How can you be thankful when others have so little?

Dear John,

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve come to realize that I don’t know how to be grateful anymore. I tried to say a little prayer as I went to bed tonight (something I seldom do), and was stopped cold after just a few thoughts.

“Dear Father, thank you for my many blessings. Thank you for home, and family, and friends, and health; food to eat—” and then, wait.

Why do I have these things when so many others don’t?

Am I presuming God has chosen to “bless” me above billions of his other children on earth?

I barely get the bills paid in a small, dirty, condominium in a tough neighborhood. But I am truly glad that, for every day of my life, I have had shelter and warmth, clothing, clean water, and plenty of food; not to mention a car, TV’s, phones and more. I have more wealth and amenities than probably 80% of people on earth. Why would God “bless” me and not them?

I am glad that I can walk or drive around town, or even across the country, without fear of roadside bombs, terrorists, civil war, chaos, and crossfire between government forces and rebels. But does that mean God has chosen to protect me and not the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, and elsewhere?

I have some health problems, but for the most part my mind and body have always been healthy and strong. Why are so many others “blessed” with blindness, defects, deformities, and disease?

I have loving parents, family, and friends who bring me happiness. How blessed are those who have never had a good home and parents, nor anyone to nurture and care for them, and whose broken lives reflect that reality?

In recent years millions of people have been killed, or lost family members, homes, and all their belongings in Louisiana, Haiti, Japan, and now New York and New Jersey. Many, if not most, of those people prayed a lot better than me, and loved their neighbor better than I do. And why do so many people who do live in joy and gratitude suffer in places where there is no access to clean water, where the land is barren and will not grow food?

Over the last few years I have questioned and doubted, even changed many of my old thoughts about God and religion. I wonder if I am asked to say a prayer at my Father’s Thanksgiving table this year, whether I can even utter the traditional words about God’s bountiful grace and abundance without feeling like a hypocrite publicly bragging about the gold and riches I have because of God’s favor.

So the problem is that you’ve conflated (combined into one) gratefulness and compassion.

Who knows why you have the blessings you do? Maybe God has blessed you because he likes the way you wear your hair. Maybe it’s because he wants you strong so that you can do something specific he has in mind for your life. Maybe he just drew a straw and you won. You don’t know why you have what you do.

But the one thing you do know is that you’re grateful for what you have. I sure hope you are, anyway. It sounds like you are.

So cool! Be grateful! Would you want to be the kind of person who isn’t grateful for what he has?

Gratefulness is an emotional dynamic complete unto itself. It’s pure. You start attaching conditions to it and you wreck it. Allow your gratefulness to be the unadorned natural response to life that it is.

Think of it from God’s perspective. How would you feel if you gave a special, wonderful gift to someone whom you love very much, and instead of being happy to receive it—instead of them going, “Thank you so much! This is great!”—they went, “Pfft. So what? Think of all the stuff you didn’t get other people.”?

You’d be, like, “What? Gimme that back, you insufferable complainer. And go see a shrink.”

Be grateful for what you have. Being thankful for what you have is not the same thing as not desiring others to have what they don’t. I have a home. That doesn’t mean I don’t also wish homeless people had a home. It just means I’m grateful that I do. It’d be offensive to the homeless person to not be grateful for my home.

You have two obligations in life, the same as everyone else: to be thankful for what you have, and to work toward others having what they don’t. Not only are those two not mutually exclusive, they complement one another. They fuel one another. They’re opposite sides of the same coin.

Jesus declared the greatest commandment of all to love God, and to then love your neighbor.

Love God by expressing your gratefulness for all that he/she has given you. And then show God that you’re serious about that gratefulness by getting busy doing what you can to make sure that others can enjoy the same kinds of blessings you do. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s all you can do.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jill.joiner.5 Jill Joiner via Facebook

    Well said John.

  • Jana Harrison Currier via Facebook

    Thank you, John!

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdparris

    I so agree. The best way to show gratitude is by demonstrating compassion. If we are thankful for the richness of our blessings then that desire for others to have should be a part.

    And who knows, maybe God gave us blessings for the purpose of blessing others.

    Maybe the point isn’t how good we have it but rather how good we can help it be for others.

    Maybe thankfullness is intended to be shared. And maybe by doing so we are even more appreciative of that which we have.

  • Larry Petry via Facebook

    pretty simple and solid answer to a big (and excellent) question. good stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lori.knightwhitehouse Lori Knight-Whitehouse via Facebook

    Thank you for this.

  • Leslie Marbach

    John, I love the admonition in the last paragraph. Be grateful. Let that spur you on towards helping others. That’s the great commandment in a nutshell. Bravo!

  • Jill H

    And when appreciation moves you to do what you can do for others, it becomes the game-changer. It can resuscitate a collapsed spirit. You feed the world you inhabit with kindness, and you feed yourself in return.

  • Allie

    I can’t remember where I read this, but I read in some book or another that if you are alive right now, you have all you need. Think about it. Maybe you’re starving to death, but if you aren’t dead yet, in a sense, you have all you need. You should be grateful that you haven’t starved to death yet.

