[This piece originally appeared in the newsletter for my parish, St. Andrew’s Church. It is part of a series that explores discipleship as communal practices. Although it was crafted for that community, it comes now to you, internet people, for general consumption.]
We live in a world that encourages us to wallow in perpetual dissatisfaction. We are saturated daily with advertisements, which whisper to us ever-so subtly, “everything is not okay – you need more.” This world trains us to be increasingly attuned to what we lack and hyper aware of threats to our preferences.
“Be grateful,” Scripture says. But how do we practice gratefulness in a world like this? Many of us desire to be more grateful, but if we’re honest, we often lack the fortitude and imagination for it. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we might admit that we are better at grumbling than giving thanks – complaining than expressing gratefulness.
Gratitude, in our world of entitlement, often seems so foreign to us. For this reason, being grateful often feels forced. “Just do it – start being grateful because that’s what you’re supposed to do!” Perhaps we also have this obligatory, forced feeling when we read Paul’s letter to the Colossians. That’s what he says, after all, right? “[Grit your teeth and] Be grateful” (Col. 3:15). “I don’t feel grateful,” you might think to yourself, “but the Bible says to be grateful, so I better make it happen.” What option do we have except to press on and try harder?
Most of us are familiar with a version of the common adage, “Stop worrying about the stuff you don’t have, count your many blessings, and be thankful for all the good stuff you do have.” This is Hallmark channel gratitude. At the end of the movie everyone inevitably learns all the grievances that evoked griping are actually pointless because they have a roof over their heads and love for each other.
This brand of gratitude may make us feel warm inside, but it has no relationship with the kind Paul writes about to the church in Colossae. The source for Hallmark gratitude is the self, which means that gratitude is sustainable and achievable inasmuch as we have the ability to convince the self that everything is okay. Some call this the power of positive thinking. It is an illusion because it ultimately lacks substance.
Gratitude, for Paul, is not rooted in our ability to muster gratefulness. It is not something we do to be a good Christian. Rather, gratitude is the fruit that flows from a heart ruled by – completely surrendered to – the peace of Christ. This is all possible, not by trying harder, but rather because God raised us with Christ as participants in his resurrection life (Col. 3:1).
Gratitude emerges from God’s prior self-giving generosity in Christ. It exposes the lie that our well-being depends on having more and guarding our preferences.
Practicing gratitude begins with embracing God’s work for us in Christ. It begins with opening our hearts wide to the reality we celebrate every Sunday in the Eucharist (which comes from the Greek word we translate as “thanksgiving”): God has done in Christ what we could not do for ourselves.
The implication is that Christians are, at their core, grateful people because their identity depends on a gift. In other words, gratitude is not merely an attitude; it is the DNA of those who have received God’s grace in Christ.
The practice of gratitude, therefore, comes as we learn to surrender to God’s provision for us in Christ – as we die to the lie that “everything is not okay – you need more,” and learn trust Jesus daily to satisfy our deepest fears, longings, and needs.
Practicing gratitude looks like seeing all things through the lens of God’s grace. So over time our response to the stuff of life is not motivated by a sense of lack, but by the abundant life available in Christ. This means that gratitude sees difficult people and situations, not as problems that disrupt our preferences, but as gifts from God. We can realistically enter into tension with gratefulness because we know God is fully present with us there, and those situations are opportunities to deepen our dependence on his grace. And that is a good thing!
Gratitude is also the lifeblood of community. In a real sense, the church is meant to be a community of gratitude, and this posture is vital to sustaining community. Grumbling, on the other hand, is toxic to community. Grumbling is the posture that emerges from an inability to trust that God will lead us into fullness of life.
If community is gift and grace all the way through, then we cannot enter as demanders whose antennas are tuned to the violation of our preference. Not only will this posture prove toxic to community, it will also always leave us disappointed, frustrated, and miserable.
We do not need to fret when community does not meet our expectations because we are participants in God’s gift, not managers of it. We can submit our ideal pictures of community to God – let those expectations die at the foot of the cross – and begin to embrace, in trust, that God provides for us exactly what we need. Nurturing gratitude for the community that exists frees us to participate in the unpredictable, Spirit-led journey deeper into the grace of God with one another.
Where is God inviting you to trust him this season that, in Christ, he daily provides everything you need for fullness of life?