Gratitude, The Debtor’s Ethic, and Faith
Coming to terms with the author:
Gratitude — exists because sometimes things come to us without price or payment; created by God to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the good will of another; an echo of grace; does not nullify a free gift.
The Debtor’s Ethic — develops when one feels the need to repay another for a gift; turns gifts into legal currency. For the Christian, living with a debtor’s ethic means that we strive to obey God in order to repay him for salvation or other gifts given in the past. This is the most common way we speak of our motivation for obeying God.
What does the Bible indicate should be the primary motivating factor for obedience? Piper begins to answer that question by looking into the reasons given for Israel’s disobedience in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament the people of God often sinned against him despite all the good things he had done for them. But the reason given for this sin is not their ingratitude but, for example, their lack of faith: “How long will they not believe in me despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” (Numbers 14:11). The ethical problem troubling Moses is not ingratitude. What troubles him is that God’s past grace did not move the people to trust in God’s future grace. Faith in future grace, not gratitude, is the missing ethical power to overcome rebellion and motivate obedience.
Piper goes on to explain how fear and faith work together in the heart of a believer as proper motivators for obedience.
Fear and faith happen together in response to God’s mighty power and his promise of future grace. To fear the Lord is to tremble at the awareness of what a terrible insult it is to a holy God if we do not have faith in his future grace after all the signs and wonders he has performed to win our obedient rust. It’s this faith in future grace that channels the power of God into obedience.
Faith in future grace — the secret that keeps impulses of gratitude from turning into a debtor’s ethic.
Gratitude can feed faith for the future. We look back at what God has done for us and feel immense gratitude. That gratitude from looking back can feed our faith in God to do MORE for us in the future. We may express it like this: Lord, you have shown me love and grace; you have cared for me though I did not deserve it. I will obey you and trust you because I want more of that grace and I believe you will deliver.
On the other hand, our looking back could produce feelings of gratitude, but we may still disobey God. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ungrateful. It means that we lack faith that God will do what he says he will do, namely, give us more grace. We may express it like this: God, you have been so gracious to me. But how do I know you will be regarding this problem I’m having? I don’t know if you’ll come through. I have to take care of this myself.
Piper uses the example of a person making a vow. A man stands in need of help from God. He looks back and remembers all the ways God has been faithful to him and says, God, be faithful to me again. I trust you will. And after you have done it, I will give you thanks. And I will go to you again and again in my hour of need because you are a God of grace.
I think the thing we don’t realize is that God wants us to come to him. He does not want us to rely on ourselves. He wants to give us more grace. It’s what he likes to do. When we go to him rather than relying on our own ingenuity or money, it makes him look like the awesome God that He is. (Uh-oh, I’m jumping ahead).
If someone gives me a gift, and I give them something in return, does that nullify the gift? Absolutely. As Piper points out, the gifting then becomes currency.
I think we tend to feel the need to give in return because we know we aren’t deserving of the gift. That is, unless it’s our birthday or a graduation or the birth of a baby. In those instances, we see gifting as justified and deserved; therefore, we accept the gifts, we are grateful, and we express our gratitude in the form of a thank you note.
So here’s my understanding of faith in future grace: I look back to the past and see how God has been gracious and how he has cared for me. This looking back produces overwhelming gratitude, which can translate into a sense of needing to pay God back OR into confidence that God will give me grace in the future. If gratitude has translated to faith, then I will walk in joyful obedience. If gratitude has devolved to the debtor’s ethic, then I will respond with a servile attitude and be a grumpy Christian.
I want to tell you about a godly man who lives by faith in future grace.
About two years ago, Karl and I had been discussing how we were going to paint the exterior of our house. Were we going to try to do it ourselves or were we going to hire a company to do it? After shopping around and checking our budget, we decided that Karl would do it himself. The house may be two different colors for a long while, but we just couldn’t afford to pay professionals to come paint our house. Then we met an exemplary Christian family. I’ll call them the Smith family. In casual conversation, Karl mentioned that he was going to paint our house. Well, Mr. Smith just happened to own a house painting business. Not only that, but Mr. Smith tithes, as he put it, a portion of his labor to God as an offering of thanks (gratitude). He insisted on painting our house for us. So, over a couple of months, as he had free time, Mr. Smith and one of his employees came to our house and painted.
First, there was no way we could repay him because he did the work as an offering to God. If we tried to repay, he wouldn’t accept it. It would have offended him.
Second, there was no way we could repay him because any amount of money we tried to give would not have been near enough to cover the time and expense it took Mr. Smith to do the work. It would have been insulting to him to give such a comparatively small amount.
From every angle, we were forced to humility and gratitude. We can pray that God will abundantly bless Mr. Smith’s business and family, but that’s about all we can offer to show our gratitude.
Finally, Mr. Smith provides an excellent example of faith in God’s future grace. He paints houses gratis for his Christian brothers and sisters because he believes that God will provide all the paying jobs he needs. Mr. Smith is so full of joy in the grace of God, that it naturally overflows in every conversation. In over two years, I’ve never spoken with Mr. or Mrs. Smith and not heard about the grace of God in their lives. They are so quick to give glory to God. “It’s God’s grace,” is his constant refrain.
I want it to be mine, as well.
Two new features for the reading group: Mark Tubbs will BlogThru Future Grace at Discerning Reader (you can read his posts, Preface and Introductions and Chapter 1) and a discussion board for those of you who are on Facebook.
Read what other bloggers are writing about this chapter: