I enjoy life. I enjoy it a lot!
But I know that not everyone can say the same. In many cases that’s because of hard circumstances. Who, for instance, can enjoy a life out of balance because of a tragedy, or a life deprived of some basic needs, or a life broken by the abusive behaviors or attitudes of others? So my comments here are not meant as a comparative gloat. I’m not speaking of any self-satisfaction. I realize, in fact, that I have a whole bag full of limitations, flaws, moral faults, unfulfilled dreams, and more—and I would be discouraged if these limits defined my capacity for enjoyment. Thankfully my enjoyment is based on something much bigger than my own character or my set of circumstances.
By starting with this topic—enjoyment—I want to note a related topic that I’ve raised before: we are to give thanks in everything. Here is the connection: thanksgiving charts a relatively straight and even road to enjoyment.
Let me add, by the way, that I’m careful to say we should give thanks “in” everything” rather than “for” everything. The first of these two prepositions is on the pathway to reaching the second, but it often comes much earlier in the process. For example, as a young man I suffered a serious knee injury. After surgery the doctor gave me the bad news: no more vigorous athletics were in my future. Only swimming, walking, and cycling. I first gave thanks “in” that event; and I’ve come to give thanks “for” it as I realized how much the injury turned me into more of a student than ever before. Thanksgiving let me see that benefit even if it only dawned on me after a time.
At one level the call to thanksgiving and its affiliation with enjoyment is self-evident—a truism affirmed in daily experience. I can think, for instance, of my days as an educator. By this measure I always had two types of students: those who were thankful for the course they took with me and for me as a teacher; and those who were happy to see me in their rearview mirror. I deeply enjoyed the former, and I could only wave goodbye to the latter with some grief mixed with relief.
That’s the main point: we enjoy those who enjoy us. And thanksgiving is the main motor of that enjoyment. I’ve seen that connection all around me. A marriage rich with mutual thanksgiving between the spouses is always a healthy marriage even if there are plenty of pressures to address outside the marriage. A work environment where a boss is rich with honest expressions of care and encouragement—regularly extending thanks for his or her employees—is a place where motivation and productivity will be high, even when wages are not as high as other jobs might offer.
A second, and connected, truism is that thanksgiving is transitive: a function between people. That is, we can’t say we have a “disposition” of thanksgiving if we never tell someone that we’re thankful. And the act of thanksgiving is fully authentic only when it reaches beyond mere appreciation for a benefit to the deeper appreciation for the heart that extended that benefit. This is the fabric of a strong relationship—one that builds the strongest bonds through honest, heart-to-heart exchanges. The theological context for this is that we need each other! God designed us to be mutually interdependent beings—to be those who live together in love.
That means that we are not talking about empty flattery here; but about our having eyes to see what others are giving us. All human contacts are events in which people offer something of themselves to others—even if the offer is part of a job requirement or is done as an ongoing family chore. The fact is that every form of giving expresses a constructive moment with each other: we are building up one another. So we can and should be thankful for that relationship. The alternative is to treat others mechanically, as objects to serve us and to fulfill their utilitarian duty: revealing our lack of love and authentic relationship.
Now let me turn back to the breadth of our topic: my enjoyment of life as a whole. Even if we are ready to agree with the points made up to now—that relationships rich with mutual appreciation are enjoyable—it seems like a stretch to say that all of life can then be enjoyed.
But think about that for a moment. A family where spouses are mutually thankful will create an environment that guests will sense right away: it offers a sphere of trust and appreciation. It creates an environment that children need in order to prosper. And, as we mentioned, the work setting where a boss is regularly grateful achieves the same. The question of how broad the milieu of shared enjoyment might extend has everything to do with those whose initiative defines that environment—and the response of those who live in that sphere. Both go together: one who thanks another; and the other who returns the benefit by being thankful for the appreciation.
Why, then, my bold statement about enjoying life, no matter my circumstances? It has everything to do with my sense that God is pleased—call it thankful—that I’m thankful for his care for me. And he offers the broadest environment—all of creation—in which his positive disposition forms the milieu of shared enjoyment. He made us (me included) to respond to his care; he sent us his Son to share that love; and I’ve responded to him. It’s not that I’ve done anything for him; but I’m delighted with him. That’s my response: it’s called faith. And it began years ago with my discovery of his love as I read the Sermon on the Mount.
I know, however, that there’s some damage done to my relationship with God whenever I’m not thankful. I think, for instance, of Romans 1:21 where the root issue of our broken relation with God is summarized around the matter of thanksgiving: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks . . .” [my emphasis]. That verse, along with others such as Habakkuk 3:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, and Philippians 4:4-7, all tell the tale of how life is meant to be lived: as a dramatic adventure amid broken people and circumstances in which God’s love for us calls us to “hold on tight!” I do that by being very bold and very free with my thanksgiving! I stumble from time to time but he holds on to my spiritual hand.
So I know—no matter how small and insignificant I am in the greater scheme of things—that God enjoys having me around. And I certainly enjoy him in response. This is, thankfully, a life available to all. I invite others who are looking for real enjoyment in life to come and enjoy God with me!