Editor’s Note: This post is part one of a three-part essay on thanksgiving and gratitude. (Part 2)
G.K. Chesterton once said that “[Pagans] could make an alternative to Christmas,” but “they could not . . . make a substitute for Thanksgiving Day. For half of them are pessimists who say they have nothing to be thankful for; and the other half are atheists who have nobody to thank.”1 Hence sentimental secularists have no difficulty producing “holiday songs” (despite their disbelief in holy-days). Meanwhile, many of the same folks struggle mightily to actually give thanks on a day set aside for just such a purpose. This is because gratitude is essentially Christian, and there are two reasons for this.
Gratitude Assumes a Creator to Thank
The logic of giving thanks implicitly requires someone to whom we are thankful. To say the same thing another way, gratitude entails being thankful to someone and not merely grateful for something.2 Yet thanking the immediate persons in front of you won’t do: for no one is the sole product of his own making. And if you trace the line of persons to whom we should be grateful back far enough, you will bump into the Creator.
Honest agnostics have acknowledged as much. Consider, for example, the reflections of noted philosopher Karl Popper: “When I look at what I call the gift of life, I feel a gratitude which is in tune with some religious ideas of God. . . . I don’t know whether God exists or not . . . [but] I would be glad if God were to exist, to be able to concentrate my feeling of gratitude on some sort of person to whom one would be grateful.”3
The Christian knows that such an inclination makes sense in a creature made by God. It is the unconscious echo of eternity set in the heart of man (Eccl. 3:11). It is man’s disposition to give thanks without knowing the name of the One who is deserving of grateful praise. Even when they do not name him, therefore, the grateful person tacitly assumes the existence of the Creator.
Gratitude Requires the Reality of Grace
The second reason that gratitude has an essentially Christian character is found in what makes gratitude gratitude (and not some other virtue, such as humility or kindness). In technical terms, gratitude is the acknowledgment that a welcome benefactor has conferred on you a desirable gift with benevolent volition.4 In other words, an essential ingredient necessary for experiencing and expressing gratitude is the recognition that we have done nothing to deserve a gift that was freely given—and that requires the kind of grace that only the Christian God bestows.
In fact, a number of studies show that if a benefit is expected, the recipient tends not to respond with much gratitude, if any.5 In other words, the more entitled or “deserving” a person feels, the less grateful he will be. Conversely, other studies have shown that the more a recipient regards a gift as gratuitous (i.e., freely given and undeserved), the more likely they are to express gratitude.6
You don’t have to be a Christian to observe these phenomena, but you will stumble upon the Christian conception of grace the moment you try to explain them. As Margaret Visser explains, “At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.”7
Retrieving Gratitude to the Glory of God
In view of the above, it is vital that Christians learn this truth: that gratitude is redeemed humanity’s fundamental response to God and that the Scriptures were written in large part to teach us how to give thanks to the Lord. This is the inescapable conclusion that follows from understanding who the Lord is (Giver), what he has given us (everything), and how his grace enables our proper response (as Christians).
“Gratitude is the unconscious echo of eternity set in the heart of man.”—Doug Ponder
This is not a new proposal so much as a retrieval of a vital aspect of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For example, in his magnum opus on Christian ethics, John Frame calls gratitude “the only legitimate response to the grace God has given us in Christ.”8 What’s more, Frame takes his cue from the Heidelberg Catechism, which explicitly names gratitude as the proper response of man to the salvation of the Lord.9 In fact, the entire third section of the Heidelberg Catechism places Christian duties under the heading of “Gratitude,” explaining at the outset that a principal reason for good works is “so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all He has done for us.”10 All this makes sense when we rightly recognize who the Lord is.
The Foundation of Gratitude: The God Who Is Giver
God is nothing if not a giver. Indeed, he is the Giver, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (cf. Rom. 11:36). All things begin with God (Gen. 1:1), are upheld by God (Heb. 1:3), and come back to God (Col. 1:20) in an endless cycle of exitus-reditus, like waves of praise, honor, and glory returning to their original source (Isa. 6:3; Hab. 2:14). The Trinitarian life of God is also one of giving and receiving (John 14:16; 16:14; 17:1–2, 7, 22, 24). It is, as Cornelius Plantinga says, “the endless dance of perichoresis, the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expense of spirit upon spirit in superlative, triplicate consciousness.”11 These truths have great import for both our understanding of God and our understanding of man.
