A Reflection on Thankfulness
During my sabbatical this past summer, I decided to study the subject of gratitude. Over the last few years as I have moved into the solidly “middle age” category, I noticed that I was growing in negativity and cynicism. My life was lacking in joy, an attribute that the Bible overwhelmingly describes as a mark of the mature Christian life. I didn’t see much of it in mine. When I talked to a friend about it, he suggested I work on cultivating gratitude. So during my three months away, I read several books about gratitude, informally “interviewed” some grateful people, and prayed for and sought a grateful heart in my own personal life.
At the heart of gratitude, I’ve learned, is awareness that all of life is grace. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Everything is a gift. Air, light, soil, water. Friendship, community, family. Food, wine, coffee (!). We live on a graced planet. Nothing is earned, nothing is deserved. All of life is grace.
And the grace of our Lord is wastefully generous. God could have made one kind of bird—instead he made 10,000 species of winged color. He could have made food taste all the same, supplying our need for daily nourishment—instead he created an environment that can produce the likes of curry, jambalaya, and apple pie. He made a world where ants build hills, water falls from the sky, and leaves change colors and regenerate in a matter of months. There is enough wonder and delicious diversity in our world to keep a person in awe for a lifetime.
The degree to which we are aware of this truth is a measure of our gratitude. Plenty of people notice our world, but gratitude goes beyond observation to receiving reality as a gift. It was the original lie of the serpent that God is distant and uncaring, and that we humans should go it alone. This is still the lie that humans believe; in fact, in our culture we are taught that independence and self-sufficiency make for the good life. But the truth is the opposite—dependence on the all-sufficient Father makes for the good life. The grateful person lives in total awareness and reliance on the Father’s good gifts every moment.
A breakthrough came for me when I realized that gratitude is not a passive disposition but a learned habit. It is a discipline of awareness to the Father’s grace and our own response to it. Paul commands, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess. 5:18). Or just simply, “Be thankful” (Col. 4:2). I think I always considered gratefulness as something that happened to you when a happy, positive circumstance occurred. But Paul suggests exactly the opposite: the discipline of gratitude in the midst of any circumstance leads to joy. It is not the happy person who is grateful—it is the grateful person who is happy, whose eyes are open to the abundance of all things.
So how has this changed my life? On waking, I let my first words be words of thanksgiving. “Thank you Father, thank you Son, thank you Spirit…” Waking from sleep and having a new day to live in the mercy of the gospel is an amazing gift in itself. Then, throughout the day, I look for cues that prompt thanksgiving. My friend Bob Stamps taught me a simple prayer to utter every time you experience even the smallest good: a text from a friend, a sip of coffee, light filtering through the trees. “Hear the praise of this grateful heart” is a prayer that I now use innumerable times throughout the day. Before bedtime, I try to conduct a brief review of the day, what some have called the practice of “Examen.” Doing so helps me remember the gifts of the day and to close my hours with thanks. I don’t always keep these habits, but even the sporadic discipline of gratitude has awakened me to the Father’s love and the gift of ordinary life. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.”
Want to be more alive? Cultivate gratitude. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever!” (Psalm 107).