At my home church, I lead (with many others) a Sunday community called Ask Your Question. This week, with Thanksgiving on our minds, we had a discussion on gratitude. I’ve copied the notes below; they are rough - the formal citations to the webpages for where I found the quotes are not included.
I hope they are helpful to you as you think about Thanksgiving or simply giving thanks at this time of year (I recognize this is primarily a US holiday). And I’d enjoy discussing them with anyone who has interest.
Today’s talk is on gratitude.
So, I suppose I should start by saying that I’m grateful to be here - and I’m grateful that you came today. Thanks for coming!
There’s a story that many years ago, an elderly English pastor was famous for his pulpit prayers. He always found something to thank God for, even in bad times. One stormy Sunday morning, when everything was going extremely bad in the community and in the lives of many people in the congregation, himself included, he stepped to the pulpit to pray. A member of the congregation thought to himself, “The preacher will have nothing to thank God for on a wretched morning like this.”
The pastor began his prayer, “We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this.”
I love that story because it reveals the heart of a mature disciple of Jesus. And this morning, I’m grateful because it serves as a little segue to last week, when we asked the question, “Why suffering?”
I’ve heard Tim Keller say that life is like going down two railroad tracks at the same time. On one track, good things are happening. On the other track, bad things are happening. But they’re both there. It is pretty rare to be in a situation where everything is bad or everything is good.
So, by bringing together reflections on suffering and gratitude, there’s an opportunity to ask a question: which worldview, which religion, can make the most sense of these extremes of the human experience?
John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist who played a role in the discovery of the quark, a Fellow of the Royal Society, an Anglican priest, and a Templeton Prize winner, has put it this way: "Atheists aren’t stupid—they just explain less.”
The question we have before us - every day when we get out of bed - is hopefully not how intelligent we are. I know when I was in high school and college, that was an important question… The question we are wrestling with is how do I make sense of life - of my life? How do I put ALL of the pieces together? What’s the point of getting out of bed? Why am I here?
And those questions attain a particular poignancy in suffering and can amount to a breathtaking sense of wonder in the gift of gratitude.
Last week I hope you heard a persuasive case that Christianity, the only one that portrays God as suffering with us, and for us, in order to end all suffering, has the best perspective available when it comes to the difficulties of life. That’s not to say we solved all the problems on the subject or that we alleviated anyone’s particular suffering last week.
But part of the point of the talk was that Christianity speaks to the importance of the church imitating the Triune God of love. We discussed, for instance, how Southern Baptists are relieving suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. After the class, I was able to connect a member of our class with a pastor here, so our church could start to possibly meet some of their needs.
Today we are looking at the experience of gratitude. Google defines the word as, "the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
He didn’t have anything to do with Google, but Cicero said, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” That’s pretty high praise!
Robert Emmons, according to the UC Davis website, is the world’s leading scientific researcher on gratitude. He’s done scientific study on gratitude for a decade. Here’s how he defines it:
“First,” he writes, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”
In the second part of gratitude, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Here’s some of the benefits his team of researchers have found for those who practice gratitude:
• Stronger immune systems
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• Exercise more and take better care of their health
• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness
• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing
• Feel less lonely and isolated.
Emmons recommends a few practices to experience these benefits: start a gratitude journal, count your blessings on a regular basis, and cultivate gratitude in your daily life experiences. For instance, I think something as simple as saying grace before a meal is a wonderful way to cultivate gratitude.
So, even if you disagree with everything else I share today, I hope that you’ll at least have some practical wisdom in hand for being a more grateful person. Perhaps we can give thanks for the respectful disagreement we experience together. We can be grateful that our different perspectives keep us humble, teach us to listen, provoke us to search for truth, and give us new insights on the world we live in.
The important point I want to make at this point is very simple:
Everyone, whatever they believe, has the experience of gratitude.
The experience of gratitude is universal.
At no point in my talk will I suggest that atheists are not grateful people. Or that Buddhists cannot be thankful. The empirical data would have to sort that out for us. But surely it is the case that there are many atheists who are more grateful than I am and many other atheists who are less grateful than me. The estimated world population is 7.6 billion people. What are the chances that Christians occupy the top 2.2 billion spots on the gratitude scale?
