CBP: Tell us your Christian testimonyÖ
Ellen: I grew up in a Christian home. When I was about five, I remember sitting in our dining room, looking at a wordless book . . . a little book with no words, just colored pages. There was a page that was black for my sin, a page that was red for the blood of Jesus, a page that was white for the cleansing power of His blood, and a page that was shiny gold, for the streets of heaven.
I remember realizing that I was a small sinner and praying earnestly to ask Jesus to forgive me and come live in my heart. That event shaped my thinking from almost as far back as I can remember.
My faith grew through the teaching of the Bible in my home church, and through the ministry of Young Life when I was in high school. But during my years in college and graduate school, I wandered from my faith. It wasnít an intellectual crisis: I knew Christianity was true. I just didnít want to live like it was true.
During that time, it was as if I drifted far out to sea, carried by the waves . . . But God had a net, and gradually, inexorably, He drew me back to Himself. I was all banged up, had barnacles and seaweed in my hair . . . but I had a deeper, Prodigal-like understanding of the enormity of His grace.
When I was about 10, I felt a magnetic pull to become a writer when I grew up. This was because of C. S. Lewisís influence in my young life. As I grew older, that pull became a more distinct sense of calling, an assurance that despite my weaknesses, God had gifted me to write, and when I write to His glory, I feel His pleasure.
CBP: How are gratitude and joy connected?
Ellen: So many ways! The simplest way I can think of it is that when you receive an extravagant, unexpected, undeserved gift, how do you feel?
CBP: You take us into some utterly depressing places, such as the Peruvian prison Lurigancho. How can these prisoners show so much joy and gratitude?
Ellen: When I was with them in that very dramatic, awful setting, my feeling was that they had hit the bottom of the human experience . . . and they really knew the absolute, incredible nature of Godís rescue from sin, shame, death. They had a great clarity that is sometimes blurred for those of us who donít have to live in such stark surroundings.
Anybody can give thanks when things are going well. As I was writing Radical Gratitude, I was curious about how real gratitude plays out in times of brokenness, pain, and suffering. I found that it is uniquely powerful, that believers who thank God for His presence, His goodness, and His grace in tragedy have something solid to hold on to when everything else gives way.
So in the book I tell their stories, like the story of a man whose brother was killed by the DC snipers a few years ago. The Washington Post headline about his family read ďGrieving, But Still Giving Thanks.Ē What a witness! I interviewed a woman who was raped at gunpoint, and found how Jesus healed her from such horror. I talked with a pilot who ejected from his jet at 500 miles per hour and was held as a POW for years--a believer who was held hostage by terrorists. In their stories and others, I found that God was faithful, and that He can guard His people with His peace, love, and protection from fear, right in the midst of terror and pain. Incredible!
CBP: At one point you write, "Death helps us live with one eye on eternity...." Is there a link between the spiritual depth in many old hymns and their frequent references to death and eternity?
Ellen: Many of the great hymns of the faith were written in times of great difficulty, when peopleís lives were tough and short, when peril and persecution were all around. Believers of earlier generations were not as enamored of this world as many of us are today. They knew they were headed to their real Home, and as a result they were quite bold. They held their attachment to this life loosely, like the missionaries who would go off to foreign lands and pack their coffins for their trip, knowing they would never see their earthly home again.
CBP: Why are we as Americans, who have more than any other people, historically such whiners?
Ellen: Well, not all Americans are whiners! But, generally speaking, there does seem to be a basic gratitude paradox at work among us. Often those who are materially blessed, like so many of us in the U.S., seem to take our comforts for granted, and are actually less grateful than those who have only a little. Itís so easy to become complacent when we are comfortable, and then to compare ourselves with those who have even more stuff than we do, and become covetous.
As I mentioned in Radical Gratitude, Gregg Easterbrookís book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, cites the amazing rise in Americansí standard of living over the last few decades. But in the same period that peopleís material lives have improved dramatically, their inner lives have declined: depression, loneliness, and frustration are all much higher than they were fifty years ago.
Easterbrook concludes, generally speaking, that we need to stop focusing on ourselves and instead concentrate on being grateful for our daily blessings, on the deeper truths of what really matters in life, and on what we can do to help our neighbors around the world.
God was constantly warning His covenant people in the Old Testament to remember their deliverance from the slavery in Egypt, lest they become complacent. But they forgot. They grumbled and whined and complained.
We tend to do the same thing . . . and we end up with real damage and dysfunction in our lives when we do! So we need to remember Godís great deliverance from death and spiritual slavery, and to actively thank Him for every single blessing we enjoy. And we need to go to places that are uncomfortable, among people in real need, to bring love and help in the name of Jesus. Thatís a great antidote to the complacency and complaints that so easily creep into comfortable American lifestyles!
CBP: Please describe the link between gratitude and humility.
Ellen: Itís mysterious. The thing I love about gratitude is that it is so intrinsically linked with so many other good things . . . like joy, and freedom, and, as you say, humility. One reason for the link with humility is because a mindset of gratitude acknowledges that all we have is a gift. The Gospel says that our relationship with God is a gift, not something we could ever earn or deserve. What do you do with a gift? You receive it. And since it is such an astonishingly great gift, we canít help but be filled with overwhelming joy. That transaction requires a humility, knowing that we donít deserve Godís grace but we receive it anyway . . . itís a miracle, and we are dwarfed, humbled by the enormity of Godís love and grace. And we begin to get the clue . . . oh, itís not all about me. Itís about God. Thatís the beginning of humility.
CBP: Why do "slightly less than one third of religious leaders finish well?"
Ellen: In the book I cite a study that makes that conclusion, and I obviously canít answer that question definitively. But as those who have analyzed such questions say, the root cause of many leaders getting derailed by financial or sexual misconduct has to do with the basic issue of pride. It is easy for all of us to isolate, to pull away from relationships with others who hold us accountable to Godís Word, to consult only ourselves about what seems to feel right . . . and when we get to that self-referential way of thinking, rather than a grateful, God-reverential way of thinking, it is very easy to get tangled up in all kinds of sin.
CBP: What is your hope for the readers of Radical Gratitude?
Ellen: I wrote Radical Gratitude directly out of my own surprising experience of Godís overwhelming, refreshing grace. I had not planned to write it; I was set to do a different book. But God led me through such a wonderful journey that I felt I would be remiss if I didnít share it with others . . . toward the end that they, too, might have a new, empowering sense of Godís love.
CBP: Are you working on something now?
Ellen: Right now Iím writing a fun, new book called In His Time, a non-fiction book that will take the reader on a journey of wonderóI hope!--through questions about the real nature of time, eternity, and the unfathomable love of God. Itís wild. In His Time will be published by Zondervan in early 2007.