Thankfulness and Gratitude

During my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group’s Zoom call Monday night, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that this is Thanksgiving week here in America.

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth which came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it as a national holiday. I am aware that other countries have also set aside annual days to be thankful. Days set aside for thanksgiving are centuries-old, though feasting is a newer phenomenon. In centuries past, days of thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer and supplication* to God. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV).

During our Zoom call on Monday night, I asked if there was a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. In our initial responses we thought the words basically meant the same and were interchangeable. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definition of the two terms. We discovered something pretty interesting…

Thankfulness is an adjective and Gratitude is a noun.

To my English teacher friends, the significance of this distinction isn’t missed. The rest of us may need to dig a bit deeper. Being thankful is about being pleased and relieved, an adjective that describes how we feel. Gratitude, on the other hand is the quality of being thankful coupled with a readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude is about our character.

With my Campaigner guys, we developed an analogy that helped us make sense of the distinction between thankfulness and gratitude: I get the results of a difficult math test and my grade is better than anticipated, for which I am thankful! Gratitude, on the other hand, would be displayed when I connect with my teacher to show appreciation for the extra help she gave me. Thankfulness is more inward; Gratitude is outward. Thankfulness is more of a spontaneous response; gratitude, as with all charter-building, takes time, effort and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a Face Book post this week:

A couple years ago I decided to focus on the word gratitude. At first I just put copies of the word “gratitude” in places I would see throughout the day. After awhile the word became part of my daily thoughts. I would encourage anyone who desires to see life through a better lens to try this, I feel like it changed me for the better.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Supplication is not a word we use much these days. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnest and humility.

Gratitude

The core of the Young Life ministry, of which I have been a part going on 47 years, is the volunteer leaders that invest in the lives of teenagers. I am privileged to help train younger staff that lead the volunteer troops. Several years ago, while in a discussion during a training time, we deliberated the make-up of the best leaders. We decided that what separated best leaders from average leaders was this: they get “it.” As the discussion progressed, we attempted to quantify and define “it.” This is where we landed:

“If someone gets “it,” no definition is necessary; for those who don’t, no definition will suffice.”

In the context of practical theology, I suspect this is a truism that crosses all aspects of faith understanding. I suspect it was central to Jesus’ repetitive quote from Isaiah 6 addressing the Israelites – people that kept on listening, without perceiving; that keep on looking, without understanding. I think this describes our journeys of faith as we try to figure out this phenomenon of following Jesus. We wrestle with an aspect of faith for a time – reading, researching, discussing – seemingly to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it makes sense. We get it. We cannot explain it yet – we just know we get it now and we see everything through a new lens…

We hear two distinctly different responses during this pandemic – gratitude or censure/blame. Gratitude* is a core virtue of the Christian life. It’s one of those things I didn’t get for years, but became clear in the middle of a personal crisis. I finally got it, though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone for a time. But I knew it was a life-changer.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, gratitude describes the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. During these days, grateful people are coming out of the woodwork to serve others, even the ungrateful. Grateful people get it. They don’t need to work at showing gratitude, its second nature.

One of the best books I’ve ever read was Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust (a book I HIGHLY recommend). In Ruthless Trust, Manning described how he might determine if someone truly trusts God:

“Let’s say I interviewed ten people and asked them each the same question – “Do you trust God?” – and each answered “Yes, I trust God,” but nine out of ten actually did not trust him. How would I find out which was telling the truth? I would videotape each of the ten lives for a month and then, after watching the videos, pass judgment using this criterion: The person with an abiding spirit of gratitude is the one who trusts God.” my emphasis)

During his message on Sunday, April 26, Bjorn Dixon of the WHY Church (Elk River, MN) made an interesting and telling statement: “What you thought about God before the pandemic is how you will relate to God in a pandemic.” If gratitude was core to my trust in God before the pandemic, then gratitude is the natural response during the pandemic. For those of us struggling to be grateful right now, here’s the very good news: God uses interruptions and crises to transform us, to help us get “it” (whatever “it” we might be in need of “getting”). I have observed people “get” the virtue of gratitude these last few weeks. Others will get it before this is over. If you aren’t there yet, there’s hope.

“God is the creator, redeemer, and consummator of all that is. Human beings live in a relation of inescapable dependence on God to which gratitude is the appropriate response.” (Miroslav Volf, “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life”, my emphasis).

* Interestingly, the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated as gratitude is eucharistía, the same word from which Eucharist is derived. (See Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Hebrews 12:28 as examples of gratitude used in the New Testament.)