Nearing the end of the year—when Thanksgiving is the launching of the Christmas sales period—all the avid consumers in America go wild. With Thursday’s newspaper, full of “black Friday” sales, weighing almost as much as the turkey. Backbreaking stuff! It’s the season when things we don’t really need are being marketed with even more gusto than usual. And the marketers will have real successes even in these lean economic times. Soul breaking stuff! Which leads me to offer this ‘extra’ Thanksgiving posting on Spreadinggoodness.
Marketing speaks to our real needs, to our felt needs, and to our unimagined needs. And far too often it is mainly to the latter—to the needs we never knew we had! It’s called “creating a need”—birthed by a producer’s ambition to build new markets, with attending profits, among the consuming masses.
If this sounds manipulative. . . well, it is! But we actually enjoy it because good marketing first captures our hearts—our desires—and only then our cash. And if a new desire is well planted and watered it becomes a “natural” priority.
I think, as a very ordinary example, of what bathrooms used to be like in the homes of a century ago: one per house; a modest rectangular room with a sink, a stool, a tub, a mirror, and a towel shelf. They were basic but they satisfied the family needs. However since then—coaxed by tens of thousands of home improvement magazines and advertisements—we now have master bathrooms as big as bedrooms used to be, filled with a multitude of comfort features. And we also have annually enhanced visions of kitchens, cars, and computers. In fact almost everything gets grander each year!
Yet my point isn’t to challenge our having nice bathrooms, kitchens, cars, or computers, but to reflect on what draws us beyond our actual needs to the point of soul breaking excess. We need to remember—with a certain grace—that the ambition of good marketers is to make sure we are never satisfied—so our unending exposure to new “needs” never ends. But, given this induced climate of perpetual dissatisfaction, how can we avoid an enslavement to the stuff and status that goes with consumerism?
This is where thanksgiving offers us a wonderful solution. But let me start by asking about the problem of sin—what are we up against?
If we have an enemy of our souls—and we do—and if he (as the ultimate status-seeker) wanted to have us turn from God in order to draw us into his own alternative kingdom, how could he do it?
Augustine, the 4th century bishop of Hippo in Africa, asked just this sort of question. In answering he first affirmed a pair of Christian axioms: that God cannot be the author of evil, and that God created all things. So how did that leave space for any evil to arise? The answer is: by stepping away from God’s love. Satan, who was created as one who was good, ceased loving God and conceived an “unreal” realm away from God’s loving rule. At that moment a binary opposition between love and hate was birthed. This realm of rebellion would be a virtual world existing outside God’s realm of reality—as a shadow does to a real object—and as an opposite to all that God is and stands for. It is the realm where God (as he truly exists) is denied—“hated”—along with all his goodness, and where new versions of God are imagined.
Let me expand on Augustine’s insight. In the realm of truth—the “true realm” called God’s kingdom—all that God created is “good”, “good”, and “very good”. And the greatest goodness was for God’s new companions to be united in the communion of the Triune God by the Spirit pouring out this mutual, active love in their hearts. Satan, however, looked away from God’s goodness in order to explore a possibility God left open. The creation is never forced to love God because love is a devotion of reciprocated desire, not of demand or duty. So Satan conceived of a new sort of love—an oxymoronic “self-love”—as a new basis for goodness rooted in personal ambition. He, in turn, dismissed the relational mutuality of the triune God. God summarized what happened next: “Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor” [Ezekiel 28:17].
Evil then began and grew as the negative image to all that is positive. If, for instance, God created us to be selfless, Satan offers selfishness. When God created sexuality as a goodness in bonding the husband and his wife, Satan promoted a selfish sexuality that abandoned that goodness. In sum, God offered a wisdom from above and Satan a wisdom from below.
So it was this pseudo-reality that God’s human companions embraced. Satan’s kingdom—what God calls death, darkness, the Lie, and evil—was captivating not just for Adam and Eve, but for their offspring as well. Especially as the Spirit, who spread God’s love, joy, peace, and patience, withdrew after the Fall.
What was Satan’s marketing ploy in achieving all this? He offered the benefits of being “like God”! It wasn’t that he was suggesting God’s kingdom should be dismissed or destroyed. Instead he offered Adam the opportunity to have a free will—a will free from God’s loving ways. This would, supposedly, lead to a mature, peer-to-peer relationship with God. Adam and Eve, for instance, would become God’s partners in determining good and evil. They would have their own wisdom enhanced by seeking to develop more of an equal relationship with him. Hierarchy was now passé and unexamined trust was now naive. Instead, as Satan marketed his vision of a new kind of deity, a new motivation of self-love was offered. This was the basis of being “like God”. With it came an appetite for god-like qualities—with Satan’s version of a self-centered God now in play. This, in turn, called for more comfort, more status, more capacities, more knowledge, more security . . . more and more and more of everything.
All of which takes us back to thanksgiving. Augustine had drawn his own insights from reading the Bible, and the epistles of Paul were central to what he concluded. Paul, for instance, began the letter to the Romans with an exposé of evil. He wrote of how humanity is without excuse for its rejection of God. He chastised those who toy with sin as actually embracing futility—of claiming to be wise while actually becoming fools.
What is striking is Paul’s linkage, in Romans 1:21, between the rebellion of Satan and Adam’s offspring, and their shared refusal to be thankful: “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him . . .”
Thanksgiving, is, in effect, the first and foremost expression of our “getting it”! Faith is the restoration of a life of devotion to, and dependence on, God. Of affirming our faith as a vine-and-branch bond: “for apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing at all. Everything depends on him, whether by creation, or by relational devotion to him. Without him we are still in the un-world of the wicked one, pretending to be real while actually living in a vast shadowland of opposition.
So now that we are children of God, how shall we grow in our faith? By giving thanks. By thanking him in everything—as we are invited to do in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. Of enjoying God with every breath we take, in every move we make, knowing that we are beloved by him.
Thanksgiving—full and robust—is our continuing response to the Spirit’s renewed presence in us: sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted. Thanksgiving is the heartbeat of a living faith. God, in turn, loves to hear our thanksgiving. And why not! He made us in order to be partners in his joyous, eternal, triune communion. The enthusiasm of the Son in his John 17 prayer is all about our experience of the love and glory the Son has eternally enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit. So our own exercises of giving thanks are steps into the atmosphere of heaven, and of returning to what Adam dismissed for the sake of self-love. In effect, we actually become “more Godly” by giving up our old ambition to be “like God.” True Godliness is only discovered in God’s embrace.
What, then, shelters our hearts in a consumeristic world with its systemic dissatisfaction, especially on black Friday? Our thanksgiving. And our thanksgiving is not artificial if we pause long enough to both consider and then respond to God’s ever-present mercies and love. We love him because he first loved us. And it only takes a moment for us to turn our heart towards him by saying “Thank you, Lord!” As we do his Spirit begins to reciprocate our response. The result is that now we can truly be “more Godly”.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.