As your eyes go misty, you look down and muster a half spoken thank you. Deep in your chest you feel a full sense of peace...
Everyone at some point in their lives has known gratitude. But for those of us from highly independent cultures, it may have been years since we saw or experienced this virtue. It is easy to forget the true gratitude we innately knew as children and substitute it for small smiles and thank yous.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, we’re naturally thinking about gratitude. So to recapture the essence of this virtue let’s look at three aspects of gratitude: what it isn’t, what it is, and how we get it.
What it isn’t: Just Be More Thankful!
We are an image obsessed culture where politeness easily takes the place of gratitude. But true gratefulness has nothing to do with being polite. Have you ever said "thanks" with your mouth and "I hate you" with your eyes? For me, this was any time my high school speech teacher gave me “constructive” feedback. We have confused saying “thank you” with the infinitely more valuable posture of gratitude.
Thanksgiving and gratitude go hand in hand, but without gratitude, thanksgiving is kind of worthless. Our invitation as people who follow Jesus is to have gratitude in everything. This is possible because we worship a God who is exceedingly generous in grace and mercy. Even in our darkest moments, God promises that he will work “for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28) This reality is never truer than when you see someone who is really struggling, and yet they’re somehow joyful.
This quote sums up so well the depth of gratitude in a superficial world:
“True gratitude is being grateful for everything. Being thankful for a wonderful situation is easy. But true gratitude is being thankful for the situation we can’t be thankful for by our own strength. That kind of gratitude can be found only by one who knows the paradox of grace.” ~ Joshua Choonmin Kang
What it is: Check Your Attitude
Gratitude broken down is an attitude of grace. Grace by definition is a gift given to someone who does not deserve it. After years of receiving gifts, we often reach a place where the simple gifts, which used to thrill us, seem small and cheap. The person who has cultivated an attitude of grace sees every gift, every moment of beauty or of joy, as significant.
The person who has cultivated an attitude of grace sees every gift, every moment of beauty or of joy, as significant.
Can you imagine everyday looking around and living with the perspective that you are receiving gifts? It is a little hard to fathom, but the good news is that every person actually can become more grateful. It isn’t an inherent characteristic some people have and others don’t, it’s a value that we have to intentionally choose to cultivate.
How You Get it: You Get What You Give
The best way to become truly grateful is to give generously. The best way to become truly grateful is to give generously. I could say it a third time, but you get the point. There is so much need around us. Your time, your talent, your finances and your power are all assets you can give generously to other people. To be generous with each of these assets is to offer them strategically and sacrificially.
Greeks often point to philanthropy as a huge value, and in many cases it is sincere, but we often lack the most important component to philanthropy that is truly transformative: gratitude. True gratitude will always move us toward greater acts of service and love. Give with purpose. Give in a such a way, through amount and timing, that creates the maximum impact. Give beyond your comfort. Give commitments that move you to greater action. Gratitude will follow as you experience the joy of giving.
A Transformative Experience with Gratitude
Last year, as I sat in a campus coffee shop in the middle of winter, two homeless guys walked in. Shivering, blue lipped and exhausted, their whole demeanor caused a tug of pain in my chest. I knew I had to do something. I bought them both coffee, hoping they could escape the cold and sit in the chairs as patrons. As they sat and introduced themselves, their names Mike and Mike, I struck up a conversation with one of them. He told me how he had been abused as a child and couldn’t walk well as a result.
Moved by my encounter with these men, I took some friends to go find Mike and Mike and buy them dinner. We found them, fed them, and with the small cash we had on hand gave them $16 to help them get shelter for the night. As we gave them the money, Mike said, “You won’t believe this but we were literally $16 short from being able to rent a room for tonight, thank you.”
I’m not sure who was more grateful in the moment; me, for getting to be a part of God’s work in these guys’ lives, or Mike and Mike, for having shelter for the night.
When is the last time you experienced true gratitude? This Thanksgiving instead of just saying thank you, give and receive true gratitude. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Spend some time reflecting on Psalm 107. Ask God, “How are you inviting me to grow in gratitude?”
- Consider gathering a group of your brothers/sisters and serving at a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Afterward, share as a group how the experience challenged you and what it taught you about gratitude.
- Pick someone, a friend or family member, and serve them unexpectedly. Send them a Starbucks gift card (anonymously) in the mail. Do the dishes and don’t brag about it. Or simply write them a thank you note.
- Instead of shopping on Black Friday, think about participating in Giving Tuesday. Is there a non-profit you feel passionately about and want to support? Consider giving generously.