The problem with Christmas when I was a child was the “Thank You” notes. Mom was clear: people who gave me gifts had to be thanked. Mom was also firm: there would be a session at the kitchen table, however long it took, and I would write notes to them all.
Writing those thank you notes was a bit of an agony — I’m still not very good at it — but my mother was trying to teach me a good thing.
- Saying “Thank you” for a good gift received improves a relationship.
- Being thankful — facing the world with gratitude — improves a human life.
Maybe we all know this. Maybe it seems like a platitude. How many writers, Christian and secular, have encouraged us to keep gratitude journals, or find other ways of becoming thankful as a means to nurturing joy and happiness? Common knowledge or not, it does help free us from a soul-killing attitude of entitlement and feelings of being generally put upon.
For the Heidelberg Catechism it is a big deal — a holy discovery; nothing less than the key to the whole Christian life.
“Gratitude” is the topic of the Catechism’s third and final section, after it briefly notes our misery due to sin and our deliverance from that misery by Christ. The Catechism essentially asks, “What do we do once we are delivered, saved, redeemed, justified? What does the Christian life look like?
The Christian life is one long attempt to say “Thank you!” for the most amazing gift ever given — the new life Christ offers us.
I have to say, that is a lovely way to think about Christianity. Overcome by the goodness, the generosity of God, our lives overflow with gratitude — so much so that we want to please God in all we do.
This has important consequences. In Question 86 the Catechism puts it this way:
…with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits,
so that he may be praised through us,
so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,
and so that by our godly living
our neighbors may be won over to Christ.
That is every dimension, really. It sets up a right relationship with God, it helps us know that our faith is real, and it is the way we will bear witness to Christ and participate in bringing the Gospel to the world.
Actually this has something important to say on the issue I’ve been blogging about of late: the question of how God’s sovereign providence relates to human responsibility. Here’s what I mean:
The Catechism set up a pretty strong doctrine of providence back in questions 1 and 26-28: Nothing in creation can even move apart from the will of God. But in those same questions God’s sovereign providence is described as working for a specific purpose: to bring us to salvation. So when we think about the gift of God delivering us from sin through the work of Christ, we are thinking about something that came to us personally through the working of sovereign providence.
Within the context of my Christian life, I look back and see providence was at work in everything that helped bring me to faith. Providence is what sets me up to live out my most important responsibility: it gives me something to be grateful for, enables me to see that I have received this great gift, and day by day works within me to enable me to live out my response of gratitude.
On the other hand, if I don’t start from the perspective of having come to faith, I could let the idea of sovereign providence lead me into a maze — exchanging the crucial responsibility of grateful faith for the emptiness of an intellectual puzzle.
I’d much rather cry out “God’s hand has been in this every step of the way — I’m so grateful!”
- How have you seen gratitude build faith and new life?
- What makes a life of gratitude hard on a day by day basis?
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Gary there are many daily “potholes” in a sincere journey of joy and gratitude. I agree with you that simply dwelling on the sovereign aspects that lead us to salvation is usually enough to recent ear me on Christ and help me back on the road to joy. But you also asked what makes gratitude challenging. One word: fear. If I dwell on the unknown fear consumes me and I quickly lose my grateful attitude. So I now consciously chose gratefulness; being thankful; being excited and I chose to live feeling joyful for all God has allowed to enter my life. Easy? No. Necessary? Yes
Gary Neal Hansen says
Susan, thanks. Interesting thoughts on fear.
I wonder if we only have room in our attention for one or the other. Maybe the conscious choice to attend to thankfulness sort of displaces the fear, and slipping into fear displaces the thankfulness.
Some day I will learn to spell check the spell check. I meant to say refocus me and draw me back near to Christ. (Susan)
Joe pruett says
Dr. Hansen, gratitude, truly a joyful way to live. What keeps me from daily living this way? I kind of liked what Susan said in her comments, fear. I liken the word worry to fear, maybe she meant the same thing. It seems like to me when I spend too much time “worrying” about tomorrow or next week or next month, that I’m missing a big chance to be “grateful” for today. In my secular career “sales” this is such an easy thing to do, we make two sales today, but how many have we made or will we make tomorrow, next week, next month, heck next year….see the problem, it saps my energy sometimes to truly be grateful for today, this minute, this hour….But trust me I’m working ever so hard on this matter, and pray daily for God to help me live each day to it’s fullest and live a life of with an attitude of gratitude. I will tell you this, I firmly believe that if we spend more time being grateful it is good medicine for the soul!
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks Joe. Good medicine indeed! And I think you nailed the problem: worry about the future squelches gratitude about the present and past.