First in the series “Grateful”
Author and clergywoman Diana Butler Bass shares this story near the beginning of her book called Grateful: The Transformative Power of Gratitude. She writes:
“I pulled the card from the envelope, appreciatively fingering its velvety thickness. It was formal and traditional, the sort one rarely sees anymore, with a single word embossed on the front: ‘Grateful.’ I opened and read it, ‘Thank you for the lovely thank you note!’
“I read it again, just to be sure. It was a thank you note for a thank you note. Now what? Do you send a thank you note for the thank you note received for sending a thank you note? Was there a rule for this? Writing the original note was hard enough; I considered it a mannerly triumph. But what happens when someone thanks you for saying thanks? Should you return thanks again? When does the cycle end? I held the kind note in my hand, not knowing what was right or proper. Saying thank you can be so complicated.”[i]
There is something contradictory about gratitude. Gratitude comes from internal feelings but is often demonstrated with external acts. While gratitude should simply be, society requires a certain etiquette and guilt to express it correctly. Gratitude is rooted in love, but the way we think of it often turns to obligation, duty, and debt.
Various researchers have identified connections between mental and emotional well-being, physical health, and gratitude. Gratefulness can help heart patients sleep better, feel less depressed and tired, be more self-aware and confident, and experience less inflammation. Gratitude practices may lower the risk of heart disease. As one researcher wrote, “It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a healthier heart.” Generally, the studies say that grateful people have increased self-esteem, stronger willpower, meaningful relationships, deeper faith and spirituality, improved athletic and academic performance. They are happier and live longer lives.
The Pew Research Center released a survey in 2014 about American religion and spirituality. One question on the survey asked, “How often do you feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness? At least once a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, seldom, or never?” Any ideas about what percentage of people felt gratitude in the past week at least once? The number is 78%, almost four out of five people. When a survey question nets 80% of responses, researchers suspect that people “feel pressured” to answer a certain way to make themselves feel better.
Indeed, what is gratitude? When author Diana Butler Bass asked people that question, they came up with more than 50 different definitions and ideas. Some said it is a feeling; others, a practice; others, a moral disposition. Some said it was human and universal, while others assigned it to a specific religion; a few identified it as civic obligation. We don’t seem to agree what gratitude is exactly.
Our western society has tended to view gratitude as a matter of exchange of debt and duty. Someone does something beneficial for me. I then am indebted to them; I “owe” them thanks, which should be shown in some way by sending a thank you note or giving something in exchange. Interestingly, research also shows that white males in the west, like me, find it difficult to be grateful or to express it because of our notion of self-reliance; some men even say gratitude is a “humiliating emotion” that is best hidden.
When we look at the current climate of attitudes in our society, it seems odd for us both to be thankful and hostile toward others of differing opinions. From where does our gratitude come, and how can it best be expressed.
Gratitude is best expressed from the heart. Writer A. A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, wrote, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” Gratitude is an emotion, and it is unique among emotions because the experiences that lead to feelings of gratitude are different.
For example, our moments of feeling grateful can be fed by fear, anxiety, grief, hope, relief, wonder, surprise, delight, appreciation, encouragement, joy, peace, and love. Think about times you’ve felt gratitude in the past few weeks. You may have been grateful for a beautiful sunrise or a bright rainbow. You could have felt gratitude for a cup of coffee or tea with friends. You might have been thankful for taking a walk, watching children at play, or enjoying an afternoon nap. You could feel grateful for an unexpected card or email from a relative, for finding a treasured keepsake you thought was lost, or receiving a health diagnosis, good or bad. Especially today, you may feel thankful for a beloved saint you remembered and that feel might be mixed with sadness, joy, grief, or satisfaction.
While our western society tends to view gratitude as a debt and duty, scripture teaches a very different approach to gratitude, one that could revolutionize the way we think about and practice gratitude. From the beginning and throughout the writings of the Old and New Testament, God’s relationship with God’s people is centered on gratitude. We give thanks to God and gifts to others because God first blessed us. It is the pattern of gift and response or grace and gratitude.
For example, James 1:17 says, “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Diana Butler Bass says, “Gratitude, at its deepest and perhaps most transformative level, is not warm feelings about what we have. Instead, gratitude is the deep ability to embrace the gift of who we are, that we are, that in the multibillion-year history of the universe each one of us has been born, can love, grows in awareness, and has a story.”[ii]
The gifts God gives are far more than material blessings. Poet Marge Piercy writes, “Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.”[iii]
The joy of a child or grandchild, the colors of autumn, God’s love and blessings which are poured out widely and inclusively – these are all examples of God’s good and gracious daily gifts. In the parables of Jesus, we have a host representing God who lavishes guests with more and finer wine, who throws seed around with abandon, who invites the unnamed poor to dine, who throws a party for a prodigal son, and who multiplies fish and bread so that thousands might eat. In our text today, our God gives the gift of a new heaven and new earth with a holy city where God dwells among the people. God freely wipes away every tear and puts an end to death, mourning, crying, and pain, a God who makes all things new.
Here’s the thing: God does not offer generous and extravagant gifts and love expecting us to say, “thank you.” This love and these gifts simply are. God’s love is there. Any expression of gratitude we feel or want to share pleases God, not for God’s benefit, but for our benefit. God does not require gratitude; rather, God’s grace and generosity inspires our gratitude. God doesn’t give gifts expecting us to express thanks, but in the hope that the gratitude we experience through heart moments leads to deeper faith moments in our relationship with Christ.
When we understand in our hearts that gifts and gratitude are part of the way God designed all of creation, the writer of the book of James says we will be both a better person and do good in the world. It changes our character and our actions. This is all-encompassing grace.
How do we respond to such all-encompassing grace? Words are a start; a grateful heart is key; and passing on the gift through our actions is a response that reflects the glory and design of our good and gracious God who created us, sent his Son, forgave us, and walks with us every moment.
What can you do to be grateful as you say the words, develop the heart, and pass on the gifts you have received to others? Here are a few ideas. We’d love to hear what you do and how it affects you. Visit our Facebook page and post your ideas and stories there.
- Visit a neighbor or friend to share the gift of life.
- Send a thank you note or card – or simply a card to cheer someone.
- Share food for Thanksgiving or Christmas through donations to City Mission. They want 200 regular cans of green beans now by Nov. 10. Bring them to church.
- Give an offering for “Shop for a Veteran” to help veterans in financial need. Normally, Outreach hosts Soup and Bread as a fundraiser for this but won’t this year due to COVID. Mark your offering for “Veterans Fundraiser.”
- Provide gifts for women and their children at Hope House. Contact Gary Steed for details.
- Drop new winter hats and gloves off at Christian Clearing House.
There are countless ways to share God’s gift heart moments with others. These moments fill us with joy, peace, relief, and other emotions. Ultimately, they make us grateful. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful (pp. xi-xii). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 42-43.
[iii] Marge Piercy, Gone to Soldiers, reprint ed. (2015), 217, quoted in Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful (p. 43). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.