Friday, November 27, 2009


Another Thanksgiving come and gone. I spent the day feasting with family and friends. The air was filled with delicious smells, laughter, and the warmth of hearts sharing their love. It was a really nice day, and I couldn’t have asked for better. I want to pause here a moment and talk about this holiday’s buzzword: gratitude.

Back when I was a believer, I made a habit of thanking God before every meal. I had a standard prayer that I’d rattle off under my breath, something along the lines of, “Dear Lord, thank you for bringing me here to enjoy this meal. Please bless my family and friends, especially those in most need of your help.” I felt that this covered the bases pretty well; get some thankfulness in there, and also pitch in a word for those close to me. It was nice. It felt like a good thing to be in the habit of doing.

But what did being grateful to God really mean to me? The feeling was rooted in my understanding of God’s role in my life, which I didn’t exactly hammer down with any great clarity at the time. It went something like this: God created me. He also created this food, and the reason He did that was so I’d have something to eat. He has been guiding me through my life, encouraging me to make certain choices, and those choices have led me here. And I’m happy here. So I should thank God for His assistance in reaching this place.

Thanking God was, for me, a lot like thanking one’s parents for dinner. They “made” you, they put the food in front of you, and they guided you through life thus far. It’s an easy comparison to make, really.

And all of this is probably pretty obvious or generic; I imagine this is how most believers understand their relationship with God.

I wonder now, looking back, why I didn’t ask more questions about this. Actually, no, I don’t wonder. I know why. I was taught not to ask questions. But if I had asked questions, I would’ve quickly found some problems.

First of all, there are the big questions that the situation calls for: how exactly does God “guide” me anywhere? How does he encourage me to make certain choices, while still allowing my will to be free (and more importantly, the wills of the people in my life who are asking me to make the choices in question)? If God has my life all mapped out in his head, do my “choices” even really matter? Could I have ended up anywhere other than where I was just then, sitting at the table with the plate in front of me?

If we put all that stuff aside and just run with it, a second worry comes up: why thank God? Not just for the food, but for anything? Let me explain with an analogy: say I release you into some kind of gigantic maze, like the ones scientists use on rodents, and observe you from above, to see how you navigate it. I’ve spent lots of time making sure this maze is deviously complicated; there are dead-ends and roadblocks everywhere. Now, I’ve also set little pieces of “cheese” along the way for you (whatever reward “cheese” is depends on the person, I suppose). And as you stagger through this test, wondering where you’re supposed to go and why the hell you’ve ended up in such horrendous situation anyway, you come upon these pieces of cheese. Would you be grateful to me, the test maker (by the way, I’ve also left a bundle of old notes about me, the scientist, written by previous maze-runners. I haven’t actually shown myself to you or anything crazy like that)? Would you express your thankfulness to me for the bountiful rewards I’ve seen fit to give you?

I wouldn’t. You can’t buy my love, God. You can’t just give me stuff and expect me to do whatever you ask. I thought that was what free will was all about? Being able to choose whether or not to love God? The problem here is this: if God is going to put all these material rewards in front of me and then wiggle his eyebrows knowingly and go, “Eh? Eh?”, then you can count me right out of that nonsense. Even the promise of an immaterial reward is just that, a promise. Until I see the pay dirt, I don’t have much of a reason to be swayed by such a reward.

I’ll try to sum this up: I don’t see much reason to thank God for his “gifts”, because they come with a hidden agenda. There is, to borrow the old adage, no such thing as a free lunch. If I cram in a mouthful of the delicious apple pie in front of me, I’m in essence saying, “Ok God, I’ll bite. I’ll accept your gifts, and with them the knowledge that you put them there so that I might believe in you.”

Don’t you see? God has a monopoly on the situation! Where else am I going to go? If I want to turn down his gifts and strike out on my own, I don’t have any other options.

The reason I exist is because God made me; therefore, I begin the game indebted to him. Again I go back to the maze analogy (apt, I think, because a lot of people view this life as a “test”): sure, while trapped in the maze, I might be enjoying these rewards the scientist left for me, but I’m stuck in the maze because of the scientist! I didn’t have any option but to be here! So to be grateful to him for trapping me in a labyrinth and then throwing down treats is a bit… silly. Maybe if I’d been given the option of not being in the maze, then I could see saying “thanks”. But I didn’t get to make that choice. So these “gifts” are permanently tainted by the fact that they’re only put there to placate me and coerce me to follow God’s will.

A kidnapper might be nice and give you candy, but he's still a kidnapper.

All right, enough about this. Thank goodness none of it is true: God didn’t give me my meals because there isn’t a God. Phew.

Thanksgiving is, now, an even better holiday for me. Why? Because instead of thanking some invisible man with a beard for the mountains of grub, I can give my gratitude to those who truly deserve it: my family and friends. I can thank them for being a part this brief, fleeting experience we call living. I can be happy that my brain has produced an epiphenomenon called “me”, and thus I’m able to think about how much I enjoy turkey and stuffing. I can just be glad to be alive now, at this very exciting juncture in human history, instead of a thousand years ago or five hundred years ago or any of the other really nasty time periods prior to the present.

Most of all, I can give thanks for the goodness in the hearts of my fellow human beings. That’s what I was most grateful for this Thanksgiving: the beauty and compassion of everyone around me.

Hope you had a wonderful Turkey Day. I certainly did.

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