We Need a Revival of Gratitude

One of the roots of our social discontent is our inability to be thankful

“Have you said thank you?”

I heard this relentlessly growing up from my mom. She was persistent to the point of annoyance in not asking us but making us thank people after even small and simple gifts. Mom did it so often it has become a habit. We are trying to do this with our kids as well, but we have two teens and two pre-teens. So stay tuned.

This is the time of year that we all gather with our family to celebrate Thanksgiving. This is not a holiday on the religious calendar, of course, but is still a deeply Christian idea. A Christian, The Apostle Paul tells us should “in everything, give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18).”

In everything. This, from a man whose back bore the marks of religious persecution. This, from a man who knew the inside of a jail cell, who endured shipwrecks, beatings, and stonings. This, from a man betrayed by close friends and who suffered from an unknown malady known only as a mysterious “thorn in the flesh.”

Why does Paul champion gratitude? Well, because he knew and we should know that giving thanks is more than mustering up happy feelings, it’s at the heart of human flourishing. In the opening passage of the book of Romans, which is a thorough indictment on the individual and corporate brokenness of the human heart, Paul argues that a foundational way in which the human heart turns toward corruption and sin is the inability to appreciate God’s good gifts:

For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:21).

This connects with the story Genesis, the first book in the Bible, tells about what went wrong in a world God created good, with beauty and perfection. It was the lie of the serpent to Eve that whispered to her heart that perhaps the Creator who fashioned her from the dust, breathed life into her lungs, and stamped her with his image was somehow holding out on her. God’s luscious garden, filled with everything I need, isn’t good enough for me. Humans have been listening to this lie ever since. Every act of unfaithfulness, every time we lie or cheat or steal, every time we allow anger to get the better of us, we are saying that we are better gods for ourselves than God himself.

So if gratitude is a good virtue, envy and resentment are its sinful reversals.

Thankfulness, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean we paper over hardship and have no space to lament genuine loss and heartbreak and pain. Undoubtedly this week, in many families, there will be an empty space at the table. There will be marriages splintered by divorce. There will be economic pain, strained relationships with children, and as the Apostle Peter says, “grief in various trials (1 Peter 1:6).”

Personally, we are approaching thanksgiving with some melancholy of our own. It’s a season of transition, from our Tennessee to Texas. We’ve experienced some significant losses in the last year or so. We’ve been through an eventful year. I’ve found that it’s not helpful to push down that grief or wave it away. Grief is a gift. Gratitude doesn’t replace lament, it can sit alongside it, forming a unique kind of Christian joy.

This is the setting of the book of Habbakuk, where the anxious prophet, heart vexed by corruption and injustice all around him during a faithless age, nevertheless is able to say:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there is no fruit on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though the flocks disappear from the pen
and there are no herds in the stalls

yet I will celebrate in the Lord;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!

The Lord my Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like those of a deer
and enables me to walk on mountain heights!

Habbakuk 3:17-19

We need a revival of gratitude, in our churches, in our communities, in our country. We are the most prosperous nation on earth and yet are so very unhappy. Every day we are catechized by media content designed to foment not gratitude but grievance. Sure, there are deep injustices that demand our attention, but can we discern between genuine causes and performative rage? And even when the cause is righteous, must we keep the outrage meter dialed up to 100?

Ingratitude certainly doesn’t explain all of our social ills, but it is at the root of our national dysfunction. This is a thesis borrowed from political commentator and theorist, Jonah Goldberg, who has been urging Americans to look around and see how good we often have it in this country. He says it could go a long way toward unity: “If you have a little gratitude for the good we have and the opportunity we have, then it opens your heart to empathy for people who disagree.”

But alas, our politics is not designed to get us thankful, but to get us anxious, resentful, convinced the other side is a menace. Perhaps this won’t change soon, but what can change is the way we individually decide to conduct ourselves, the way we model gratitude in our families and communities, and churches.

Christians have an opportunity to demonstrate a kind of otherwordly kind of gratitude, a way to be thankful even in the midst of hardship, in a world increasingly uncertain and sometimes dark. We can be thankful because we are first thankful God has not given us what we deserve but has instead given us his Son. And we can be thankful because we hear and believe those “rumors of another world.” We can struggle with joy toward that day when Christ will make all things new.

So as you gather with your family, I hope your gratitude can be renewed. I hope you can look back on this year and see that God has been good and his mercies are new every morning.

Notes:

  • I won’t have a new podcast this week but you might check out this conversation I had last week with my friend Collin Hansen on why physically going to church is so formative.

  • And as you turn toward Christmas, perhaps you might consider The Characters of Christmas.

  • I’m about to get edits for Characters of Creation. I’m about to turn in a manuscript for a Bible study for Lifeway on the spiritual gifts. And I’m talking to a publisher about a few projects I can’t mention just yet, but stay tuned . . .

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash