Living Gratitude

By Jeremy McClung
Jeremy McClung, Interim-Director, Institute of Evangelism


In the past 25 years, gratitude has become a hot topic.

Researchers consistently find it to be a strong predictor of life satisfaction and well-being. So, gratitude (along with kale and quinoa) has become part of a healthy, modern lifestyle. For Christians, however, thankfulness is no fad, but a central aspect of a spirituality that is thousands of years old. Not only is expressing thanks and praise to God a major theme of both Old and New Testaments, but from the very beginning, it has been at the heart of what it meant to be human.

Adam and Eve received (almost) the whole universe as a gift of sheer grace. Only one tree was withheld from them. But the beauty of creation, its capacity to feed and nourish them, the joy of human companionship, a sense of purpose, and an unbroken relationship with God — all of these were theirs to enjoy without hindrance. They received these gifts, not because they had done anything to deserve them, but out of the overflow of God’s generosity. This was to be the ongoing shape of the divine-human relationship: God playing the role of Eternal Giver, and human beings the recipients of his grace.

The question was: What kind of recipients would they be? How would Adam and Eve respond to such overwhelming liberality? Gratitude is the hardwired reaction to freely given gifts and would have been the most natural response. Adam and Eve could have expressed their thankfulness by following the simple instructions God had given them: To rule fruitfully over the earth and to abstain from the forbidden fruit. These primal commandments were not only the blueprint for human life, but they also offered the first humans a concrete way of saying “thank you” for all they had been given.

Human beings were meant to be living expressions of gratitude to God. Of course, as Paul so clearly states, we failed miserably: “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Rom 1:21). Ingratitude was — and still is — at the heart of our sinfulness and rebellion against God. In the words of Ignatius of Loyola, it is “the cause, beginning, and origin of all sins and misfortunes.”1

Unfortunately, despite the attention it has gained recently, sincere gratitude does not, in fact, seem to be on the rise. 

Of course, the good news is that even though we failed in our intended role as grateful recipients, God continued faithfully to play his part as the gracious Giver.

Nowhere is his generosity seen more clearly than in Christ’s self-offering on the cross: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In Christ, then, we are given even more grace, even more reason to be thankful. And we have a second chance to express that gratitude through the way we live. This is what Paul means when he says that the proper response to God’s mercy is to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). This, he goes on to say, is the “reasonable” response when we encounter the fullness of God’s generosity.

For Christians, gratitude is not so much a means to a better, happier life as an end in itself. Learning to live every day as thankful recipients of his grace is part of what it means to be reconciled to God — a restoration of the original Giver-Receiver relationship. We do of course fail and falter. When that happens, it’s a chance to receive even more grace — and to become even more grateful! But we look forward to the day on which our reconciliation with God is fully realized, and when we will express our gratitude in unbroken praise forever.

Thanks be to God.

1From a letter to Fr Simon Rodrigues, March 18, 1542. Ignatius of Loyola. Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Translated by William J. Young. Chicago: Loyola, 1959.