Lessons Learned Part 1: A Thankful Heart
I complain a lot. And when I say "a lot", I mean "A LOT".
Am I alone in this?
It begs the question as to what there is to complain about. Generally speaking it's a result of unmet expectations. Maybe I have a standard of doing something a certain way that's different than someone else.
Any other perfectionists out there?
Shamefully, this comes from a heart of pride. Often times the voice in my head says "Well, if they just did it this way..." And even my self-justifying voice will say "this way" instead of "my way". Heaven forbid I sound selfish in my own mind!
Maybe that's just me. And that's okay. These are things I am working through. Regardless it's clear that a complaining heart is rooted in pride.
The stakes are raised when you're in a context that's different than you're comfortable in. Here are a couple of examples. The people in Japan communicate differently (not wrongly) than I do. They value different things. They expect different things. They do things at a different pace.
So, take a know-it-all 30 year old ambitious young missionary who has come to do God's work amongst an unreached people group and combine that with all the differences I spelled out above and you get major friction.
Some of this friction is obvious and quickly destructive if not kept in check. Other times it's subtle and builds over time. So, we come to the end of our first year and it's good to take a step back and review, "What lessons did we learn?"
For me, no doubt it's the importance of being thankful.
The concept of thankfulness I don't think has been presented fairly. We often define thankfulness as a byproduct of a possession we can feel, touch, see and smell. We are thankful for good health. We're thankful for growing and excelling children. We're thankful for good jobs. We're thankful for central heat and air conditioning. We're thankful for large slices of pizza. And while it's appropriate and necessary to be thankful for those things, those things in and of themselves are fleeting.
Can someone still be thankful when you face daily confusion because of language and culture barriers? Can someone still be thankful for God's provision of food when it doesn't taste nearly as good as your American taste buds say? Can someone be thankful for life processes that seem to take way too much time, but are necessary for living in your new host country? How about tiny and narrow roads that you have learn to drive? Or church culture where you don't drop your kids off at the nursery, but rather your rambunctious toddlers are very much part of the action in service?
In those moments of frustration, homesickness or feeling disoriented, the answer seems like a very firm "No". How could someone be thankful in that situation?
We've learned however, on our best days here in Japan a thankful heart (rather than complaint) is one of the most fulfilling and life giving things we could have.
So, how can someone be thankful amidst these uncomfortable circumstances?
If thankfulness were rooted in the things I mentioned earlier, we wouldn't be very thankful. And believe me, we've done our fair share of complaining. Boo!
We can be thankful because of Jesus Christ.
I'm currently reading the letter Paul wrote to the Colossians. The context is the church in Colossae was founded on the hope and promise of the gospel Paul first preached to them. Good news, right? Since Paul's departure, others have come in and preached a different message - a message of works-based salvation (Col. 2:23).
Paul quickly reminds the Colossians: "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Col. 2:6-7).
The gospel is just as much for believers as it is for unbelievers. We often think of the need for the gospel to forgive past sins and then also the securing of our future dwelling in heaven.
But, what about now?
As believers in Jesus Christ, we must look back at what Jesus did and daily remind ourselves of what the implications are of the gospel. Paul says here "as you received Christ" - their initial salvation - "so walk in Him...abounding in thanksgiving". So Paul gives the why, the how and the what.
Why? - Intro to the Gospel - "as you received Christ"
How? - Abide in the Gospel - "walk in Him"
What? - Thankful for the Gospel - "abounding in thanksgiving"
We cannot walk in Christ (the how) without first receiving Christ (the why). For the Christian, this is all completed by our daily pressing into Christ and continually looking back at Jesus with thankfulness.
Maybe you don't believe in Jesus. So you ask, "What is there to be thankful for in Jesus?" Great question.
The Jews, during the time of the Law, had to make continual animal sacrifice for sin (see the book of Leviticus). The writer of Hebrews reminds their audience about the purpose of animal sacrifice for the Jew: "Indeed, under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22). So animal sacrifice during the time of the Law was necessary.
Think of how often you sin - everyday multiple times a day. That's a lot of animals to sacrifice. But, here's the good news.
Meditate on Hebrews 9:24-28 - "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."
This is what thankfulness is rooted in - the sacrificial death for sin on our behalf. Jesus Christ shed His blood for you and for me. He then rose again 3 days later defeating sin and death. By grace, Jesus has given us the opportunity to repent of our sin and believe in Him for eternal salvation. And regardless of circumstance, this can cause a family like our's to be thankful. And you too!
The everyday is not easy here. As one colleague reflects, "Physically it is not difficult to live here. But the culture and the language are a bear." Whatever the challenge is, we have a firm foundation in Jesus Christ. We are free in Him and for that we are thankful. So, as we take time to be thankful for the daily things - progress in language, paying taxes on time, taking the trash out correctly - may these be a reflection back of what we ultimately must be thankful for - freedom and new life in Christ.
Are you thankful?