The Apologetics of Gratitude
“When it comes to life,” G.K. Chesterton once said, “the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Surprisingly, it is often those things that are taken either for granted or with gratitude that point us to God. The Apostle Paul once made this the basis for a talk he gave about evidence for God.
It came about when Paul and his faithful sidekick Barnabas were mistaken for gods. That’s probably never happened to you. Me either.
It was when they were preaching their way across the Mediterranean. The whole deity debacle happened in a town called Lystra, a city in modern day Turkey, when they healed a lame man. The crowds immediately concluded that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was his spokesperson, Hermes.
These Greek gods are still in vogue today, though not as much in formal worship. Zeus even made a comic book cameo in a competition pitting his powerful lightening strikes against Thor’s mighty hammer. And for Hermes, a bit of a public relations god, we see his symbol of a winged foot in the logos of companies like FTD and Goodyear Tires.
The people must have assumed Paul was Hermes since the Apostle did all the talking. They prepared to offer sacrifices in the evangelists’ honor. Even the priest from the temple of Zeus got in on the action. When Paul protested, he gave an intriguing explanation as to why the people should turn from worshipping them to the one true and living God:
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:15-17, ESV)
Paul’s sermon is pretty simple: God made everything. Worship him. But don’t miss what Paul describes as evidence for God. The witnesses the Creator left for us are as follows: rain, seasons, food, and gladness. You’ve probably never heard an apologetic based on feasting before. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
The first witness God left for us is rain. It shouldn’t be surprising that ancient Greek philosophers, when looking for a way to make sense of ultimate reality, turned their attention to water. It can be a solid. It can be a liquid. It can be a gas. It seems to intrinsically have the power of motion as in the tides of the sea, which figuring out where motion came from was something they were concerned with as well. Water was a good candidate for their rudimentary theory of everything.
The whole water cycle is amazing to me. When two water atoms and one oxygen atom get together it’s basically a highly charged beach party. When heat causes water to turn into a gas, it separates from other water molecules and rises. But because of a water molecule’s positive charge on one side, and negative charge on the other, it’s attracted to other water molecules and forms fog or clouds. When the water molecules become heavy enough, the moisture falls as rain, or, if it’s cold enough, as snow.
Paul then points to the seasons. The earth spins on an axis, which is what gives us night and day. It travels around the sun in a bit of an oval pattern over the period of a year and one-fourth of a day (which is why every fourth year we have a leap year). This results in varying degrees of weather over the months, which in turn provides optimal windows for planting and harvesting. This gives us our seasons, autumn clearly being the best of the four (in my humble yet accurate opinion).
The final witness God left us is feasting and joy. This is the logical outcome of the seasons and harvest. The rains and seasons bring us food and gladness. Paul builds his argument up, beginning with the water cycle, expanding out to the seasons from earth’s rotation around the sun, to a harvest, and concludes with a feast. These all point to God, Paul explains. There’s even a hint of the trajectory of redemptive history that began in a garden and is heading towards a cosmic banquet (Genesis 1, Revelation 19).
Something really interesting happens when we eat. Our brain releases an opioid that causes a sense of pleasure. Eating makes us happy. From the pitter patter of rain falling on the roof of our home, to our seasonal feasting, these are all witness of the Creator. No wonder J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous line from the Hobbit resonates, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
The Bible does have a lot of say about eating and being merry, and not all of it is good. For example, the prophet Isaiah says God’s judgment is coming because the people ignored God in the midst of their eating and being merry. They were judged because they failed to “look to the One who made it, or consider the One who created it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11).
On the other hand, Solomon encouraged us to eat and be merry because this is God’s gift to mankind (Ecclesiastes 9:7). This should be seen in the context of Solomon’s final encouragement to remember God, to fear him, and keep his commands (Ecclesiastes 12). So there’s a fundamental difference between what Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes and what Isaiah pointed to as reason for judgement. We feast with gratitude for the Creator who provides and delights in satisfying his people.
The Apostle Paul quotes Solomon in the New Testament, as did Greek philosophers before him like Epicurus who wrongly is given credit for the statement. Paul uses the expression in an interesting way. He says that if death is final and there is no resurrection, the best we can do is to eat, drink, and be merry (1 Corinthians 15:32). Paul concludes that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead (thank God for that!). Thus we can eat, drink, and be merry, because there is a resurrection. Death isn’t final.
Paul’s point in using the seasons and the harvest, of feasting and gladness, wasn’t to simply draw attention to the things of earth. It was to allow the things of earth to direct our attention to the One who made all things. Often, we fallen humans focus on creation over Creator. But Paul’s connection of these earthly blessings to the Creator was met with resistance. Just verses later this same crowd, who initially worshipped the missionaries, now, joined by some Jewish leaders, dragged Paul out of the city, stoned him, and left him for dead (Acts 14:19).
That’s because thanksgiving is a radical act of allegiance. Our gratitude exposes our true affections. Where we direct our thanks is a clear indicator of what we believe. When Paul challenged the Greek mythologies as insufficient to explain the goodness of the material world, the crowd turned against him.
Yet God is not without his witnesses. He gave us rain. He gave us seasons. He gave us the harvest. He gave us food. He gave us gladness. As the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, if we can’t give God anything else, let’s at least give him our thanks. Or as another theologian said, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we live!” Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, let’s do it all to the glory of God (1 Corinthian 10:31)!