Nothing rounds out one’s personality like the spirit of gratitude. Gratitude, like optimism, changes our whole outlook on life for the better. Fittingly, the very word “gratitude” rhymes with “attitude” because gratitude is an attitude which becomes essential to human happiness and well being. But gratitude is not an easy habit to cultivate, especially in a free society such as ours. Not that freedom itself is antithetical to gratitude. In fact, freedom is the strongest inducement to be grateful to the God who first gave us freedom. Not all peoples possess the precious liberties that we Americans enjoy and that fact alone should inspire one to a sense of profound gratitude.
Today, however, our country seems to be losing that once vibrant sense of gratitude to God which long served as a hallmark of our national identity and character. Perhaps political democracy, for all of its many positive benefits, eventually fails to dispose its constituents towards divine gratitude. The process of constantly expanding a democratic “culture of rights” gradually leads people to adopt the notion that they are “entitled” to countless social benefits almost as a birthright. Consequently, there remains little reason to be grateful if we consider everything we have received as a natural entitlement.
Long ago a similar line of reasoning led our first parents into sin. In the garden a serpent deceived Adam and Eve by promising that, “the moment you eat of the (forbidden) fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods…” (Gen. 3:5) The serpent actually proposed mankind’s very first entitlement program by appealing to their sense of envy, expertly disguised as equality. The inevitable result was to repay the Creator who had given them every good thing, freedom above all, with the gross ingratitude of envy. Since then the world has largely embraced a false narrative that we are owed something, a presumption which only fosters an attitude of resentment.
Resentment always views the cup as half empty. Gratitude sees it as half full. Resentment broods over one’s losses but rarely acknowledges one’s gains. Imagined rights and entitlements which society may not fulfill to one’s satisfaction become a source of further dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Gratitude, meanwhile, rejoices in the simplest gift of this life, things like sunlight and a cool glass of water. It does not fret over imaginary omissions or wrongs because it expects little and joyfully accepts whatever it receives as pure gift. Life is the sequential outpouring of countless gifts which, when counted over the span of a lifetime, far outweigh the sorrows we experience. But we only appreciate this fact if we are willing to view life through the lens of gratitude.
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy observed that, “pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy.” Life is an amalgam of both, thrown together and mixed like a tossed salad. Freedom gives one the ability to experience this amalgam of joy and sorrow as either bitter or sweet. Gratitude emphasizes the sweetness even in times of sorrow. Conversely envy acts as a spoiler, so that one cannot fully enjoy even what is sweet.
Envy is not the only attitude that can undermine gratitude. Sometimes a sense of societal guilt is exploited for the same effect. Such guilt is a more subtle rejection of gratitude than envy because it so often operates under the guise of virtue. (There is a kind of healthy guilt which encourages one to repent and seek forgiveness. When forgiveness is received it can itself become a source of tremendous gratitude.) But today’s media saturated culture thrives on promoting a kind of “communal” guilt over a thousand different things, a history of past oppressions for instance, over which the contemporary individual has very little, if any, control. We are routinely subjected to social guilt trips because other people may be poorer than ourselves or because fossil fuels are being burned to generate power. We are even told to feel guilty for bearing too many children (by whose arbitrary standards we are rarely informed). Gratitude may start to feel out of place when we are bombarded with the supposed horrors of animals sacrificed to food production and healthy trees being indiscriminately felled in Oregon or the Amazon, even though the local population may depend on that timber for their livelihood. Communal guilt is designed to have a deadening effect on one’s spirit of gratitude even as it swells the bank accounts of organizations such as PETA, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club.
But is our world really a zero-sum game of rapidly depleting resources or is it a regenerate and bountiful cornucopia overseen by a God of abundance? Life itself is a prolific and gratuitous gift from God, not a threat to the future. (Any gardener fighting endless weeds knows how true this to be.) Our God is not tight-fisted, miserly, or parsimonious. He is generous and overabundant to a fault. Recall how Jesus responded to Judas Iscariot when that disciple complained bitterly about Mary being wastefully extravagant by anointing our Lord’s feet with costly perfume. Of course Judas’ own zero-sum mindset was motivated by personal avarice, thinly disguised by a phony pretense about concern for the poor. Jesus rebuked him for his duplicity. “Leave her alone… the poor you will always have with you, but me you will not always have.” (Jn. 12: 7,8)
Gratitude opens one’s eyes to the bounteous fecundity of God who both created and sustains our little earthly sphere teeming with life. We all have a million things to be grateful for starting with the gift of life itself. Most of us have family and friends to both love and be loved by us. We wear clothes on our back and have food in our pantries. We are surrounded by natural beauty of every kind. For the most part we enjoy security, health, and unprecedented freedom of movement. More profoundly we have been given minds capable of learning, planning, imagining, dreaming. Life may present one with certain problems for sure, but the opportunities are seemingly limitless. The surest sign of life is growth. A culture of death is fearful of growth, a culture of life welcomes it. God designed our world to be a culture of life, not of death, and life is the most compelling reason for one to feel gratitude.
The German dramatist G.F. Lessing wrote, “A single grateful thought raised to heaven is the most perfect prayer.” Gratitude then is a form of prayer because it expresses both praise and thanksgiving. When perfected, praise and thanksgiving express themselves in sacrifice. Sacrifice then is the most perfect expression of gratitude. We started out by noting that gratitude is an attitude, but not just any attitude, and now we can see that it becomes predominately an attitude of prayer when directed to God. The Psalmist therefore sings, “All your works give you thanks, oh Lord, and your faithful bless you. They speak of the glory of your reign and tell of your great works, Making known to all your power and the glorious splendor of your rule.” (Ps. 145:10-12)
True gratitude means something more than periodic gestures of appreciation. It needs to grow and develop until it becomes one’s primary vocation. For me that spirit of fully matured gratitude is summed up succinctly in one short line found in a thought provoking little book by Miles Connolly called Mr. Blue. In it Blue muses to a friend about the epithet he hopes to have inscribed on his own tombstone, “Never was there a worse sinner, and never was God kinder to one.” One could hardly find a more eloquent description of gratitude that that.
Francis J. Pierson