What are you grateful for today? Some people make a habit of recording at least five blessings, whether large or small, in a gratitude journal each day. The practice has gained in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Over the last decade, psychologists have discovered that people who make the effort to recall their blessings are happier and healthier. That probably comes as no surprise—we all know from experience that when we take the time to be grateful and express our gratitude, we feel better about ourselves and our lives.
Of course we should thank God for our jobs, our families, and our talents and abilities. But beyond that, and more fundamentally, we should thank him for his love and salvation. We are grateful because we have a God who has created us and who loves us beyond our comprehension. He cares so unfailingly for us that he sent Jesus into the world to save us. Through his death and resurrection, we have been set free from the bondage and guilt of sin. Our Father treasures us so much that we now have a share in his divine life here on earth through the Holy Spirit. And he didn’t stop there: he has promised us life with him in heaven forever. The truths of our faith give us so much to be grateful for!
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for us to focus on our daily problems and forget God’s blessings. It’s too easy to take for granted all that God has done for us and continues to do for us. This month, let’s try to grow in the virtue of gratitude and allow it to pervade our lives. We can begin by reflecting on a familiar story in the Gospels: Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers.
A Dreaded Disease. What was called leprosy in Jesus’ time was likely a variety of skin diseases, not just what we know today as Hansen’s disease. Because of the concern that such diseases not spread, priests followed detailed instructions, outlined in Leviticus 13, for how to inspect and monitor a skin lesion. If after a time, a lesion wasn’t healing, a person would be considered ritually unclean. If a lesion did heal, then the person could go back to the priest and be declared clean again.
One of the reasons that leprosy was so feared was that it meant that the victim was commonly isolated from his own community. Those who interpreted the Mosaic law literally did force people with leprosy to move from their homes. They were unable to live with their families. They were expelled from their villages and work. Worse still, whenever they did come close to someone, they had to cry out, “Unclean!”(Leviticus 13:45). In such cases, the disease didn’t only destroy their bodies; it destroyed their social connections as well.
So when the ten lepers approached Jesus, they stood at a distance, just as they were supposed to do. But they desperately wanted this miracle worker they had heard so much about to heal them, so they cried out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” (Luke 17:13). Jesus didn’t heal them on the spot; instead, he instructed them to go to the priest, who would have to reinspect their lesions in order for them to be declared clean. On their way, they were healed. Yet only one of them, a Samaritan, came back to thank him.
The Leprosy of Sin. Many commentators over the years have seen leprosy in the Bible as an analogy to sin. That’s because sin affects us in a similar way that leprosy does. Just as leprosy disfigures the human body, so sin can disfigure our souls. As leprosy progresses, it deadens parts of the body; people with the disease can lose fingers and toes. In the same way, sin deadens our conscience and our senses. But maybe worst of all, just as leprosy required its victims to live apart from society, so one of the consequences of sin is that it causes a separation in our relationship with God and can isolate us from God’s people.
The ten men knew that only Jesus could heal them of their terrible plight. And we know that only Jesus can heal us of the darkness of sin. The good news is that he already has! Through his death and resurrection, he has not only cleansed us of sin, but we now have his divine life flowing through us. No matter how we feel on any given day, we have a cause for rejoicing! We are new creations in Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Realizing that his life had been utterly transformed, one of the lepers—ironically the Samaritan—returned to thank Jesus. He was so overcome with gratitude that he fell at Jesus’ feet and worshipped him. “Stand up and go,” Jesus told him. “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 17:19). The Samaritan, the leper who had been furthest away from God, had the right response. His gratitude overflowed in his words and actions.
But what about the other nine, who were members of God’s people, the Jews? Why didn’t they return to thank him? They must have rejoiced in their healing as well. No doubt they returned to their families, who could now welcome them back home. They surely enjoyed the fruits of their healing, and yet they did not return to its source: the mercy and compassion of Jesus.
Our First Response. How easy it might be for us, like these nine, to enjoy the fruits of our life in Christ without returning time and again to thank him. Yet gratitude should be our first response to the God who loves us so much, the God who has healed us and given us new life. Where would we be without the Lord? How could we even face each day without his mercy and grace?
We only have to open our Bibles to discover that the spontaneous response of so many people to God’s goodness and mercy is praise and gratitude. When God parts the Red Sea and delivers his people from slavery, Moses and the people sing a song of praise, crying out, “This is my God, I praise him; the God of my father, I extol him” (Exodus 15:2). At the birth of his son, John the Baptist, Zechariah says, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” (Luke 1:68). And when Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Messiah, she sings, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (1:46).
St. Paul’s letters are filled with expressions of thanksgiving as well. He knew that God had shown great mercy to him. Even when facing imprisonment and death, Paul continually thanked and praised God, becoming a living example of what he wrote and taught: “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Note too how full of joy all these expressions of gratitude are. Joy naturally grows when we are grateful. The more we focus on the Lord and his great gifts to us, the happier we become. It’s not a shallow happiness, but one that is rooted in God’s never-ending love for us, a love that stretches into eternity. No matter what is going on in our lives, nothing can ever take away what God has done for us in Christ. As long as we stay close to him and let him cleanse us of our sins, we can look forward eagerly to life everlasting.
The Witness of Gratitude. What would our lives look like if we lived in a constant awareness of God’s blessing and faithfulness to us? We would be like Joan, whose husband is bedridden with a degenerative disease but who often tells people how blessed she is because of God’s presence and care for them. We would be like Mike, who after living only for himself and for life’s pleasures, experienced the depth of God’s mercy and can’t stop telling others about it. We would be like Stella, a widow who lives on a small pension in a run-down section of her city yet loves to praise the Lord for even the smallest blessing. Through their gratitude, these people are witnessing to the love and mercy of God, despite very real challenges in their lives.
In fact, gratitude is even more infectious than the “leprosy” of sin. The more we see it in others, the more we desire to live in gratitude ourselves—and the more we want to express it, as the Samaritan did. In the next article, let’s look at how we can express our gratitude both in worship and in action.