Every Hot and Humid Gift: On Kierkegaard, James and Gratitude
I don’t handle the heat very well. I get really uncomfortable when it’s humid and it makes me grouchy. Conversely, I don’t really feel the cold. So I own one jumper, which I wear approximately once a year if I happen to be ill. And I would happily wear t-shirts and shorts all year round if it were socially acceptable. Couple the heat with hay fever, and I’m not the biggest fan of Summer!
Towards the beginning of his letter, James writes:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’ (James 1:17)
These words are heart-warming, but also deeply challenging. Søren Kierkegaard writes that we are so often guilty of wanting…
…God’s ideas about what was good for you to be the same as yours and wanting the proof that He was Creator of heaven and earth to depend on whether or not he was able to fulfil your wish.’ (Understanding the Gift, in Spiritual Writings, p8)
We tend to think that we have a clear idea of what constitutes a good and perfect gift, and we assume that God’s definition must align with ours. So the proof of whether or not there is a good God who loves us is tied up with whether we get the things we want and think we deserve. This, of course, has disastrous effects for our own spirituality and ego, but Kierkegaard shows how it more fundamentally weakens the nature of God Himself:
Of course, if He shared your ideas, He would cease to be the almighty Father. In your childish impatience you had been wanting to weaken God’s eternal Being. You had been so blind as to deceive yourself into thinking that you yourself knew what was good for you. You had no thought at all for the fearful possibility that what you had wished for was something no human being could endure if it came to pass.’ (Understanding the Gift, p8-9)
I had no idea my complaining about the temperature had such drastic theological consequences!
Perhaps my struggle with the weather isn’t the best example, and maybe it’s not one that works for you. How about when we pray for a situation to change and it changes in a way we didn’t expect; or we long for a change of job and it doesn’t happen; or we put an offer on a house and someone else gets it; or that person you’ve struggled to get on with moves in next door; or… the list is endless. We so often assume that we know what is truly good, such that we complain about receiving an item or an answer that doesn’t correspond with our idea, rather than giving thanks.
But if God is the true embodiment of good, then He is surely better at measuring the goodness of a gift than we are. We don’t always know what is good for us, and so run the risk of writing off good gifts because they don’t fit our fixed idea of goodness, rather than trusting in the one who:
works all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)
and the one who declared repeatedly over Creation:
good’ (Genesis 1:4)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:10)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:12)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:18)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:21)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:25)
‘good’ (Genesis 1:12)
‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31)
So how should we respond when something seems ‘not good’ to us? Well, leaving aside the question of evil and suffering, to which Kierkegaard returns in a later essay, the answer is simple:
Every gift is good and perfect when it is received with gratitude.’ (Understanding the Gift, p15)
In expressing gratitude for a gift, we recognise that there may be an inherent goodness in it that is not immediately perceivable to us. And that gratitude has a transformative quality, turning it into a good and perfect gift. He continues:
It is a beautiful thing when someone prays – and many things are promised to those who pray without ceasing – but it is always more blessed to give thanks. If you do this, then you have interpreted the apostolic saying in a worthy fashion, more gloriously than if all the angels were to speak in tongues of flame.’ (Understanding the Gift, p16)
So then, how to give thanks for the things for which I’m not naturally thankful? Well, I think that even if I don’t enjoy something, I can give thanks for the good it does to others. And in so doing, I may benefit by recognising the grace of God in the life of the world.
So personally I would prefer the Father to rein in his Heavenly Lights just a little, but I need to recognise that I am not the centre of the Universe. So I’m going to try to complain a little less and give thanks a little more.
And to all you people who are gloating right now, I’m looking forward to reminding you of this when the Winter sets in…
Kierkegaard’s essays on gift can be found in the collection of his Spiritual Writings