In his book, Prayer, Philip Yancey tells the story of David Rothenberg, a young man, who, at age six, was given sleeping pills by his dad, doused with kerosene, and set on fire. He suffered third-degree burns on over 90 percent of his body. Yet in spite all this, Rothenberg’s spirits are very high and he has an incredibly good attitude. Someone asked him how he could remain so happy in the wake of such horrific trauma. Without hesitation, he responded, “I am alive! I am alive! I am alive! I didn’t miss out on living and that is good enough for me” (Prayer, p. 275).
It kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? And it speaks wonderfully to this time of year when we are supposed to reflect on all the wonderful gifts we have been blessed with.
It also occurs to me that it speaks poignantly to the anxieties we face in the world today, from Occupiers who feel entitled to more than what they are getting, to CEOs who feel as though they deserve every penny they have earned, and everyone in between.
It even—or perhaps especially—stands as a rebuke to me when I feel frustrated with my wife because she wants to take a little more time away from the kids after I have just watched them for three hours. “But I’ve just watched them for three hours,” I might say to her—and then add in my own thinking, “I deserve a break now. I’ve put in my time.”
What we are here talking about is an antidote to greed, selfishness, self-pity, entitlement, and many other bad attitudes that ail us. It’s called thankfulness, gratitude, appreciation. But not just thankfulness for anything—thankfulness for the precise thing that David Rothenberg is thankful for: life.
Such thankfulness is borne out of a recognition of the tension between where one should be versus where one actually is. And it is actually pretty simple. According to the Bible, the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This is fairly elementary Christianity—as much as some would like to deny its reality. Sin, which is biblical code for “selfishness,” is endemic to all humanity. All of us are selfish and, oftentimes, what passes for selflessness is really self-centeredness, masquerading as altruism.
Thus, the wages that all of us have earned and deserve—in fact, the only thing that we truly deserve by virtue of the fact that we have lived selfish lives—is death and non-existence. That’s it. We don’t deserve an extra piece of pie, we don’t deserve a six-figure salary (no matter how much we think we’ve earned it), we don’t deserve a job after going through four years of college and amassing thousands of dollars of debt.
But what we all have been given, though not deserving of it, is life. Jesus tells us as much in John 6:33 when He says, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” There are some faiths that propose that such life is contingent upon the person receiving the Eucharist during communion. Thus, it is necessary for the individual to participate in communion regularly if he or she wants to be given life. Still, others maintain that a person needs to exercise “faith” in order to receive life from Christ.
But neither of these views are an accurate understanding of what Jesus says. He says that He—the Bread—gives life to “the world.” This is all encompassing. Every human being, whether a saint, sinner, or anyone in between, has already been given life by virtue of the fact that Christ went to the cross to die the death we deserve. He took upon the “wages” of those sins we have committed and, through this single act, earned the right for every human being—atheist, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim alike—to be granted life.
Such a realization is of paramount significance because it is the only thing that can truly induce gratitude, appreciation, and even faith from the human heart. If faith, repentance, confession, the Eucharist, good works, or any other act or institution are those which must come before God’s gift applies to me, then no gratitude can ever come forth from my heart. This is because if my actions precede God’s grace then I subtly—or perhaps not so subtly—make God the debtor and me the one who is owed something.
And this is precisely why so many walk through life feeling like they are entitled, feeling like they deserve more than they have, feeling like everyone owes them everything. It is also what separates true Christianity from false Christianity, and any other worldview or religion. A false rendition of Christianity turns our behavior into the basis for God’s behavior, rather than vice versa. This type of Christianity is also subtly equivalent to every other world religion, which requires some type of appeasement, action, or good work first in order for one’s god (or gods) to act favorably on one’s behalf. And, of course, it should go without saying that secular atheism also subscribes to the same philosophy, minus the presence of a god, since atheists believe that there is a direct and inevitable cause-and-effect between what a person does and what he or she deserves to get in return.
But when I am able to realize that I should be dead right now, or never given existence to begin with, I go through life realizing that any good thing that might come my way is simply icing on the cake; it is the cherry on top. I don’t deserve any good thing.
But for some reason, God felt as though I am worthy of receiving the greatest gift ever—life. And I can now live that life in constant gratitude to Him, which, by God’s grace, turns me into a pretty pleasant person to be around.