me on my terms.

Instead of looking to the abundance I hope to receive in the future, I suspect I’d do better to look to the past and present. In other words, to understand “life, and… abundantly” in the light of recognition, not expectation.

As our preacher pointed out yesterday, the sheep may know the voice of the Good Shepherd — but there are many other shepherds calling out, and their voices distract easily. How much of living abundantly is simply a matter of learning to recognize blessings that are and have been, rather than looking for the ephemera that the world teaches us to demand?

To see one’s life clearly: as it is rather than as we want it to be.

(Would it push the metaphor too far to point out that “life, and… abundantly” comes after Jesus performs the miracle of healing “a man blind from birth“?)

Colombel, "Christ Healing the Blind"
Nicolas Colombel, “Christ Healing the Blind” (1682) – Wikimedia

Hope is one of my favorite topics, but today, at the start of a new year, I’m more taken with the importance of a humbler virtue, the one that Lewis most associated with the Past. If I’m to see the abundance of life in Christ at all clearly, I must look through the lens of gratitude.

I’m not sure that I can say much here without it sounding trite. After all, I live in considerable comfort, freedom, and safety; I have a job that accords me recognition, purpose, and the chance to be creative. More importantly, I share my life with wonderful family, friends, and sisters and brothers in Christ. (And as I wrote in a post meditating on a hymn that thanks God for everything — “for prayers that that Thou hast answered / …for what thou dost deny” — we practice gratitude not in solitude, but as members of a Body. And Jesus promises abundant life not to any individual, but to all his “sheep.”)

Kang, Spirituality of GratitudeGiven such blessings, words like abundance and gratitude come easily to my lips. But for too many people to count — perhaps, I regret, for some of you — the past and present are marked by deprivation and scarcity. Not just want, but unmet need: spiritual, emotional, relational, and material.

So as I’ve started to read his weekly devotional, Spirituality of Gratitude: The Unexpected Blessings of Thankfulness, I’m struck that Korean pastor Joshua Choonmin Kang early on focuses on how practicing gratitude “can transform our sufferings into blessings.” For “When we give thanks, we become more able to accept our circumstances, even our suffering and pain” (p. 14).

Whatever will come in 2016, whatever your circumstances, may you live with gratitude — recognizing, with all the clarity of a blind man suddenly given sight, all the ways that the Good Shepherd has given you life in abundance.

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