Gratitude and the Dangers of a Good Life

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Over the last several months, I’ve been lingering with Israel in the Plains of Moab, listening to Moses call God’s people to obey him and enter the land of promise. With my nose in Deuteronomy, I’m learning all kinds of things about gratitude that seem not only relevant to the calendar year, but also important in my particular season of life.

Like Israel in Deuteronomy, our family is at the end of a long period of waiting. In 2011, we moved to Toronto with every intention of returning to Chicago three years later. But we grew to love our new city, grew to hope God would allow us to stay.

We needed, of course, to ensure that we had work in the city, then needed to apply for the proper paperwork to assure permanent residency. Finally, those things secured, we bought a house and began a year-long renovation project. A month ago, we finally moved in.

Eight and a half years later, we’re home.

To come to the other side of the long waiting and hoping, the feverish wanting and praying, feels momentous—and also scary. For as we learn in Deuteronomy, peace and prosperity can be worrisome.

Dangers of the Good Life

In Deuteronomy 8, Moses reminds the people that while the wilderness was a hard education, it was the schooling they needed. In particular, hunger those 40 years taught the Israelites to depend on God’s bread (vv. 2–3). Faith wasn’t formed on full bellies and sated stomachs. It was formed as the people grew to depend on the manna that fell from the sky six mornings a week—a provision that always proved sufficient, no matter how much was gathered.

But as the people stand on the precipice of God’s longstanding promise to Abraham, Moses reminds them that the lessons of deprivation will soon end. They’re coming to a land of agricultural bounty, and that fullness will be God’s gift to them: “You shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (v. 10).

Prosperity is no guarantee of gratitude.

For a moment, his words confirm what we expect of the relationship between abundance and gratitude. When life is most good, we think, surely we’ll be most grateful.

Which is why Moses’s next words jar us awake: “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God” (v. 11). Moses tells the people that all the good gifts awaiting them in the land—houses and herds, silver and gold—might be cause, not for gratitude, but for temptation. Instead of leading them to praise the Giver, these blessings might lead them into sins of ingratitude and pride.

It reminds us that prosperity does not guarantee gratitude or praise. We won’t necessarily be more grateful when we’re married, more grateful when we’re parents, more grateful when we’re employed, more grateful when we’re healthy.

Instead, as Israel learned in the wilderness, deprivation can teach us about the goodness and faithfulness of God; deprivation can teach us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18).

Call to Rehearse Grace

There are real dangers in the good life. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to feel guilty or worried when turbulent waves calm and crisis subsides. Instead, in those glassy, still seasons of peace, every gift we receive from God becomes a chance to rehearse the gospel—to proclaim that God gives, not because we are good, but because he is.

Moses warns the people against assuming the good gifts of the land—and then crediting their own achievements: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” (v. 17). Israel stood to inherit a litany of blessings they didn’t lift a finger to secure: houses they didn’t build, vineyards they didn’t plant, wells they didn’t dig, fields they didn’t sow.

God gives, not because we are good, but because he is.

Their inheritance was a picture of the gospel, which is the good news that in Christ, God gives us something we didn’t work for, something we didn’t earn: “For by grace are you saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Like Israel’s house and vineyard, well and field, salvation is a gift we can enjoy—but for which we can take no credit.

Gratitude is one important practice for remembering what’s true about ourselves and what’s true about God: our undeservedness and his generosity.

Give Thanks

Everywhere we look, we see reminders to give thanks. It’s written on coffee mugs, plastered on Pinterest, touted by the gurus of self-help. But these vague cultural notions of “feeling good for the good things you have” is not like the gratitude a Christian learns to practice.

The Christian can be grateful for lack, grateful for pain, grateful even for suffering, knowing that “the testing of [our] faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:4). The wilderness has as much, if not more, to teach us about gratitude as does the lush and fertile land.

And even when we enter a season that feels lavishly good, we’re meant to direct our minds, not merely to the gifts, but also to the Giver. In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis draws an important relationship between gratitude and praise: “Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this!’ Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [flashes of wit] are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

To give thanks is to worship.

Editors’ note: 

Jen Pollock Michel will lead a workshop on “When Good Desires Go Unfulfilled” at our 2020 Women’s Conference, June 11 to 13 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon!

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