This week we discuss the importance and power of gratitude to the Christian life. I start out by talking about my younger son, Kent. He's a case of "still waters run deep." He's very bright, quiet and thoughtful.
I mention in today's episode a foundational book.:
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (affiliate link)
If you haven't read this book, you should. Viktor Frankl was imprisoned at a concentration camp during World War II. A psychologist, he noted how some found hope and some completely lost faith. His observations are profound.
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/balancingthechristianlife)
Be good and do good.
In this episode of Balancing the Christian Life we talk about the power of gratitude.
Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.
For the next couple of weeks I want to have a conversation with you about some important parts of being a Christian which often get brought up around this time of year. These will be some essays I’ve been thinking about and are, quite frankly, easier for me to produce during the holiday season. In the coming weeks, I’ve got some excellent interviews both lined up and already recorded including an important conversation with author and thought leader Lagard Smith. I think you’ll enjoy those.
But tonight, it’s a night like any other. Katie and I have come home from work and we’ve just finished eating dinner.
“Well thank you for dinner.” This is what my third child says as we finish up some barbecued chicken legs I made on the grill. Kent is our introvert. He’s very bright, shy and often plays things close to the vest. But tonight’s gratitude isn’t unusual. Every day it’s the same. By noon, he’s asked what is going to be for dinner. If it’s anything exotic like tacos he might screw up his face, but generally he’finds out what the plan is, and right after we’re done eating, he says thank you. In many ways, this isn’t a big deal. It’s simple courtesy, and as his dad, I’m glad he does it.
But I also know saying thank you is a big deal. It matters. The fact that the United States has an entire holiday built around the idea of giving thanks reminds me how important this simple idea can be. We can talk about the history of this holiday, but the true power of giving thanks and gratitude is something growing Christians need to think about.
In Luke 17, we have the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. As they were walking, one of them figured out Jesus had given him a gift and came back to say thank you. One in ten. On that occasion, Jesus makes the point how disappoint this was.
I don’t know if those percentages hold true, but I do know it’s often unusual to get thanked for doing something on the job or as a parent or a friend or colleague. Let’s face it, if we’re waiting for someone else to give recognition for something we’ve done, we are often waiting a long time. And there’s a certain sense in which giving thanks seems both artificial and forced. I mean, as a parent, I know how many times I tell my children to say thank you to someone else, and I recognize this probably isn’t something they think is important. And I’m not so sure the person they’re saying thank you to thinks it’s all that important, either. But as a parent, it’s important to me. It’s important because I want to raise children who are grateful. Why? Well I can think of at leas three reasons. First, because God says it is. Second, because it makes them stronger. And finally because it gives them a better perspective.
When we look at the life of any major character of the Bible, one of the attitudes which separates them from others is how they respond to God. Daniel’s prayers giving thanks to God were so predictable, it was an important part of framing him by his enemies to get thrown into the lion’s den. Ezra was grateful to God for allowing them to rebuild the Temple. In many of his psalms, David directly thanks God for what He’s done. But God doesn’t need thanking. Just like Kent doesn’t need to thank me for dinner. It’s not imperative. Look, if I don’t feed my kids, there are laws which will both protect them and punish me. But gratitude builds relationships. When someone thanks me, it’s a moment when they are telling me I’m important to them. What I do made a difference. God doesn’t need to be told he’s done something nice for us. He already knows that. But too often, we don’t know that. As people who follow God, figuring out what God has done for us, what he’s given us, how he’s provided for us, how he cares for us isn’t news to him. It’s news to us. God loves grateful people because they are people who are interested in making better relationships. Look, for a moment, think about someone who is completely ungrateful. Think about someone who is always demanding, someone who feels entitled, someone who can never be pleased, someone who is always critical, completely obsessed with getting his way, someone who accepts your best efforts and then finds fault or ridicules them. Now describe that relationship. Is this a close relationship? Is it one where you feel safe or loved? How often do you willingly want to be around him? If you find out he’s wrong, does it make you happy or sad? Is this someone you want your children to be like? Is this someone you want to represent you or your family, your company, your group to anyone outside? You know the answer to that. Now, think of someone who you know loves you. Someone who you know has provided well for you. Somoene who has done some amazing things for you. Someone who you recognize as always being in your corner. Now think about that relationship. What does it make you feel? How does it make you better? There’s no culture, no religion, no good example in the Bible where being ungrateful is a good thing. Paul would tell us the exact opposite in Galatians. A Christian’s outlook needs to be kind, gentle, self-controlled. Later, Paul would tell the Thessalonians to be grateful all the time. If Christianity is a relationship with God, and I think it is, gratitude that comes from the recognition of who God is and what he’s done for us doesn’t make God better, it makes us better.
