Gratitude is all the rage these days.
Since the mid-2000s, when the writings of positive psychologist Robert Emmons got the train rolling, a veritable industry has sprung up around the study of gratitude. A number of research projects, special academic journal issues, reference books, and entire scholarly monographs are devoted to the topic. There are also hundreds of journals, phone apps, and podcasts offering practical advice on how one can lead a grateful life.
Christians should welcome all of this. We are, after all, supposed to be a grateful people, perhaps the most grateful of everyone. And considering the malaise of post-pandemic life, our embittered political polarization, and the vitriolic cancel culture today—it’s hard to imagine a better time for us to double down on the value of gratitude.
For Christians, of course, gratitude should begin and end with our thankfulness to God. And yet many of us do not experience this with the kind of frequency, intensity, and durability that seem appropriate given how extraordinary God’s benefits are.
Why do we struggle to be consistently grateful to God, even when we believe—or at least say we believe—that God is our ultimate and incomparable benefactor?
One problem is inattention. We may know in an abstract sense that God is the greatest Giver, but until we start paying attention to where God’s gifts show up, we’re not likely to experience gratitude. Another issue is resentment. We know God is often good to us, but we’re also mad when God doesn’t give us what we want, so we withhold our gratitude.
Paying more attention and dealing with our resentment are crucial if we are to grow in our gratitude toward God. But even when we are trying to be attentive and even when we are not angry at God, it can still be difficult to live in a posture of consistent gratitude.
The positive psychology movement often presupposes that we already know what to be grateful for; all that is lacking is our attention and effort. But gratitude to God is not the sort of thing that springs naturally from the human heart.
Think about the features that really trigger your spontaneous gratitude response. We experience thankfulness most spontaneously and intensely when a giver unpredictably and at great personal cost bestows us with a benefit that quenches some desire we had.
Yet God’s benevolence to us stretches every part of this common context for gratitude to the breaking point. For while the form of God’s kindness to us can be unexpected, he is bound to be omnibenevolent by his very nature—unlike our friends and spouses. In other words, why should we be surprised when God blesses us?
Not only that, but unlike our human loved ones, God is not limited by time, energy, money, or knowledge—and so in what sense does it really cost God to be generous toward us?
We can also be critical of the fact that God can give us a gift but still maintain a claim over it. For instance, God may cure our cancer tomorrow only to permit it to return in six months.
As the life of Job attests, even God’s blessings may at any moment turn to tragedies. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” as Job puts it (1:21 NET). This means that if our gratitude is only of the “count your blessings” variety, we are sure to end up cursing God, just like Job’s wife urged.
But most confusing of all is that God can sometimes give us what we do not desire: “gifts” that no one longs for—like trials and tribulations, which Paul says God uses to grow our faith.
When we consider thankfulness to God only in the context of stereotypical interpersonal gratitude experiences, we end up focusing on his “daily blessings”—like good health, good job, beautiful family. But this mindset risks turning God into a cosmic vending machine whose primary role is to give us what we want.
Instead, Paul says he has learned to be grateful and content “whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11)—speaking of his suffering for Christ (1:29–30; 3:10) in the same breath. This reveals a striking difference between the goods of God’s kingdom and those of this world.
Paul further encourages the Christians in Philippi to think of these qualities as gifts: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8).
Therefore, biblical gratitude is shaped by what God considers to be lovely, true, honorable, just, and worthy of praise. As John Chrysostom explains in his sermon on Philippians, “What means, ‘whatsoever things are lovely’? Lovely to the faithful, lovely to God.”
Such gifts of the kingdom give us everything we need to be God’s friends forever—but they are often very different from the kinds of blessings the world values. Jesus speaks of this when he praises God the Father for hiding the kingdom of heaven from “the wise and learned” and revealing it to “little children” (Matt. 11:25).
Often, the gifts of God are neither simple nor straightforward. In fact, they can destabilize us and reveal our basic fragility, emptiness, neediness, and waywardness. Because of this, it takes work to cultivate gratitude toward God. As Jen Pollock Michel argues in Teach Us to Want, this is part of a larger process by which we learn to develop “holy desire” in alignment with Christ.
In a Christmas sermon, theologian Samuel Wells once preached that God was the ultimate materialist because he reverses our petty desires for toys and trinkets into a sacred longing for God-with-us in the embodied, material Jesus.
When Paul says, “Whatever you do, … do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks” (Col. 3:17), he is grounding gratitude beyond the gift of creation and in the gift of our new life in Jesus Christ. As Michael Gorman notes, Paul taught that the whole of the Christian life must be renewed “in the image of Christ,” including our gratitude for God’s unconventional gifts.
Only a transformed life—one that Paul describes as being “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17)—can create in us a new set of eternal desires and a different disposition of gratitude.
So, it is not that Christians are supposed to be more grateful than the average person but that following Jesus allows us to be grateful for the unexpected gifts of God—which may surprise, upset, and confound the gratitude of an unbelieving world and even baffle us in our flesh.
Thus, Christian gratitude is the mark of a new life empowered by the Spirit as we are trained and transformed–sometimes painfully–into people with strange desires who can receive and delight in strange gifts offered in strange ways by a strange God.
This is a whole new way of being in the world. As Barth says, “Gratitude is to be understood not only as a quality and an activity but as the very being and essence” of the Christian.
At its heart, Christian gratitude is first and foremost learning to receive ourselves from God. And Christianity itself is extended training in how to be grateful for who we are at our core: needy creatures who live by grace. This is a gift—but a difficult one to receive with gratitude.
When we learn to receive our lives as gifts from God, we begin to see more clearly what God finds commendable. This, in turn, allows us to appreciate a new way of being pleased and to identify and enjoy what is excellent and praiseworthy in a whole new light.
Kent Dunnington is professor of philosophy at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Benjamin Wayman is the James F. and Leona N. Andrews Chair in Christian Unity at Greenville University in Greenville, Illinois.
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