Gratitude and Grace

A couple of years ago, I wrote a Thanksgiving post about my ambivalence about gratitude, and why, while I see the value of it, I think it’s a problem to dictate it, or to use injunctions like “be grateful” as a weapon against those who dare to express unhappiness about anything. I’ve been thinking about the subject again this year, but perhaps from a somewhat less psychological and more theological angle. I’ve been wondering—why, religiously speaking, is gratitude important?

There’s the obvious point, of course, that gratitude nourishes relationships, that taking people for granted and being generally unappreciative is a recipe for problems between people. And surely this could be applied to our relationship with God; it makes sense to me that God would like us to be grateful, to notice and appreciate what we have. But when it turns into a commandment, I find myself feeling a bit cynical about a deity who demands constant praise and thanksgiving, who apparently above all wants to make sure he gets the credit.

If I were to pose this question in Sunday School, I’m fairly certain that the answer I would get is that it isn’t for him, but for us. That it’s somehow tied to our spiritual growth. And while I generally agree with this answer—though I’d be hesitant to say that it’s entirely about us, because I believe that God is also genuinely invested in the relationship—I’m still thinking about why it matters. And this is one possibility that occurs to me: To express gratitude is to shift out of a worldview of merit-based spirituality.

Theologians sometimes talk about an “economy of grace,” a way of looking at the world that turns upside down our human tendency to worry about making sure that people get only what they deserve and not a penny more, to endlessly and anxiously work toward proving our own worth  and our own deservingness. But to think in terms of gratitude is already to implicitly acknowledge that we did not earn all that we have, that as King Benjamin tells us, we are indebted to God from the beginning, or in the words of 1 John, “we love him, because he first loved us.” It is to see grace not as a distant goal, but as the very premise of our lives.

Yet while this sounds lovely, it can also be strikingly painful. I have sat in church meetings and listened to glowing couples talk about their gratitude that God led them to each other and thought bitterly to myself about God’s apparent favoritism. And I imagine that others might react similarly to my own expressions of gratitude for things I have which I cannot claim to have in any way merited, and which I am all too aware that many people lack. These realities are not easy; to explain them in terms of a just-world hypothesis (in which trials hit people because they have done something wrong) is not only false but cruel—but to start talking about grace is to raise other painful questions about divine involvement and divine negligence.

It is also troubling to see how easily gratitude can twist itself into pride. Just add a dash of gratitude to a serving of contempt for those who are not so blessed. The people climbing the tower of Rameumptom, after all, are there to give thanks: “We thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people.” I am far from immune to this. I say that I know I have many good things that I did not earn, and yet somewhere deep down I might think to myself, but maybe in some way I actually did earn them. Because it is terrifying to really believe otherwise, to recognize my own vulnerability, the extent to which my life is constituted by contingencies.  In this I find gratitude deeply challenging—not so much in terms of the ability to see that there are good things in my life, but in grappling with the meaning I make of that, in the struggle to really let go of a merit-based worldview and the judgments it leads me to cast on both myself and others.

A poem by Jane Kenyon begins,

“There’s just no accounting for happiness
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.”

(from “Happiness”)

Like Kenyon, I have known depression all too well, and it is perhaps that experience more than any other that has complicated any tidy view I might wish to have of how the world works. And when the darkness has receded and I find myself feeling alive and hopeful after all, I often think of that line: “there’s just no accounting for happiness.” There’s just no accounting for so many things.

And I see another implicit message in the call for thanksgiving. A message that life is not best approached as a test, in which you dutifully check the right boxes and do the right things, and keep your focus on achieving your eternal reward. Because to be grateful, I am thinking, means  to notice what is there along the way, to appreciate a clear autumn day or a taste of dark chocolate or an all-night phone conversation. Perhaps one way to think about gratitude is as a call to awareness, a call to be alive in the moment.  As Mary Oliver says:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

(from “When Death Comes”)


  1. Lynnette,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about gratitude, your critique of the merit-based economy of salvation, and the beautiful poetry.

    I have been thinking about gratitude this month too. It is sad that our religious community often treats gratitude as a type of penance, a penance for self-centeredness. The problem with this model is that accusing a person of being self-centered usually provokes guilt. When I try to motivate gratitude from guilt, I usually end up spiralling into a cycle of guilt. Guilt is spiritually destructive and a tool of Satan rather than God. I think sincere gratitude flows out of our soul, not when we are free from pain, loneliness, or lack (an impossible task as a mortal being), but when we feel God’s love in the fleeting gracious moments of our lives, whether they be in nature, the kindnesses of other human beings, inspiration, opportunities for growth, and so on. When I express gratitude to God for such moments, I feel closer to Him and less alone; I also feel the desire to serve others and share His love.

  2. For me, it seems like the Sunday School answer is the truth. When I focus on all the great blessings I have, and there are many, then I find myself tapping into to this vast ocean of bliss that’s there all the time for me to swim in, so long as I’m aware of it and so long as I’m letting go of all the minor gripes and complaints I have.

    Back when I was depressed, I wasn’t able to see or feel like that, though. It’s not as though a reasonable response to someone’s depression is to say “just be grateful!” It totally isn’t. I agree that it’s never something appropriate to tell someone else to do. “Be grateful! Don’t complain!” Those are not answers to anybody’s problems. The correct response is for us to mourn with those who mourn, right?

    But it definitely is true that when I decide for myself to focus on gratitude and to let go of my personal worries and complaints, I feel a deep happiness that comes to me as a huge relief. It feels like dropping a heavy burden, just to stop and be glad of things. So now that I’m no longer depressed, and now that I’m at home and have time to meditate and pray frequently, I do get a lot of joy out of spending time being grateful.

    It’s as though our constant focus on learning, growing, becoming keeps us anchored in the future, and gratitude is a tool we can use to remind us to enjoy the present moment, too. Everything I’m saying comes out sounding sappy and too pat. I don’t mean it like that at all. I can’t find the right words to convey what I’m trying to say, that the amazing beauty and variety of experience, the bliss it is just to breathe clean air, to have a body, to be able to move, to look, to speak moment by moment, that is something it’s so easy for me to forget about, and when I remind myself of it often, it opens up my ability to flourish in the midst of sparkling life and beauty, instead of my wonted way of plodding from one dull necessary task to the next.

  3. Good thoughts, all.

    Simply, I think God is interested in our mental health and knows that for people like me, noticing and appreciating the bits of beauty amidst the chaos enables us to find sources of strength and peace in difficult times.

    And I agree with Lynnette that public pronoucements of thankfulness are not particularly helpful for fostering a sense of unity within a congregation.

    I suspect that God sees the real benefit to us of private recognition of good things in our lives as we navigate life’s challenges and he lovingly wishes for us to access those. I like Lynnette’s phrase “a call to awareness”.

  4. I really like your thoughts, Lynnette. I particularly like your point that gratitude can be easily warped into pride. The version I’m most familiar with (probably from having practiced it too much) is the “I’m so grateful I’m not as misled as you are.” Tangentially, it kind of reminds me of how concern for others can also be easily warped into condescension: “Well I’ll pray for you, you poor misguided soul.” Kinda makes me wonder if there’s any virtue that’s more than a slight twist from becoming a vice.


    And when the darkness has receded and I find myself feeling alive and hopeful after all, I often think of that line: “there’s just no accounting for happiness.” There’s just no accounting for so many things.

    Exactly! Who was it who suggested that any attempt to solve the problem of evil is doomed to fail, and that trying to account for evil will inevitably become offensive (“Well, you suffered evil because God wants it that way. Deal with it.”). It seems like your concluding point here–there’s no accounting for happiness–might be expanded to say there’s no accounting for unhappiness either. I don’t mean that to sound quite that fatalistic, but it does seem like it might do us (or at least me) to perhaps not try to account for happiness or unhappiness as much as I do.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. This post really resonated. It reminded me of a little homily that I read years ago, and copied into my scriptures. “Two kinds of gratitude: the sudden kind for what we take, the larger kind for what we give.” In fact, I just braved the bitter cold of a southern California early morning to retrieve my scriptures from the car to get the wording just right.

    I’m grateful for my nephews. They are a constant joy and delight (and occasional headache). However, it’s not enough to just be grateful for them. I can say I’m grateful for them multiple times a day. But unless I show them how much I love them, by spending interactive time with them, it’s all rather pointless.

    In general, I think that most people think of simple gratitude in terms of comparison. “I’m so grateful for my many blessings (prosperity, status in life, health, family, testimony, etc), especially since I’ve seen how depressing other people’s lives are without them.” And while it is true that it’s easier to appreciate blessings in the face of the apparent lack of them, it’s rather shallow.

    So much more inspiring are the stories of people who, appreciating the blessings in their lives, strive to share those blessings with others. Donating time and money to special charities. Volunteerism. Sharing the comforts and love of family and home with those who need it. Gratitude that motivates action. It’s the Rameumptom remedy

    (And yes, I am aware that I’m using and denouncing comparison. Please forgive the lapse. I’m trying to be better than I was before …)


Comments are closed.