Okay, so gratitude improves our relationship with God, but when you move gratitude to people who can use and abuse us, don’t you need to have your defenses up? I mean, God is always pulling for us, but there are some truly evil people in the world There are people we shouldn’t trust. Shouldn’t we have our defenses up. Shouldn’t we temper our gratitude with a little street smarts and common sense. I mean Jesus even told his disciples to be as wise as serpents but harmless as doves.
Well, I understand that point of view. Evil people do exist. Even worse, people who mean to do the best for us often disappoint or try to substitute values for God’s they think are for our own good. But gratitude doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us stronger and better. Social science has some excellent research on gratitude and found many ways in which gratitude has tangible benefits. According to Robert Emmons, gratitude helps us recognize and celebrate what we have instead of stressing over what we don’t. It helps block toxic emotions. It allows us to be more resilient and strengthens relationships with others and ourselves. Researchers Bartlett and DeSteno find gratitude motivates others to help in times of crisis, grateful people often are given more help when needed and often have much higher levels of future rewards. Further, other research has found grateful people are happier, have better moods, are less materialistic, less likely to experience burnout, have better health, sleep better, have less fatigue, lower levels of cellular inflammation, are reported as better employees and have better relationships. Look, if this came in a pill, it would be backordered for years. And isn’t this all a little unrealistic? I mean, is it even possible to be that grateful all the time? Come on, bad stuff happens and we all have sour moods on occasion. Most of the great characters of the Bible mess up and lose their cool. Moses got frustrated, David certainly had some major moments. Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for failure if we have this expectation of being constantly grateful?
Sure, all great characters of the Bible messed up. And just because some of their shortcomings weren’t recorded, like Daniel, doesn’t mean they didn’t have times when they weren’t just as ungrateful as anybody else.
But gratitude does something for us that few other Christian virtues do. Gratitude forces us to see the world from a different point of view. When Kent thanks us for dinner, he’s recognizing there’s both a provider and a receiver of the meal. Does he understand that? Well, maybe not explicitly, but he knows he didn’t make the chicken he ate. Someone cared for him. Someone thought of him. Someone who could have chosen to do something else didn’t.
In Luke 7, Jesus went to eat at a Pharisee’s home and a sinner brought some expensive perfume and began washing Jesus’s feet with her hair. The host criticized both Jesus and the woman. But why was that woman washing his feet? What was she thinking? She was grateful to be close to Jesus. She knew it was an honor. She knew he was important and she was just happy to be there. His host was also close to Jesus. His host knew Jesus had an important reputation. He knew Jesus was a powerful teacher. He probably heard about some of his miracles. But he wasn’t grateful. He didn’t take Jesus’s perspective. He didn’t take the woman’s perspective. He was pretty set on his own. He was upset someone was interrupting his dinner with his guest and upsetting his plans.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish concentration camp survivor. If you’ve never read his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, you should. It’s a short book and a pretty quick read. One of the things he says in it was, “Man is capable fo changing the world for he better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” Later he wrote, “in the concentration camps...we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialitities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” How people behaved on the concentration camp depended on how they decided to interpret the experience. Look, it was a concentration camp. People were dying, but since the suffering was a constant, the only choice they had was how they would behave while they were suffering.
To look at it another way, gratitude helps you appreciate everything you didn’t do, everything you can’t do, everything where you’re a failure or unable or worthless. But gratitude also helps you see how much people love you. How much people take care of you. How much they sacrifice, how much they give, how much they root for you and how much they want you to be good and be better. Gratitude gives you a perspective that’s always been there, but you may not have considered. Again, gratitude is expressed to others, but it really benefits us.
The only thing most of us know from the first Thanksgiving is a group of religious pilgrims who came to a new land, were taught how to survive in a harsh place, and then thanked both God and those people for caring for them. Gratitude saved their lives. And gratitude saves our souls. Seeing our lives from God’s perspective makes us grateful for who he is and what he’s done, and that is the ultimate gift gratitude is for us.
Every night, Kent says thank you for dinner. He’s not the only one of my kids who says thank you to my wife and I, but he’s very consistent with it, and that makes me proud. I feel certain he doesn’t think about it much. I also don’t know if it’s anything more than a habit for him at this point. But because it is a habit, I know it will be something which makes his Christian walk better and easier. I’m glad we have a holiday where giving thanks and gratitude take center stage. Let’s be a grateful people.
For the next couple of weeks I want to discuss two other related ideas to gratitude, the importance of responsibility, and the power of habits.
If you get an opportunity, go to balancingthechristianlife.com. I’ve been working on the website a lot lately and I have started listing the books I reference in the show notes. I just figured out how to make them affiliate links so if I buy one of them, I’ll make a small commission, but it won’t cost you any more. Also, a few of you have asked about Patreon or some way to financially support the podcast. If you check out the show notes, I’ve started putting a link in that where you can do that if you’d like. I would appreciate it.
So until next week, let’s be good and do good.