By: Taylor Bell
8 minute read
Every Thanksgiving Day I am reminded again of an essential gift: gratitude. This past Sunday, I was reminded of the importance of gratitude as I had the privilege of leading our church’s Children’s Sermon. With Thanksgiving around the corner, I chose to focus on the Christian practice of gratitude. While Christians are not unique in valuing gratitude, what makes our practice “Christian” we root our gratitude in God’s creative and redemptive love. This means every act of gratitude begins with giving thanks to God. I emphasized this point as I held up slices of my favorite fruit: a fuji apple. I asked the children, “Who made the first ever apple tree?” “God!” And so, we gave thanks to God for creating this delicious apple. Yet God wasn’t the only one involved in our eating apples. There is also the farmer who picked the apple, the truck driver who delivered the apple, and the grocery employee who stocked the apple. And so, we reviewed and gave thanks for all these people too, whom without we wouldn’t be able to eat the apple. It seems simple. Mundane even. But as I concluded the Children’s Sermon, I was reminded once again that gratitude does not just happen. It is a choice and a practice, and so essential to a joyful and fulfilled life.
The ancient Greek ethicist Aristotle would describe gratitude as a virtue. A virtue is a character trait one develops through practice, and as one practices said virtue it becomes interwoven into one’s being. For instance, as you practice the virtue of gratitude, you become a more gracious person. No longer must you remind yourself to practice gratitude, as it is now just a natural way of seeing and engaging the world. Some examples of other virtues are generosity, courage, truthfulness, and justice. Why is it important and worthwhile to define gratitude as a virtue? Because the essential lesson I’ve learned is that gratitude’s priceless gifts of contentment, joy, and serenity are only experienced after practicing gratitude for some time. It’s not until we’ve taught ourselves to make gratitude a way of life, not until we’ve cultivated gratitude as a virtue, that we discover how essential it is for living a joyful and wholehearted life.
There is a multitude of psychological research establishing this claim that gratitude is essential for a joyful life. As a pastor, I articulate that gratitude is essential for a meaningful life because it re-centers our hearts and minds on God’s healing and sustaining love. Within the Christian tradition, all humans struggle with the inherent temptation that we are what we have—or don’t have. Our security and well-being become based upon our possessions, achievements, and titles. Our hearts are elated and soothed when we get the “thing” we’ve been pursuing. Yet quickly our attention focuses to the next “new” thing, and we become unsettled, discontent, and frustrated.
Renowned Alcoholics Anonymous speaker Bob E. described the alcoholic as a chronic malcontent. “I am never tall enough. I am never handsome enough. My clothes are never good enough. The car is never expensive enough. I never earn enough money. I am never intelligent enough. … My boss never understands me enough. The house isn’t big enough. The sunshine isn’t bright enough.” I don’t think the dysfunction of being chronically malcontent is exclusive to the alcoholic. In our American culture, it seems to be a dysfunction we all share. And just as the virtue of gratitude is integral to 12-Step Recovery, so to do I believe that gratitude is essential for our own healing.
There is a woundedness many of us carry due to the lie that we will never be enough without this “thing.” We have ignored and neglected genuine love as we’ve recklessly pursued the “thing” we falsely believed will provide us security, safety, and well-being. Gratitude is a powerful virtue because it helps us heal from this woundedness. Because, through its daily practice we come to see and experience the truth of the infinite ways we are lovingly cared for. Because, gratitude centers our hearts and minds on the ways God has and is providing for us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The prayer of thanksgiving for the fuji apple above reminded me of this truth. God didn’t just create the apple tree. God also created people who work hard to connect all us to food—our God-created source for nourishment and sustenance. When I sit back and see this reality through the lens of gratitude, I cannot help but be thankful. I cannot help but realize that God has been taking care of me in profound ways I both know and will never know. That God has never forgotten about me. That I can relax and be at peace, because a power greater than myself is at work in the world taking care of me, you, and all of us. That I no longer need to doggedly pursue some “thing” and keep neglecting such genuine love.
