If you’re reading this story on the new laptop or tablet or phone you just got for Christmas, be thankful.
But don’t forget also to be grateful, which, many spiritual leaders say, is not necessarily the same thing.
“We are taught repeatedly to be grateful when we have material gain, so it should come as no surprise that we wake up one day thinking people with more material possessions are more grateful,” said Joshua Hearne, abbot and director of Grace and Main Fellowship, an intentional Christian community devoted to hospitality, prayer and grassroots community development in Danville, Va.
Rather, gratitude is a spiritual practice that, like other disciplines, requires daily attention. And its focus is on a growing awareness and experience of grace that may or may not be inspired by material blessings.
“In our experience, gratitude multiplies,” said Hearne, who serves as field personnel for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Those who cultivate gratitude, he added, “will not only be grateful for the thing itself, but they’ll be grateful for their own gratitude.”
Scarlette Jasper has seen that phenomenon firsthand.
Jasper is director of Olive Branch Ministries, which serves the homeless population, working poor and those experiencing medical crises, financial devastation and domestic violence in a 10-county area around Somerset, Ky.
The holidays always add a level of financial and emotional stress for most of the clients her ministry serves. It’s especially tough when children are involved.
“I had one call me last week saying the kids are asking ‘are we getting a tree?’” said Jasper, who also serves as CBF field personnel.
Likewise, there are more calls for help providing gifts and food.
“You just see the need increase,” she said.
But the gratitude also increases — even among the poorest people Jasper encounters.
“The families I work for are grateful for … the littlest things I do to brighten their day.”
It’s especially true for those struggling through medical challenges. People sitting with very ill or dying loved ones seem to be able to pull from a deep well of thanks for even the tiniest of moments of togetherness.
“They don’t have huge expectations,” Jasper said. “They are just appreciative … for the time they have together.”
Hearne said it isn’t necessary to feel sorry for people facing such challenges at Christmas. Doing so reveals a disturbing theology.
“This time of year it’s common to talk about how blessed we are and how sorry we feel for those who are doing without, assuming that material wealth is a mark of God’s favor or the value of a person,” he said.
Those who simultaneously experience poverty and gratitude, likewise, are not doing so despite their circumstances, Hearne said.
“It has little to do with their poverty. They just choose to practice gratitude.”
But that doesn’t rule out having concern for others.
“We are obligated as followers of Jesus to notice when other people are lacking and to care about the fact that other people are lacking,” Hearne said.
The key is doing so without guilt.
“The spirit doesn’t use guilt to speak in this way but instead uses compassion,” he said.