    I’m not sure I quite buy into that mentally, but it’s something I think about when I get too worried about my own future. No idea where the money to fix the water leak is coming from. But I have a roof over my head today, right? And that’s good.

    It seems to me that just as we’re not supposed to spend our time focusing on other people’s sins, we shouldn’t spend our time focusing on other people’s blessings. It may seem kindly and good-natured to moan, “But there are starving children in Somalia!” but it’s just as nonproductive as moaning about Donald Trump spending his money on gold-plated buildings. In both cases, what you’re supposed to do is plain. Think less about others and more about you. What can you do to make the world a better place?

  • Don Rappe

    Good analysis and response. I think we are blessed to be a blessing, like the widow with her mites.

  • Shirley Valleroy Buntin via Facebook

    (I”m a speed reader)

  • http://www.facebook.com/laurence.smith.94 Laurence Smith via Facebook

    My thanksgiving will never be the same…

  • boy jesse

    This is so spot on it’s scary. It’s something i have struggled with quite a bit from both perspectives. It’s something i have pondered most recently when i lost my Mother FAR too soon (she was 67 and passed just a few days before my 40th birthday this September). i oftentimes find myself asking why He would call her home – a woman who was a incredibly loving and supportive wife, mother, and friend – when there are so many people alive who could not be MORE unfit to be mothers. That’s assuming He actually has any control over that, which i am still on the fence about. It’s so hard to be thankful when there is so much that wish were different in my own innermost circle and beyond.

    • David S

      Boyjesse. I’m sorry for your loss. The honesty of your questions is courageous. I know this sounds trite, but I hope you are continuing to seek God – and continuing to wrestle with the answers to these tough questions. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Hannah Grace

    The question is great.

    I think surely you can be grateful for what you have, and use it to show hospitality to everyone around you. Your joy at what you have makes others joyful. Your being satisfied with simple things helps others realize they have enough. Your generosity with any extra is righteous. I think that’s the way.

    But I don’t think questioning it us ungrateful or unholy or unchristian at all. Quite the opposite. Not asking these kinds of questions would be showing a lack of compassion.

  • Matt

    As I tell my partner, who is extremely blessed even in comparison to me: “You don’t deserve it any more than anyone else. You also don’t deserve it any less.”

    Wonderful respone as always, John.

  • mike moore

    As John, and other regular commenters know, I no longer consider myself a Christian … I view God as a divine tinkerer, who invented this amazing world and then set it spinning, waiting and watching, to see what we will do with it, practically and spiritually.

    In my mind, God consistently demonstrates that He will not intervene in our daily ups and downs, our triumphs and tragedies, or in regards to the good and evil we put out into our world.

    And to be clear, I believe He cares. Very much. A hands-off and impersonal God does not equal an uncaring God.

    The reason I write this, and the reason I hang out here on John’s site, is I’m often astounded how two very different spiritual viewpoints – John’s personal God v. my impersonal God – often lead us to the same spiritual home. And today, I love John’s description of the two-sided coin: thankfulness and action, and how they “fuel” each other.

    Today, I realize I need to do more. I’m thankful for you today, John. (and most other days, as well.)

    • Jill H

      This is an awesome description of belief, Mike and I think we all share a need to do more. It’s a balancing act– taking good care of our own needs, fighting own greedy tendencies, and knowing how fulfilling it is to be of service.

      And since you started it and I follow you around here like your devoted puppy, I am grateful–very much– for this openly accepting and giving space that John feeds and maintains for us. And I’m grateful for you too, Mr. Moore.

      • mike moore

        thank you, Jill. Let’s start “John’s Kennel Club” … you can be a puppy, but I’m more of an old hound dog.

  • Allie

    Maine and Maryland both vote to approve same-sex marriage! I don’t know about y’all, but I think that’s something to be thankful for.

    • Jill H

      We were thinking the same thing! Washington is called now too. Just waiting on a few thousand votes in MN.

  • Jill H

    Ok, tonight I am thankful beyond belief that so far 3 of the 4 states voting on marriage equality GOT IT RIGHT!!! Maine, Maryland and Washington have all voted IN SUPPORT of equal rights for same-sex marriage tonight!

    We’re still working out Minnesota, and I need sleep. But I’m so unbelievably happy that it’s happening…I’m grateful I’m here to see it in my lifetime.

  • Davian

    I’ve been struggling with this exact same issue for years, more severely than the letter-writer: I was starting to actively deprive myself of things – recreation, food, healthcare – because I couldn’t bear to enjoy them when others didn’t have that privilege.

    Thank you so much for this post.

  • Grace

    So you already recognize what you have and that it is more than others have. That is good. I think the solution to feeling like you don’t deserve what you have is just to pay it forward. You have money? Donate some to a charity or buy lunch for someone who needs it. You have happiness? Spread it by giving smiles, kind words and encouragement rarely. You have health? Use it to give joy to someone else. For each thing you have there is a way it can be used to be a blessing to someone else as well. First be grateful and then use your existing joy and plenty to bless someone else.


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