The Grateful Heart

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By the time this post is published, I will be on a week-long seminar with seventeen pastors. I am teaming up with colleagues Neal Plantinga and Charlotte Witvliet to ponder the role of gratitude in the Christian life and, in particular, in the preaching ministry of the church. In the run-up to the seminar I have been doing a lot of reading on gratitude and most everything I have learned is fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, psychological research (and here is where Dr. Witvliet’s expertise is key) has revealed that grateful people are just generally healthier people all the way around. They are happier, more content, and even more resilient when tough times come and when–all things being equal–life seems to be doling out fewer things for which to be thankful. Gratitude somehow builds up in us during the ordinary and good times of life so as to make us less likely to be defeated when the bottom falls out on us in this or that area of life. This is not to say grateful people do not mourn unhappy events or outright tragedies. Nor is it to suggest grateful people don the proverbial rose-colored glasses so as to deny when things go south in life. But it does suggest that having the ability to be just generally grateful makes one a stronger human being.

In part this is because grateful people have what Witvliet calls a kind of wide-angle lens view of life. This is opposed to the zoom-lens that all of us have access to–and that some of us use 24/7 as it is–that constantly zooms in on what we may lack in life at any given moment. Instead grateful people see the bigger picture of the blessings that surround them every day. Grateful people are not thankful for just this or that specific blessing. They sense a larger giftedness in all things such that any given specific blessing becomes just an instance of a larger, standing reality.

Startlingly enough, that wide-angle view of life has another really big advantage going for it: namely, it puts us in touch with the truth. This is a point made by two other authors we are looking at in my seminar this week, Robert C. Roberts and Christine Pohl. And one of the most significant of all truths that grateful people are able to see when they take in the big picture is that we are, as a matter of fact, utterly dependent creatures. We cannot live without the blessings bestowed on us by God.

Just here is the rub for a lot of us, especially for a lot of Americans. The cultural air we breathe and the national narrative we cherish celebrate the independent, self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hero who owes nothing to nobody because he has done it all himself.  To many people, acknowledging radical dependency on anybody–even on God–is humiliating.  We’d rather feel entitled to what we get or conclude that we earned everything through our own smart efforts. This is why Robert Emmons notes that of all the personality traits that thwart the ability ever to be grateful–much less to have an overall attitude of gratitude toward life in general–is narcissism. The world revolves around the narcissist such that she deserves everything she gets because she feels self-important enough as to conclude that anything less than the world delivered to her on a silver platter is unfitting, unseemly, and reason enough to lash out in anger.

Readers familiar with the work of Robert C. Roberts will not be surprised to learn that Roberts believes that proper gratitude ultimately stems from and is rooted in what Roberts has long hailed as the core of all Christian virtue: humility. The humble do not expect special favors or privileges and freely embrace their radical dependence on God as the fount of all life. They notice when people do little kindnesses for them–they notice those who do it and do not want for one moment to fail to see what others provide for them and then thank them for it.

In a sermon for Thanksgiving Day one year I quoted a line from actor Anthony Hopkins–a line that for me summarizes the ungrateful heart and the view of life it engenders.  Hopkins said that as part of his research for playing a butler in the movie The Remains of the Day he spoke with a real-life butler. This man summed up the essence of a good butler by putting it this way: “The room seems emptier when he’s in it.” The super rich expect well-plated food to be placed in front of them, to have water and wine glasses automatically refilled, to have dirty dishes removed from sight immediately. But because they deserve all this, they cannot acknowledge–much less thank–the servants who perform these tasks. The room should seem emptier when the servants are there because the goal is NOT to be seen. Acknowledging that someone is serving you would be debasing to the rich, tantamount to an admission of being beholden to somebody.

Grateful people are happier, healthier, and above all simply more honest and truthful. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” Jesus once predicted. This is the freedom of grateful hearts that all of us who follow Jesus and depend on his grace alone should want to cultivate.

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