The Debt I Owe When I Cannot Repay

by Matthew Raley

We tend to associate gratitude with being polite — or worse, being respectable. And I suspect our view of Christmas is tainted as a result.

In our point of view, I show gratitude to avoid giving offense. After all, if someone helps me out, I don’t want to take the help for granted, as if I were entitled to it. That would foreclose the possibility of being helped again. So I show gratitude for the same reason Americans are polite generally: pragmatic vigilance.

The lower form of this pragmatism is to tend appearances. I don’t want someone to think I’m ungrateful, so I express gratitude to maintain respectability.

This kind of gratitude is alien to the Bible.

Here’s one of the Bible’s most important, and most neglected, verses (Romans 1.21). “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

To explain the depth of human perversity, Paul says that we did not “honor God as God.” God is the creator of all things (vv 19-20, 25). He has a rank that is infinitely above ours: creator to creature. Honor in this case is not a matter of politeness, but of profound, inflexible, eternal indebtedness.

Giving thanks is the payment. The gratitude is not about being appreciative, as if we were supposed to say, “Wow, it was so nice of you to make me and all my stuff!” The gratitude is what we owe God when we cannot repay the debt. “You gave me life. I can never repay what I owe you. But I can live for your glory in humble gratitude.”

I understand this best as a parent. When my sons spontaneously say, “Thanks, Dad!” for something I do, I am repaid in the coin of honor. More than the thing I provide, they value me.

How does this concept of gratitude relate to Christmas?

Christ Jesus came to this world to give his life for our redemption. He did so when we were still ungodly — still expressing ingratitude for created life, giving no honor to him as God (Romans 5.8). So what we celebrate in this season is the double-gift of life that is doubly beyond our ability to repay.

We are celebrating our debt of gratitude.

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