Gratitude is one of the least natural postures for the human heart to maintain. Like standing on one foot or holding something heavy above the head, we can contort our hearts to be grateful for brief periods of time. But staying in that posture with any endurance is another story.
This struggle is not limited to the privileged and well-off. When Rachael and I worked in an inner-city Minneapolis food shelf, we were surprised to encounter as many ungrateful people as we had known in the wealthier suburbs. One wintery day a man knocked on the door during off-hours, asking for gloves. Rachael took him a pair of what we had, and he looked at them in disgust. “Don’t you have some Isotoners?” he demanded. When another employee tried to help, the man threw the gloves at him and marched off.
We have all been on both sides of the Isotoner story. We have responded to a kindness with ingratitude and we have had an attempt at kindness, perhaps literally, thrown back in our face. Why is thankfulness so difficult?
One way to answer this question is by exploring the sinful opposites of thankfulness. In Romans 1:21, Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Human ingratitude indicates a deeper refusal to acknowledge God as Creator and King. When I roll out of bed in the morning with no ounce of gratitude in my heart, it begs some fundamental questions: Who do I have to thank for my very existence? Who put breath in my lungs and blood in my veins? To whom must I answer for how I live my life? These questions help us begin to identify why thankfulness is so difficult, namely, because it involves submission and relinquishment to God.
Other sinful opposites to thanksgiving are more overt. In Ephesians 5:3-6, Paul’s command, “let there be thanksgiving,” is in contrast to sexual immorality, covetousness, and even crude joking. He also contrasts gratitude with anxiety (Philippians 4:4) and spiritual laziness (Colossians 4:2).
The bad news is that ingratitude is much more serious than we might first suspect. According to Paul, ingratitude is practical atheism and the seedbed for all manner of sinful behavior. We cannot dismiss a lack of thankfulness as spiritually inconsequential. The good news is that addressing our ingratitude will lead to greater spiritual health. When we find ourselves awash in jealousy, sensual indulgence, or anxiety, the antidote may be found in a simple, deeply felt “thank you.”
Let’s practice now. Thank you, God, for forming me in my mother’s womb. Thank you for giving me air to breathe, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Thank you for the good things of this life that I have enjoyed. Thank you for those who have loved me. Thank you for loving me in a way that no one else could. Thank you for displaying that love through putting on flesh and living in our world. Thank you for bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows. Thank you for bearing the punishment our sin deserved, to the death. Thank you for bringing the first rays of the brilliant new creation into this world through your own resurrection. Thank you for granting us receptive hearts to turn from our stubborn sinfulness and believe this gospel. Thank you for making us your sons and daughters. Thank you that we will belong to you forever. Thank you that nothing can separate us from your love.
May God transform our hearts through our giving thanks to him.