For instance, according to Pew’s research from this October, 56% of US adults "say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values (56%), up from about half (49%) who expressed this view in 2011.”
I imagine an even higher percentage of US adults would say it is not necessary to believe in God to be grateful!
So we all start with this shared experience. We’re grateful. We appreciate something good that came from outside of ourselves. Just like we have a shared experience of a moral reality and the experience of doing what is good or bad.
The million dollar question is: how do we make sense of these experiences?
How do we make sense of gratitude? In a way that is logical, fits the evidence, and lines up with our experiences.
Here’s my first point: Gratitude Requires Persons.
Let me unpack that a bit. Imagine a world of robots that slavishly followed their programming. One robot, following its programming, ‘gives’ another robot an electrical charge. That robot, following its programming, turns on its lights in a dynamic and vibrant pattern. Its fake mouth turns up in what appears to be a smile. Is the robot grateful for the electrical charge? I think most of us would say, no, maybe it looks like gratitude, but that’s not the real thing.
Interestingly, as some atheists have attempted to reason consistently from their starting points, they have come to deny that we are persons. For instance, here’s what Dr. Alex Rosenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, has to say:
Science provides clear-cut answers to all of the questions on the list: there is no free will, there is no mind distinct from the brain, there is no soul, no self, no person that supposedly inhabits your body, that endures over its life span, and that might even outlast it. So, introspection must be wrong…
The physical facts fix all the facts. The mind is the brain. It has to be physical and it can’t be anything else, since thinking, feeling, and perceiving are physical process— in particular, input/ output processes— going on in the brain. We can be sure of a great deal about how the brain works because the physical facts fix all the facts about the brain. The fact that the mind is the brain guarantees that there is no free will. It rules out any purposes or designs organizing our actions or our lives. It excludes the very possibility of enduring persons, selves, or souls that exist after death or for that matter while we live. Not that there was ever much doubt about mortality anyway.
The conclusion that scientism comes to is that objections to naturalism are correct. If there were a subjective point of view that belongs to the self, then this would indeed be a fact not fixed by the physical facts. Since the physical facts do fix all the facts, there is no such point of view, no self, no person, no soul. That is the last illusion of introspection.
I think that Rosenberg is correct about the implications of naturalism. Given a starting point that everything is matter, energy, and space-time, there are no such things as ‘persons.’ This is an illusion produced by the physical processes in the brain, that’s it.
What follows from this? If there are no persons, then the personal experience of gratitude is equally meaningless. We are like the robots in the example I shared earlier.
So we have to ask the question: what makes more sense of reality? Does it make more sense that naturalism is true? Or that our experience of gratitude is a pointer to a real good that lies beyond ourselves?
I would suggest to you that we have far, far more reason to believe that gratitude is real and points to real good than to conclude that naturalism is true.
And that’s something to be grateful for!
Point 2: Barriers to Gratitude - and the Solution
So far, we’ve
A) Defined gratitude,
B) Looked at the benefits of gratitude, and even some practical ways to be more grateful.
C) We’ve clarified the point of our talk: given the universal experience of gratitude, what’s the best way to make sense of this experience?
D) And so far, my first point attempted to show that because naturalism cannot make sense of persons, it cannot make sense of gratitude.
But more broadly, I think we are all living with another tension.
The second main point of today’s talk is this: there is a contradiction in our modern American life between the idea of the self-made man or woman and the experience of gratitude.
We can see this affecting our starting points of thought. For instance, did you notice how Emmons positions his study on gratitude? It is a way for YOU to have a better life! If you will adopt these positive psychology tips and tricks, you can have a stronger immune system! In that sense, gratitude is less about the external good that has been gifted to us, but a way of getting ahead.
There’s a twisting of the concept - being grateful for the good another person has done for you - into harnessing this emotion to make oneself stronger and better.
Instead of being truly grateful - and focused on the other person - we have become self-absorbed.
