Gratitude should fill the Christian’s life (1 Thess. 5:18; Acts 2:46-47), especially with Thanksgiving on the horizon. So why am I so prone to ingratitude? Genuine gratitude seems elusive.
I think there are three big reasons why gratitude can seem so hard to find.
1. Gratitude requires making more of the good we have than the good we don’t.
If you’re like me, you tend to dwell on what you’d like to have. I’d love to own a house. I’d like to have a permanent job. A book deal, maybe? I’m always looking to the next thing, the bigger or better thing. Wishing isn’t necessarily wrong. But wishing does necessarily preclude gratitude, because by definition I can’t be grateful for something I don’t have. And if wishing is all I do, I’ll never be grateful.
Gratitude requires moving my eyes from the things I don’t have to the things I do have. It means saying there is good, real good, in this car. In this job or this home. I have to say, in one sense, “This is enough.”
Gratitude celebrates blessings received. As long as we’re consumed with blessings we haven’t received, we’ll never possess it.
2. Our society cultivates ingratitude.
As if we couldn’t be ungrateful enough on our own, ingratitude may be the yeast that makes American culture rise. Advertising persuades us that this thing will satisfy that need we didn’t know we had 30 seconds ago. HGTV shows us how beautiful our homes could be if we only had $50,000 and a professional crew. Political radio—doesn’t matter the party—says we cannot rest until this agenda is met and those people are thrown out of Washington.
“If only” is the prayer behind ingratitude, and it’s everywhere.
Let's try a simple thought experiment. Pick an area of your life you talk about with your friends: your job, your salary, your body, your family. Then imagine one of your friends saying something like, “Guys, I want you to know that I’m really happy with the salary at this job.” Or, “I actually love the way my stomach looks right now.”
If you’re like me, you may have thought: Wow, she sounds a little full of herself. Or maybe, Let’s see how long he can whitewash this thing before we hear how he really feels.
Our culture assumes that normal people operate with a consistent level of discontentment. We think that “real” equals “dissatisfied.” We definitely don’t want to live with a Botox spirituality that papers over real problems with a smile. But we don’t want to steer so far from that ditch that we fall into its opposite. Our society’s gravitational pull is already toward ingratitude.
3. Ingratitude elevates desire for a creature over desire for the Creator.
We desire food, shelter, friendship, health, happiness. These appetites may lead us into sin, but God made us with them, and they’re good at root (see Ps. 104:14-15).
However, God also gave us an appetite so unique it has its own category: the desire to see and savor his infinite, eternal presence. Ecclesiastes describes it as God “put[ting] eternity into man’s heart” (3:11); Augustine captures it with the line, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” We all hunger for God.
More often than not, ingratitude comes when we try to satisfy this hunger for God with blatantly sinful desires or too much of our basic needs. Somewhere in our hearts, maybe on a level we’re not consciously aware of, we convince ourselves that whatever created thing we lack—health, popularity, pleasure—will satisfy us if we can get just a little more of it.
But as Christians, we know that our satisfaction can only be found in God. Our creaturely appetites will be fulfilled in the new creation; but for now, Christ suffices in abundance or need, plenty or want, life or death (Phil. 4:11-13).
Gratitude is elusive because we’re easily duped into thinking that an eternal hunger can be satisfied with temporal things.
With these three reasons for ingratitude in mind, here are some thoughts about how to cultivate gratitude this Thanksgiving season.
1. Raise your ingratitude-sensing antennae.
Start sensitizing yourself to ingratitude, in your own heart and around you. Complaints about a job or a spouse or a body part. Fantasies of a bigger house, a bigger bank account, a different political climate. Being aware of ingratitude-messages will help you deal with the root problem.
2. Cultivate contentment in Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the one and only key to human happiness. As God incarnate, he provides our ultimate satisfaction; as our atonement and mediator, he alone makes it possible for us to have the communion with God that brings ultimate satisfaction (Ps. 16:11).
Cultivating that relationship with God through Jesus builds contentment in our hearts. Preaching the gospel to ourselves, meditating on the Word, worshiping God through prayer and song—all these open our hearts to the divine fount where we find satisfaction. Tasting and seeing God’s goodness leads to gratitude.
3. Supplant ingratitude with thanksgiving.
Botox spirituality misses that gratitude grows out from the inside. Ingratitude, like any sin, is a lion that grows when we feed it and shrivels when we don’t.
Once we catch the messages of ingratitude around us and inside us, we can start supplanting ungrateful thoughts with prayers of thanks. Sure, our 2003 Ford Escape isn’t sexy; but it’s given us 150,000 miles of reliable service with barely a repair needed. Yes, my job will end in seven months; but it’s been a wonderful experience and kept our family fed for the last two years.
I don’t practice a Sabbath, but a rhythm of remembrance and worship seems like a great way to cultivate gratitude. Israelite festivals marked major occasions—both yearly rhythms like the harvest and also national turning points—with prayer and the celebration of God’s actions. Building times of identifying and celebrating blessing into our weeks, months, and years could help open our eyes to see and celebrate God’s goodness. Thanksgiving this week is a great time to start.