As usual at this time of year, I find myself reflecting on the blessings of life. I have already elaborated on them here, and not much has changed since last year. I still recognize how profoundly undeserving I am of the good fortune I have enjoyed in my life. I don’t know why, but it feels good to repeatedly say out loud what my blessings are but also to repeatedly say out loud that I haven’t earned any of them.
The scriptures remind us that God blesses us whenever and wherever we make attempts to grow closer to him. This I believe. But I also believe, like King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, that I am already so profoundly in his debt that these blessings can hardly be considered deserved, even if they must be recognized as gifts and not simply as random luck.
I don’t think it makes much sense to feel grateful for life’s bounties and goodness, to the degree that they are available to us, without also recognizing a Giver. I have often struggled to understand what sense material atheists make of the feeling of existential gratitude just for the chance to be alive, if it is not directed at a Giver. And yet I have also struggled to understand why others feel that blessings are nothing more than just and expected rewards, signs of our righteousness. It is a dangerous temptation to consider the blessing of life and any opportunities for joy as earned privileges. At least this is how I understand King Benjamin’s meaning. He reminds us, for example, that the very fact of our biological existence is already gift enough to be indebted by grace. As he says in Mosiah 2:
21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
Benjamin tells me that I must begin, then, by recognizing the fundamental miracle of existence. That I am alive and experience any health at all are already miraculous opportunities given to me before I have even had a chance to see what I might make of life. The miracles of conception, the intricate biological processes upon which my development depended, just to get me to my mother’s arms, and then my profound and fragile dependency ever since—all of this is the very foundation for my existence and I earned absolutely none of it. Benjamin further explains:
23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.
24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?
Well, not much as it turns out. We can’t claim we deserve the circumstances of our birth. We can’t claim that we deserve the many acts of kindness and of selflessness by others, known and unknown to us, who have labored long to provide us with the favorable conditions of our lives. Even our talents are not our own. We are not makers of our own bodies or of the very biological processes that make it possible to breathe and move and make judgments. We are mere stewards of our bodies, stewards of our talents and abilities and wealth, our spouses, children, and friends, stewards of our communities and nations and stewards of the knowledge God has seen fit to give us. And stewards of the very earth itself from which our biological life springs. And what are we to do with these gifts? Bless the lives of others, says Benjamin, starting with those closest to us but extending to the strangers and foreigners and beggars among us.
11 I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility.
Telling us that we are “unworthy creatures” and that we consist of “nothingness” sounds like an insult, but these conditions are the very pivot upon which turn our chances for glory. A creature is a created being. To see ourselves as unworthy creatures, then, is to proclaim the fact that we are not self-generating, self-made and that there is no human logic that would justify why we have to exist nor any human understanding of consequence that could explain the good conditions of our life as exactly what we deserved. Benjamin asks us to forsake the need to build our worth by material or worldly means. Our worth is precisely as recipients, unworthy though we may be, of God’s love. Such a recognition does not fill us with feelings of worthlessness, however. It opens us to a power and a logic that is not our own. Nothingness is not insignificance. We are unworthy of our creation but the fact of being created means that we are loved and that we can love in return. In the depths of humility, we discover that we are nevertheless created for this purpose. When we can see that our children stand before us in their dependency, that the beggar stands before us in his dependency, when the stranger and the enemy appear awaiting our mercy, and, I imagine, when we comprehend that animals and plants and the earth itself need our care, we recognize our common lots as beggars before the Creator and we extend (so reasons Benjamin) mercy, compassion, and service. Embracing and embraced by God’s love, we go about the work of healing and restoring others and the world. We work, in other words, to relieve the suffering that is endemic to being created beings, to inhabiting these bodies on this earth, as well as the suffering that is added upon us by the sins of humankind. This is more, of course, than we can do alone or even together. Benjamin says we should not run faster than we are able. But it is not too much for the Giver who has allowed these conditions in the first place and who suffers and weeps with us in His great mercy, compassion, and service on our behalf and on behalf of his entire Creation.
According to Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving is a day to count our blessings and to measure our unworthiness. It is a day of gratitude for the fact that despite our unworthiness we nevertheless still have real and lasting chances for joy. That is not too much to ask us to do today or any other day of the year.