Another feature of our culture is this sense that ‘you get what you deserve.’ We have lifted the idea of karma into a cultural mood. If good things happened, it is because you’ve been doing good. Christians think this too: 'I have been reading my Bible regularly, maybe that’s why God worked out this raise.’
- Live by the sword, die by the sword.
- Payback time.
- The chickens come home to roost.
- He got his comeuppance. (found on stackexchange discussion).
There’s truth to all of these cultural proverbs. But what they are getting at is this almost primal sense that we deserve what we have.
This sense of earning, of meriting, of deserving what we have is a powerful disincentive to gratitude. The more grateful we are for our experience of life, for our circumstances, it just naturally takes us away from pride and into humility. It unwinds selfishness and makes generosity normal.
Think it through: If you became fundamentally grateful that everything - everything - in your life is a gift, what would happen?
Here’s another way of putting it:
- One way of reflecting on the experience of gratitude is to twist the concept away from the other person who gave us what we have and fold gratitude into my own attempt to have a better life.
- Another way of reflecting on the experience of gratitude is to go deeper into the experience as it is. To push the logic of gratitude to its completion: what if my very existence is a gift from another? What if my personhood, my soul, my very being is a gift that was given to me? What if all my wealth, all my health, all my family and friends, everything that I value and cherish - is a gift from another person? What if I haven’t earned anything but even my work and service to others was a gift? That it was a gift from outside of myself to be positioned in such a way that I was privileged to contribute to the needs of the world?
The deeper you go into the logic of gratitude, at some point I think you have to arrive at God. To be ultimately grateful - comprehensively, fundamentally, completely grateful - would require an acknowledgment that all the good we have received is a gift from another Person.
If we can’t get to that point, then we inevitably vaccinate between ‘what I deserve’ vs ‘what I’m grateful for.’ A partial gratitude is all that makes sense. Some things we received, some thing we earned. That’s just being realistic.
At this point, let me turn to some verses of Scripture:
Deuteronomy 8:17-18: Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
1 Corinthians 4:6-7: For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
Colossians 3:17: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
James 1:17-18 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Psalm 118:28-29: You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
To think of the Triune God as the ultimate good - the maker of this good world - and who made us well. And yet, certainly we are not like God in this respect - we are bad. Yet the Christian story centers around the idea that God in his goodness died on the cross for our badness. That his good power raised Jesus from the dead. And that because of this gift, if we place our faith in Christ, we have gone from a position of bankruptcy and infinite debt to uncountable spiritual riches - even a relationship with the Triune God who is comprehensively good. And that this good God is renovating our lives so that we are less inclined to do bad and more motivated and earnest in doing good. We are even promised that the good work God has begun in us will one day be brought to completion.
What the Scriptures present to us is that God is entirely good. And that God is the comprehensive source of all that we experience as good. Therefore, the fundamental attitude of the Christian is gratitude to God - for everything. A gratitude that leads to the completion of humility and generosity. A gratitude that gives us a natural impulse to serve our neighbors - and to be grateful for the opportunity to share some of what God has given to us to meet the needs of others.
Let me recap where we’ve gone today:
- According to one of the leading scientists on the subject, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness that came from outside of ourselves.
- Gratitude depends on the existence of persons - not robots - which is logically incoherent for a consistently naturalistic perspective on reality.
- Our culture heavily promotes the idea that we are ‘self-made’, but gratitude increasingly leads us to consider others, and how much of our lives are a gift.
- If we follow the ‘logic of gratitude’ to its end point, we end up in a relationship with God: the ultimate Good, who has given everything to us. God has even given himself for us on the Cross. This places the Christian on a journey to increasing gratitude for everything - absolutely everything.
And so I would suggest to you that, as you might have expected, Christianity makes the most sense of the universal experience of gratitude. So, while perhaps you anticipated the conclusion, I hope that the reasons I presented in support of it were at least somewhat new to you and gave you something to think about and discuss. Otherwise, I suppose we will be grateful for the gift of silence!
[Small group discussion questions]
So, with all this in mind, here are some questions for your consideration:
A) Complete gratitude for everything or
B) Gratitude for some things, but self-respect for what you’ve earned and deserve.
What’s the best pathway to more gratitude in your life?