Therefore, it’s important to daily practice gratitude. Pastor emeritus Sarah Shelton had in her office a basket full of small notebooks. Confused, I asked her one day about them. While offering one to me, she termed them her “gratitude notebooks.” She said that practicing gratitude is important yet difficult. We need something tangible upon which we can write what we are grateful for each day, so that in difficult times we can remind ourselves of all the things we are grateful for. Her instructions then were to write down three things you are grateful for in that moment. There are only two requirements. (1) You must be honest. You can be grateful for anything, the morning sunlight, the smell of roasting coffee, or your child so long as you are honest! (2) You can only write down something once. To repeat is to cheat. This second requirement is hard, but it challenges us to realize we often have more to be grateful for than we realize. And so, I’ve carried that notebook in my bookbag every day since. I may not write in it every day, but it is a symbol reminding me to daily practice the virtue of gratitude.
Now it is imperative to clarify that gratitude as Christian virtue does not elide over real pertinent needs in our lives and communities. As a Christian virtue, gratitude is not as Karl Marx related, an “opiate of the masses.” Rather, genuine gratitude keeps us planted in God’s love even amidst the real trauma of our pain and suffering. Gratitude is not a Pollyanna optimism of ignoring the reality of suffering by focusing on what is pretty and delightful. Nor is gratitude about finding the silver lining amidst life’s difficulties. Sometimes, there just is no silver lining and all we can do is our best to get through it. Gratitude demands honesty if it is to be real. Like Job, Jeremiah, and the Psalms, an honest faith means it is okay and faithful to get angry with God when we suffer. But an honest faith likewise means we also cannot forget the ways God has taken care of us amidst our suffering. If we believe that God’s love is true, and that God’s love is integral to healing and wholeness, then gratitude is an essential virtue amidst life’s darkness. And in so doing, gratitude as virtue becomes an act of faith. Now, gratitude in reminding us of all that God has done in our lives, anchors us in the real Christian hope that God will continue to take care of us, especially amidst our pain and suffering.
Yet gratitude as Christian virtue is not intended solely for us as individuals. I was taught this blessing from a good friend, “And God, bless the hands who’ve made it possible for us to eat this meal.” It was this blessing which anchored the Children’s Sermon as it reminds me that gratitude is as communal as it is individualistic. That is, gratitude as Christian virtue is concerned about others too. It is as though in giving thanks to God, God has redirected my awareness to all the people I have to be thankful for. Perhaps then, gratitude is an essential virtue because it helps us to see and celebrate the other. We transition from seeing others as “other” to seeing them as people we are deeply connected to, dependent upon, and grateful for. Here is why gratitude is not individualistic: gratitude is only gratitude when it is expressed to another, be it God or a person. This reality implies relatedness. Perhaps the wholesome power of gratitude is its knack for helping us recognize all the ways we are connected to others and the world; to help us see that we are not alone; that we are interwoven into relationships that form a community. In our country, where we are succumbing more and more to xenophobia, or the fear of the other, gratitude is an essential practice in helping us become more hospitable, loving, and just.
Therefore, this Thanksgiving and afterward, you are invited to choose and practice gratitude. It will not always be easy; we can always find a reason not to be thankful. But this is why it is a choice. So choose gratitude. Share it with others. And if you ever get lost just remember this prayer: “God thank you for this meal and bless the hands who’ve made it possible. Amen.”
 In reflecting on the “gift of Thanksgiving,” I recognize the need for historical honesty. The history of Thanksgiving is complicated, contentious, and messy. Much of this colonial holiday hides our history of war, displacement, and genocide against Native Americans that happened before and after the celebrated Thanksgiving meal in 1621 between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. (For more information, check out this Business Insider article and this New York Times article) As an act of honesty, compassion, and justice we Christians need to collectively acknowledge and address this history. However, this reflection is not intended to address this need. In an effort to respect the integrity and needs of such an accounting, I will not be engaging it here.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.