How’s your gratitude doing? Is it growing and thriving or is it being swallowed up and stifled by life? Is your response to God one of ever increasing gratefulness or murmuring, complaining, moaning and groaning? Are you counting your blessings one by one or reciting your curses under your breath? So, is this going to be one more lecture on having a positive mental attitude, an attitude of gratitude filled with platitudes and moralistic principles for how to do it? God forbid! If gratitude becomes a duty it is hardly the grateful response Scripture anticipates. So let’s think about gratitude in the following ways: What is gratitude and why is it important? What are the major obstacles to a grateful heart? How is a grateful heart created? What does a grateful person look like?
First, Scripture is replete with admonitions for a grateful heart. Read the Psalms, the Gospels, Paul’s letters and you will be impressed as to the prominence given to gratitude. The whole of the Christian’s life is to be an expression of gratitude for God’s grace most powerfully and fully revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. But what is gratitude? Is it innate, universal, able to be summoned at any moment or is it spontaneous, provoked or evoked by circumstances in life? Am I grateful for my doctor’s care until the bill arrives? We cannot make someone feel grateful as every parent knows from giving children gifts and waiting for a “thank you”. It cannot be coerced or legislated and still be genuine. So, what is gratitude? Human gratitude is the heart’s response to God’s grace. It is what God’s grace evokes. It is what follows from living before God and receiving God’s grace. Only God ultimately deserves thanks. Every good gift comes from Him and all that we are and have is evidence of His goodness. Why is gratitude so important? Because any action or good work of man not arising from a grateful heart is unacceptable because it is inadequate. There is a sense in which it is true that we only fulfill our calling as truly human beings as we express gratitude to God.
Well, what are some obstacles to a grateful heart? What chokes, stifles, and quenches gratitude? The short answer is sin but what specifically is the root of ingratitude? Paul tells us in Romans 1:21 “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened”. Ingratitude is the result of a willful refusal to let God be your God and let Him assume His rightful place in your life. It is followed by a life of idolatry of exchanging His glory for your own images. It is self worship and its mission is self glory. It is worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. But there is more. Awful fruit grows from this corrupt root. One is a sense of entitlement. Put simply this is an attitude that God owes me a life at least equal to and exceeding my expectations. God exists in this mindset for me and my good, to serve me, fulfill me, make me great and glorious. When these expectations are unmet, my rage and bitterness toward God feels justified. God is not a cosmic bellhop whose reason for being is to serve and exalt me. Remember, a presumptive heart is always an ungrateful heart.
Another thing that chokes and stifles gratitude is a legalistic spirit, a covenant of works paradigm. It is a quid pro quo arrangement with God. I work and put God in debt so that He owes me a good life. I do what is prescribed as a good Christian and build up a treasury of merit with God and He is obligated to keep His end of the bargain. So whatever good I receive is what I deserve and does not evoke any sense of gratefulness. He owes me, it is simple and fair. It is justice. I’ve never seen a grateful legalist or a Pharisee either in biblical times or in modern day living. This kind of elder brother spirituality is offended by grace not grateful for it, especially in the lives of prodigals. Duty- driven, obligation-centered Christians always seem to reverse Christ’s promise “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” into “My yoke is chafing and my burden is crushing”. If one does not “get” grace one will never be grateful. Nothing undermines and subverts gratitude more than works righteousness. When suffering comes this person cannot “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) because he feels so betrayed. With this kind of approach faith i.e. trusting God becomes irrational because He doesn’t come through. This is the tip of the iceberg. There are many more obstacles like pride, “I am the kind of person that should be blessed because I deserve it” or a resistance to God’s sovereignty, “He can’t be trusted to run things so I must take matters into my own hands and manage my life”. This is ugly fruit from a rotten root.
So, what creates gratitude? If you know me and your Bible you can easily guess. One thing and one thing only creates gratitude and that one thing is the Gospel. The Gospel of grace in Jesus Christ both creates and sustains a grateful heart. The single most significant cause of an ungrateful heart for a Christian is forgetting or losing the Gospel. To forget something is to no longer allow it to have influence over the present. To forget the Gospel is to no longer feel its influence— its energizing, vitalizing, electrifying influence. To lose the Gospel is to fall into legalism/moralism or license/lawlessness. I’ve never met a grateful moralist or antinomian. They are like bachelor’s wives and nun’s husbands, total oxymorons.
The Gospel is a renewing dynamic in the Christian’s life and evokes gratitude as it is grasped and understood. Here’s how this works. Through the Gospel I am more and more faced with the depth of my sin and the terrible wrath and judgment I deserve. The only thing God owes me as I consider my sin is hell. I don’t get hell because Jesus took it in my place. That makes me eternally grateful. Through the Gospel I see that I am forgiven much and in response to that I love much. The Gospel creates a Copernican revolution within my heart. Under the power of sin, ingratitude and idolatry reign. But now I am no longer under the Law but rather under the power of grace, and I gladly repent of self worship and my mission of self glory and begin to worship and serve the Creator instead of the creature. Once curved in upon myself, I am now experiencing the joy of being curved out in love to God and my neighbor. Only gratitude as a response to God’s amazing grace can do that.
Finally, what does a grateful person look like? By way of contrast, ungrateful people are users and takers. Grateful people are lovers and givers. Grace changes our focus from “What’s in it for me?” to “How can I best serve and build others up?” It moves from egocentricity to Christocentricity. It moves from a demandingness to a grateful dependence, from striving to rest.
A grateful person is a worshiper. She loves to give God praise and thanksgiving because God and His grace is her ultimate concern and value. Sunday worship is not an effort and a drudgery but sheer delight. Daily worship is the priority of every day.
In marriage gratitude expresses itself as a willingness to give, to love, to spend and be spent for the other. It asks the question, “How can I enhance my mate’s glory?” A grateful heart studies and finds new ways to love and encourage and support. It praises far more than it ever criticizes.
A grateful person is a generous person. Generous with his time, his treasure and his talent. His life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions but in imitating his generous Father.
So, ingratitude is a Gospel issue and a Gospel problem. May we all repent of this ugly sin the face of God’s overwhelming grace. May we enjoy a grateful heart.