“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” ( I Thessalonians 5: 16-18)
Gratitude is a faith practice. Sometimes we think gratitude is simply saying “Thank you.” My parents taught us to say “please” and “thank you.” And we taught our children to say “please” and “thank you.” Good manners are the foundation of a civil society, and we could all use a refresher course, especially in this political climate. Good manners are not the cure to all of society’s ills—but they are a start.
Good manners involve reciprocity. You do something for someone else, and they do it for you. The “Golden Rule,” which has parallels in almost every religious tradition, says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) Just about everybody agrees that it is a common-sense moral guide, as universally applicable as “Do no harm.”
But Jesus, immediately after pronouncing “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” in Luke’s Gospel, immediately goes way beyond it. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” (v. 32).
Jesus goes beyond reciprocity and good manners, into deep commitment. And that is what gratitude is. It is far more than an automatic “thank you.” Gratitude is a whole way of life that is learned. Gratitude is knowing that everything that we have and that everything we are comes from God. Gratitude is finding grace and the hand of God in everything we experience. Gratitude is what enabled Martin Rinkhart to write “Now Thank We All Our God,” in the midst of an epidemic that took his wife and children. Gratitude is what made it possible for South Africans under the yoke of Apartheid to sing, “We are Marching in the Light.”
Gratitude is not rosy optimism or shallow happiness. Gratitude embraces pain and sorrow, and sees God’s love through it all. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never have wanted this, but I have been so changed and so blessed throughout it.” That is gratitude, born out of grief, born out of experience.
Gratitude is a response to love, to grace, to life. It is a way of life. It is thankfulness, generosity, trust and joy. There are no “buts” with gratitude. Gratitude is complete. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” (I Corinthians 1: 4-5) His gratitude does not prevent him from admonishing them harshly immediately thereafter.
Gratitude is not a behavior. It is an orientation, an approach to life. It doesn’t dull the senses or cloud the judgment. Rather it is an interpretive lens through which we view and experience all of life. It is extravagant, and it is countercultural. There is nothing rational about gratitude. In the end, it is a gift.
Henri Nouwen decided to leave his comfortable academic appointment and live among the poorest of the poor in Latin America. He went to help because he had so much to offer and they were in so much need. Instead he learned that these people whom he imagined had nothing were always giving to others, always grateful to others. Whatever they had they shared, and gratefully. He called his book Gracias! , because that’s what he heard everywhere he went. “Gracias!” Not desparate, not pleading, but confident, joyous. Gratitude. It is a faith practice.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA