“Give thanks in all circumstances,” urges St. Paul. Gratitude is a way of life that all can cultivate.
Jesus was born into a long Jewish tradition of gratitude toward God. This tradition is very evident in the psalms of thanksgiving that he would have known and prayed. Picture him on a spring morning as he takes a few moments away from hammering a table to stretch his arms toward heaven and pray, “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; / before the gods I sing your praise; / I bow down toward your holy temple / and give thanks to your name” (Psalm 138:1-2).
Jesus was also raised with a keen awareness of the Exodus story and Moses’ joyful song of thanksgiving after Pharaoh’s army was swallowed up by the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). He knew the song of Moses’ sister, Miriam, as she took up her tambourine: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; / horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (15:21). And perhaps his mother had taught him her own song of praise (Luke 1:46-55).
An inspiring example of Jesus’ gratitude occurred while he was dying on the cross. As fluid suffocated his lungs and pain emanated from every member of his body, Jesus cried out, in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mark 15:34). At first glance, it seems that Jesus had put aside all hope and gratitude. But as we continue to read the psalm, past the descriptions of intense suffering, such as “all my bones are out of joint; / my heart is like wax” (Psalm 22:14), we discover that it also includes a song of praise: “You who fear the Lord, praise him! / All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him” (22:23). It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus had the whole psalm in mind as he reached out to his Father.
Surrendering to the Gift of Gratitude. “That was easy for Jesus,” you might be tempted to say. “He was the Son of God.” So begin by looking at the challenge of thanking God for both the small and the large gifts he showers upon us, for the people he puts in our lives, and for the hints of divine intervention that happen each day.
We might take credit for what we have and who we are. Or we might nurse resentments about what we don’t have. In either case, this kind of thinking isolates us from the immensity of God’s love. We need to remember the words of St. Paul: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
This invitation to rejoice may sound foolish. But many believers before us have rejoiced in God’s providence despite the worst possible circumstances. In the Book of Nehemiah, the scribe Ezra exhorted the bedraggled Israelites, fresh from captivity, saying, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Edith Stein (1891–1942), also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was first converted through the joy and peace of a friend’s widow. St. Damien of Molokai (1840–1889) gave of himself to a desperate, lawless colony of lepers; he built a chapel, dug graves, dressed wounds, and organized farms. “Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels,” he said, “I never could have persevered casting my lot with the afflicted of Molokai.” Later, in 1885, he announced his own case of leprosy, expressing gratitude toward God because he could finally say, “I am one of you” to his people.
God’s Invitation to Gratitude. For a Christian, gratitude is not a fleeting or temporary experience. It is also not dependent on feelings or deterred by hardships. An expression of gratitude for those we love and for the people in our lives can go a long way in mending relationships and building strong ones. “I am thankful that you are my husband/wife, that you are my son/daughter, that you are my friend” is a way of affirming others and letting them know how much we value them and how much we give thanks to God that they are in our lives.
Here are some ways to grow in thankfulness as a way of life.
First: Learn Gratitude from the “Saints” around You
When others share what God has done in their lives, it gives us hope about what is possible for us.
Do you admire or even notice people in your daily life who are filled with gratitude? We have noticed a pastor who begins every Sunday liturgy by thanking people for coming. Then there is Laura, who says, “I appreciate it!” whenever we do the least little thing for her. We were also struck by a sympathy card we received after the death of a close relative: “I thank God that I knew Harry. He was a kind and prayerful man. I remember the day I lost my job, and his response was to stop and pray with me.” The list goes on and on. Our sisters and brothers in faith can offer us countless invitations to thankfulness.
Second: Admit Your Own Ingratitude
How often have you been disappointed with the details of your daily life? How often are you more likely to curse or complain instead of seeing the goodness in a situation?
Ingratitude, like any other failing or sin, must first be acknowledged, along with any of its “companions”: self-absorption, jealousy, self-hatred, depression, resentment, and emotional pain. God can help with all of these, but not if we insist on hiding them from him. So an important step is to be vulnerable before God and let Jesus take away the leprosy of ingratitude.
Third: Choose a Life of Gratitude and Praise toward God
You have many options for embracing a life of thanksgiving, praise, and worship, whether it begins with a new experience or not. But doing so will take some conscious decisions to thank God in prayer.
You could begin by praying with the titles for the Holy Spirit, or you could pray with the titles and names for Jesus. You might also meditate on some of the psalms of thanksgiving and praise: Psalms 23, 47, 84, 100, 138, and 145 through 150. You might sing hymns. Whatever you choose, as you move forward in thanking God for interventions in your life, the Holy Spirit will enlarge your heart, making you capable of praising God with new joy.
It is also important to choose worship and thanksgiving along with the whole body of Christ. During the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and the congregants respond, “It is right and just.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in this part of the Mass, “the Church gives thanks to the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, for all his works: creation, redemption, and sanctification. The whole community thus joins in the unending praise that the Church in heaven, the angels and all the saints, sing to the thrice-holy God” (1352). Choosing praise is one of our reasons for attending the daily Eucharistic liturgies, where we can offer the sacrifice of praise together.
Finally, be inspired by an upbeat Hebrew song called “Dayenu,” sung during Passover Seders since the Middle Ages. Each verse acknowledges something God has done and comes to an inspiring conclusion. “If He would’ve split the sea for us, and not let us through it on dry land, it would’ve been enough for us. / If He would’ve let us through it on dry land, and not drowned our enemies in it, it would’ve been enough for us.” Singing this song helps us reflect on events in our daily lives as singular manifestations of God’s love. It also challenges us: what is “enough” for those of us who follow Christ?
Fourth: Acknowledge Your Gifts and Search Out the Gifts of Others
Each believer’s gifts are meant to be appreciated and developed in the context of the mix of gifts that occur in a marriage, a friendship, a family, or a ministry group. When we view gifts from this perspective, we are modeling the relationships at the heart of the Trinity and we are relying on each other to follow Jesus. Here are some underlying attitudes that make this possible:
• Each person has a bouquet of gifts that takes time to nurture, and appreciating this truth gives us patience with others. Each person’s combination of gifts is unlike anyone else’s, and appreciating this protects us from envy.
• Noticing gifts in others and acknowledging them with a simple “thank you” builds our relationships, because then what we say and do is “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). Statements like “Thank you for cooking supper” or “Thanks for picking up the dry cleaning” are important.
• Your gifts belong to others. It is when you use them in service to others that these gifts grow and glorify God.
• Limitations and faults can shed light on our gifts. They are often the bad side of something good. For example, when someone gets agitated when a gathering or meeting does not start on time, it might be because they have task-oriented gifts and have a lot of respect for people’s time.
Fifth: Cultivate Gratitude for Those You Serve
Jesus went out of his way to dine with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. He also touched lepers and did not shy away from possessed or mentally ill people. We believe that Jesus’ actions challenge us to seek out the poor and those in need and serve them with real love, affection, and gratitude.
Whether you serve your spouse, your children, your co-workers, or those struggling with material or spiritual poverty, you can give of yourself, as difficult as that may be sometimes. And as we serve others with love, affection, and gratitude, we are able to acknowledge that we are in need as well.
What kinds of poverty have you embraced for the sake of the gospel? What corporal or spiritual works of mercy has God challenged you to do in the name of Jesus? As you respond to God through these works of mercy, you will experience the gift of gratitude in new and deeper ways for the people you serve and for what God empowers you to do.
—selection from Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones, by John and Therese Boucher, TWAU Press, 2015. Available by special order at www.wau.org/books