First, concerning the nature of God, he comes to us as the original Giver, as the Author of all that is “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This is a vital reminder that God is not a killjoy but the source of all joy who has an eternally cascading waterfall of pleasures at his right hand (Ps. 16:11). He is the fountain of everything good, beautiful, and true (cf. Jas. 1:17), and he “richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17 CSB).
This means even when God issues a prohibitive “no”—as all good fathers must do from time to time—it is because God has something more glorious in store for those whom he loves. That is to say, when God is recognized as the Giver of all good (or the all-good Giver), then all his nos are rightly seen as invitations to even greater yeses. And this is proof that the Lord is neither cranky nor cruel. Rather, God is for his glory and our good, and therefore against sin and evil (cf. Deut. 6:24).
And we can trust this God, because his goodness far exceeds our own. As Jesus says, “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” (Matt. 7:11). Or again, if he is the Giver who “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, then how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). The answer to that rhetorical question—lest any be in doubt—is that the Lord will indeed give us all things, and, in turn, we will have eternity to thank him continuously for all of it.
Editor’s Note: This post is part one of a three-part essay on thanksgiving and gratitude. It was originally published on November 14, 2022. (Part 2)
- G.K. Chesterton, “Broadcast to the US, Dec 25 1931,” reprinted in John Sullivan, Chesterton Continued: A bibliographical Supplement (University of London Press, 1968). ↩
- This why an atheist may say, “I am grateful that it did not rain on my parade,” without at all indicating that they are thankful to God for this benefit. But this is equivocation, where the word “grateful” simply functions as a substitute for the word “glad.” Hence the one word may be substituted for the other with identical meaning: “I am so glad that it did not rain on my parade.” Yet this gladness, which lacks a benevolent giver, is therefore something distinct from gratitude, which involves thankfulness to a giver for a gift. (Of course, it is true that people sometimes say that they feel gratitude to non-personal causes of some good, such as: luck, fate, evolution, or the universe. But in these instances, such people are personifying—intentionally or not—an impersonal cause, and thereby imagining incorrectly that some entity without a mind or will has wished them well by intending something for their benefit.) ↩
- Karl Popper, “Karl Popper on God: Interview with Edward Zerin (1969/1998)” published in After the Open Society, 49, 51. ↩
- This admittedly technical sentence is meant to satisfy six conditions that both logic and experience show us must be met in order for a person to experience and/or express gratitude. They are:
First, an object received is a benefit. (That is, the object is desirable.) Second, the giver of that object deliberately gave it to me. (That is, he acted volitionally.) Third, the benefit given goes beyond what is owed to me. (That is, it’s really a gift—not a right or a reward.) Fourth, in giving this benefit the giver acted benevolently toward me. (That is, the giver’s intentions were sincerely good.) Fifth, the giver is the kind of person whose benevolence is appreciated. (That is, I am compelled, not repelled, by this particular giver’s benevolence.) Sixth, by accepting the gift I acknowledge some bond and/or indebtedness to the giver. (That is, I am willing to be connected to the giver and/or be in in their debt in some capacity.) ↩
- See Watkins, “Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being” in Emmons, Robert A. and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The Psychology of Gratitude. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 172–3. ↩
- See D. Bar-Tal, Y. Bar-Zohar, M. S. Greenberg, and M. Hermon, “Reciprocity Behavior in the Relationship Between Donor and Recipient, and Between Harm-Doer and Victim” in Sociometry, vol. 40, 293–98. ↩
- Margaret Visser, The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009, 5. ↩
- Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 29, n. 14) ↩
- See Zacharias Ursinus, et al. Heidelberg Catechism. 1563. Tercentenary ed. (Cleveland: Publishing House of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1877). ↩
- Ibid., Question 86. Note that this is not the so-called “debtor’s ethic.” As Kevin DeYoung explains, “This is not to suggest that God saves us and then we work the rest of our lives to pay him back for the favor (Rom. 11:33–36). Rather, we do good because the wonder of our salvation produces such thankfulness in our hearts that it is our pleasure to serve God” (See DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010, p. 155). ↩
- Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 22, emphasis original. ↩