Of all the heavenly gifts we have to be thankful for, the most frequently overlooked is the gift of gratitude. From the ants to the elephants, God has poured out his blessings on all his creatures. But to man alone is reserved the ability to combine reason and imagination to express his thankfulness. G. K. Chesterton even claimed that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
There are dozens of virtues that a Christian should acquire, many of which are extremely important to our spiritual growth. What then, is so special about gratitude? Why should it be considered a discipline worthy of particular attention, and why is it necessary for communion with God?
Because the regular practice of gratitude is a means by which we become rightly oriented toward God. Only when we become truly grateful for what God has done—when thankfulness has seeped into the marrow of our soul—can we fully appreciate who God is and understand who we are as his children.
Why Gratitude is an Essential Virtue
Here are three reasons gratitude is an essential virtue for spiritual formation:
1. God requires our thanksgiving
The most important reason we express gratitude is because God requires we offer him our thanks. In Psalm 50:22, God says, “Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with no one to rescue you: Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me.” God takes our gratitude—or lack thereof—extremely seriously. We are always required to give God what he is due—including our thankfulness.
2. Gratitude keeps our focus on God (and off ourselves)
When we develop a habit of gratitude we are constantly asking two questions: “For what should I be grateful?” and “To whom do I owe thanks?” The more we express our gratitude the more our eyes are opened to the magnanimity of God and his generosity in bestowing us with goodness and blessings. When we see how much we owe to God it helps to reduce our own self-centeredness.
3. Gratitude develops endurance and trust in God
As we grow in gratitude, we learn to be thankful not only for the good gifts God gives us but for everything in our life, including trials and sufferings. We learn that even in grief and pain we can be grateful since we still have the greatest gift we could ever want: God himself. This type of gratitude helps us to deepen our trust in the goodness of God and helps us to be humble in whatever circumstance we may be called upon to endure.
How to Grow in Gratitude
How then do we grow in gratitude? Here are three practices to help develop this God-given ability to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18):
1. Count your blessings
Honing our skill of thanksgiving requires that we expand our capacity to pay attention. As pastor M. Craig Barnes writes in The Pastor as Minor Poet,
I doubt that there is such a thing as a measure of spirituality, but if there is, gratitude would be it. Only the grateful are paying attention. They are grateful because they pay attention, and they pay attention because they are so grateful.
Make a list every week of five to ten blessings you’ve noticed in your life, numbering each item and only listing them only once. Review your list and say a prayer of thanksgiving for each item.
2. Say grace
Throughout history, Christians have made a habit of “saying grace,” a short prayer recited before a meal to give thanks for our food. While we should continue that discipline (or take it up anew) we should expand the range of when we “say grace.” To quote Chesterton again,
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
Develop a habit of stopping and saying grace before your daily activities.
3. Say thanks for your neighbor
Make a habit of contacting someone each week—in person, by phone, or through email or social media—and let them know that you are grateful they are in your life.
Gratitude is fuel for the soul. Without a regular infusion of gratitude we become self-involved, believing that we are the ones responsible for all that we have in our lives. Only by developing the discipline of gratitude can we ensure that we are cognizant of God’s goodness and reliant on him for our daily existence.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).