A couple of years ago while meeting with my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that it was the Monday of Thanksgiving week here in America.
In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth that came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it 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 the conversation with the Campaigner guys, 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 would not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definitions 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 is not 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 character-building endeavors, takes time, effort, and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a FaceBook post a few years ago:
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 in our daily conversations. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnestness and humility.