Why Gratitude Is a Matter of Life and Death

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I get easily put off by the topic of thanksgiving and gratitude.  I’ve sat through too many Thanksgiving services where parents toddle up their highly precocious and well-behaved kids to the microphone to say something like, “I’m thankful for my family, my fish named Bob, and that Jesus is in my heart,” to a gushing congregation.  

Very nice and precious and all that.  But some of us just aren’t that simplistic.   We live in the real, grown-up world.  We pay bills.  We absorb hurts.  We endure conflict. We fight depression and disappointment.  Life isn’t a cutesy precious moments figurine.

Nevertheless, in spite of the quick-fix hashtag Christianity of balloons and banners where God is like a pithy statement and a warm puppy dog, gratitude isn’t a tool only for the simplistic and childish.  It is a matter of life and death.  

I’ve felt for years that this word of Paul was the pivot upon which all humanity teetered one way or the other:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21).

As a people and as individuals, we can either honor God as God (a truth that may be suppressed but never honestly denied) and set our hearts consistently towards appropriate appreciation of all that we are and have.  Or we can turn away and say “no” in a very real, consistent and direct manner.  It is this latter refusal-over-time that leads mankind to the foolish and darkened heart and the sort of degenerative behavior that Paul lists in the verses that followed.  These behaviors were what Paul thought in his day to be the worst expressions of the outworking of sin.

The cause and effect is important here.  It isn’t as if we can change or legislate deplorable behavior and outward expression in order to turn a nation’s heart to love God.  Rather it is the other way around.  If my heart departs upstream, I will find myself a thousand miles from home downstream and wonder where along the way I turned into a beast.

This is why I say gratitude is a matter of life and death.

Here’s how it works.  If I stop being thankful for a significant period of time and begin to become isolated from myself and others allowing resentment to creep into my heart, I begin to move towards self-pity because, after all, no one understands me.  

From self-pity, I go to entitlement and begin to use the dangerous phrase, “I deserve.”  From there, fantasy sets in to convince myself that it is my choice and right to get what I deserve.  From there, it is a short trip to contempt where I begin to use the nihilistic “whatever” or the harsher “screw it!” as I look in disdain at the less-than people around me.

Once at contempt, what is there to restrain me from any suggestion the devil has to offer?  The unthinkable becomes justifiable on my way to the hell of isolation, shame, and despair.

The fatal path is this:  resentment → self-pity → entitlement → contempt → destructive and hurtful behavior → isolation, shame, and despair

So what knocks us off this degenerative path?  What breaks the spell?  What is the antidote?  

In short, I think, it is gratitude.  I can set aside resentment because God has given me everything I need.  I find self-pity a worthless waste of time because I am richly endowed and find greater joy in being available for others.  I’m not entitled, deserving any more than what I have.  I appreciate, enjoy and utilize what I have.   And what right do I have to show contempt towards a fellow human created in the image of God?

Being older and having experience does not mean that I have mastered this.  It means I learned through trial and much error to recognize sooner the warning signs of when I am getting off track.  I have found the further I get down the degenerative path, the harder it is to resist temptation.  The trick is acknowledging God and intentionally practicing gratitude to get off the path as soon as I can.  Battling sin is always more successful the farther I am up the way.