Against Stick Families: Why Christians Can Stop Counting Their Blessings Now (and What They Should do Instead)

T’is the season to be thankful, at least according to my Facebook newsfeed, and I have been putting a lot of thought into how Christians express gratitude. Down here in the South we are “so blessed” when life is looking good. In some Orthodox communities we say “Glory be to God!” when something goes our way. I’m sure other communities have their own versions of these phrases. These are nice expressions and the people I know who use them are nice people, so I have often wondered why I cannot comfortably use them myself. Am I too self-conscious for an outward display of piety, embarrassed to advertise my faith? Or is it because I have developed an allergy to “group-speak” over the years, and try to avoid using “verbal bumper stickers” that would tag me as a particular sort of person belonging to a particular group? Both are probably true, but neither tells the whole story.

Last year when I picked up my daughter from preschool I often parked next to a car with an unusual stick family decal on its back windshield. Instead of the typical smiling stick figures representing each member of the family, sometimes even wearing matching team jerseys or divided between tutu-wearing girls and ball-playing boys, this stick family was running and cowering under a hail of fire from a fighter plane overhead. The caption read, “No one cares about your stick family.” The obvious irony, at least to me, was that clearly someone out there cares very much about all those stick families. People don’t go to the trouble of creating and sharing violent fantasies unless they care. For someone, those ubiquitous little white figures represent a challenge, a threat, an open wound.

The thing is, when you are hurting, other people’s gratitude can look an awful lot like smugness. When we begin publicly counting our blessings we run the risk of creating a “Facebook effect,” where we include only carefully selected images of the most socially acceptable aspects of our lives. In doing so we undermine our purpose (assuming our purpose is to bear witness to the goodness of God) by creating a stick figure version of our faith, where blessedness is equated with those things that give us a sense of security and belonging, and good things happen to us because God loves us and we are his people. We are no longer bearing witness to the God who turned the very concept of blessedness on its head, who claimed that blessedness is in fact ours when we are poor and powerless, empty and sad.

I think the movement towards emphasizing the thanks in Thanksgiving is a well-meaning attempt to counteract the overwhelming consumerism associated with the rest of the season. I am likewise sure that Christians who make a point of thanking God for good things in their daily speech or in their social media communications are genuinely trying to counterbalance the negativity that seems rife in so much of public discourse, and to acknowledge that the good things in life are gifts. The trouble with public displays of thankfulness is that they rarely have power to accomplish the good that is intended, and yet they run the risk of further alienating those who already feel alienated and alone.

If, as Thanksgiving approaches, you cannot resist accepting a Facebook “gratitude challenge,” that is fine. If you have family traditions that include listing things for which you are all thankful, don’t change them. But do be mindful of those around us who have been “blessed” with suffering. Don’t rub salt in open wounds if you can help it. However, if you really want to counteract negativity and complaining while bearing witness to your faith and the goodness of God, I’d like to suggest a gratitude challenge with teeth. Any of the following suggestions, if practiced faithfully, have the power to change one’s perspective, deepen one’s faith, and strengthen one’s connection to other people. I plan on trying at least a few of them myself during this Advent season, and I’d like to invite you to join me. No need to tag anyone. If we do this right I’m pretty sure this kind of gratitude will spread all on its own.

 A Gratitude Challenge (with Teeth)

  1.  Thank God often. Privately. In prayer.
  1. Thank other people directly. It doesn’t cost much to announce to the world how grateful I am for my wonderful husband/family/coworkers/friends. Thanking people specifically, face to face, for the ways in which they make my life better is a bit more awkward. It requires me to be vulnerable. That vulnerability is precisely what allows real connection to happen.
  1. Give. Give a hand, a hug, a donation. When you’re bursting with happiness and your “cup runneth over,” let it. Let it run right into someone else’s cup. At the very least pause in the middle of each moment of joy and contentment to send a thought or a prayer out for someone you know is in need of it.
  1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Just stop. Every time I think I have succeeded in doing this I find the nasty spirit of comparison and jealousy cropping up in a different form, trying to trick me into starting all over again. It is a lifelong fight, but the reward is sweet freedom.
  1. Stop complaining. Seriously. Don’t put on a façade of happiness to cover up the discontent. Fight the discontent deeply, in your thoughts and the dark corners of your heart. I can think of no better witness than this, that Christians be known as the people who meet life’s inconveniences and indignities with grace and equanimity, who face suffering head on, without losing their perspective or sense of humor.

These are the work of a lifetime, lessons to learn over and over and never master completely. But here also is the final answer to why I am not “so blessed.” Saying the words will only make me a hypocrite if I am not living the reality of gratitude. And if I manage to live the reality, adding the words is beyond unnecessary.