by Bill Farley /
The social sciences confirm what is fairly obvious to begin with: gratitude doesn’t come naturally. Children must be trained to show it. Gratitude to others is part of being polite or having good manners. But you can be a model of etiquette and never get anywhere near the biblical idea of gratitude. In her book, The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser observes that “polite people” may say “thank you” up to 100 times per day and yet experience “little or no grateful emotion.”[i] That is, they go through the motions of politeness but without heartfelt gratitude. In fact, outward expressions of politeness can easily emerge from mixed motives. Consider the teenage girl who thanks her father sweetly for the loan of his car—mostly in the hope that he will let her borrow it again.
Biblical gratitude, however, is so much more than social conventions. Paul’s exhortations to be thankful do not proceed from a concern for etiquette and politeness—however sincere or well-intentioned—but from a passion to glorify God. This is because true thanksgiving is not an external formality, a matter of words or gestures or tone of voice. It is a natural outpouring of an awareness of three things:
- our creaturehood,
- what we rightly deserve before God’s holiness, and
- the gracious redemption God has given to us through his Son.
Creaturehood. God created me. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t exist. As Paul put it, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth…gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25). Everything I am and possess is God’s gift.
This means that all the essential elements that make us who we are were given to us by God. Our talents, intelligence, height, appearance, parents, country of birth, the generation we were born into—we decided none of it, yet these are the kind of factors that determine so much of our life’s outcome. All of these, and infinitely more, are God’s gifts. They were given to us creatures by a gracious Creator. For this reason, the object of true gratitude is always ultimately God.
What we deserve. Our natural tendency is to take credit for our gifts. The blustering business tycoon, the self-glorifying athlete, and the preening pop star are just exaggerated versions of the rest of us in this regard. We all want to boast and brag and be seen as special.
But as creatures, boasting is the speech of naked arrogance. It actually implies a claim to deity, as if we created ourselves and decided what gifts and talents we would possess. It is the opposite of gratitude, and just one of countless manifestations of the sin nature we have all inherited from Adam. In his infinite holiness, God finds this sin nature, and each one of our specific acts of sin, infinitely repulsive. As a result, all we truly deserve from God is judgment for our rebellious, ungrateful hearts.
The gift of redemption. Despite the judgment we deserve, in his grace God has redeemed us and given us eternal life. This gift has a value beyond all measure, and was purchased at infinite cost. It is a gift that deserves constant gratitude.
The Greek word eucharisteo encapsulates the essential connection between gratitude and grace. We usually translate it into our English word, “thanks” or “thanksgiving.” But notice that the word charis—Greek for “gift” or “grace”—is right there in the middle of the word. This grace is unmerited favor, favor given to those who deserve only punishment. Gratitude for the grace of God is therefore literally central to biblical thanksgiving.
This is the perspective of my friend, Curtis. Whenever I ask how he is doing, he responds, “Better than I deserve.” His speech expresses a heart constantly aware of the cross. Here is what he is thinking. “I deserve crucifixion, and I am not getting it. In fact, I will never get it, and the reason is God’s amazing grace and love. I will never get the judgment I deserve. Christ went to the cross and took the judgment that I deserve in my place. That is why, for eternity, I will never cease to ‘abound with thanksgiving.’ Jesus took the judgment I deserve so that I could receive the reward he deserves.”
Until we understand what we truly deserve from God, grace has no meaning, and we will have little real motivation for gratitude. The well-spring of all Christian thanksgiving is a clear understanding of the redemption given to us through the cross.
To summarize, biblical gratitude is rooted in the recognition that I have been given undeserved gifts, both natural and spiritual. Thankfulness expresses my creatureliness and God’s sovereignty. It reflects awareness of and gladness in the fact that God is God, and I am not. Biblical gratitude is always anchored in this sense of dependence on God. It is the language of those who know they are creatures, and it is the proper response to redemption.
This is why thanksgiving is the language of humility—because true gratitude arises from a realization of our weakness and need. People with grateful hearts live with an awareness of just how much God has done for them.
[i] Margaret Visser, The Gift of Thanks, (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2008) pg 8.
Bill Farley is the author of several books and serves as senior pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Spokane, Washington.