By Corey Fields
It’s a story that has stuck with me ever since I heard it.
When I was in high school, I had a mentor and Bible study leader who went to Honduras every year with her undergrad students. One year (as I remember the story), they were volunteering at a clinic that serves remote populations. They had gotten a recent shipment of a few simple but crucial medicines, and they would be distributing them on a certain day. When that day came, people flocked in; more than they were expecting. Some waited in line for hours, after journeying for hours. They ran out of medicine with families still waiting. There was no commotion or riot, and some of the families who got nothing came up to the U.S. volunteers and thanked them for coming.
“Thank you,” they said. Wait — for what? They didn’t get anything.
The tremendous gratitude in this story was magnified for me when I first heard it because, just days before, I was working at my fast food job and had gotten berated by an angry customer because we had forgotten to put tomato on his sandwich.
What is gratitude? If it is merely saying thank you for what we have, then this contrast doesn’t make sense. How can people who lack some of life’s basic necessities say thank you for what they didn’t get while the fast food customer yells and protests over what he did get?
Saying thank you can be reduced to a thoughtless habit, or even a requirement begrudgingly fulfilled (as any parent knows).
Thankfulness is not the essence of gratitude but simply its output. Gratitude boils down to something much deeper: our understanding of what we deserve.
What do I deserve? My answer to that question directly determines my level of gratitude. Do I deserve the roof over my head? Do I deserve peace and a trouble-free life? Do I deserve tomorrow?
Ingratitude and feelings of entitlement are not limited to any socioeconomic class and can be found in all types of people, in all places, in all circumstances. Why? Because gratitude is not about what we have. It’s a posture, a self-understanding, a life-stance.
When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a rare, early-onset form of ALS in 1963, he was given two years to live. Fifty-two years later, he’s still with us. He once said, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
Gratitude flows from that place of zero expectations, where we expect nothing based on who we are or what we’ve done. When nothing is guaranteed, owed or deserved, then every new thing is a “bonus,” including each day itself.
Although we must guard against using this call for gratitude as a reason to dismiss injustice or oppression, adopting this undeserving life stance makes us fertile soil for recognizing and receiving blessing.
In reflecting on God’s majesty and the created world, the psalmist wonders, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). Scripture leaves us with little question as to what we deserve in the face of what God has done for us: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). As it says in Psalm 103:10, “[The Lord] does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities.”
Gratitude is the natural output of people who understand what they (do not) deserve, and that all of life is on loan. Whenever I interact with such people, they humble me and put me to shame. I recently learned that someone I know who has worked for the same organization for decades (and is now the director of the organization) is still making what would be considered a “starting salary.” She has refused pay raises whenever they were offered. When asked about this, she says, “I’m thankful just to have a job.”
Terra Brockman tells of growing up on the farm, and says that whenever she came in from gathering eggs, her grandmother would ask, “Did you thank the hens?”
Bringing us closer to the life-stance of gratitude is the reason behind simple spiritual routines like saying grace before a meal. Do we say grace because God gets agitated when not appreciated enough (like that church member you may know)? Do we say grace to make the theologically problematic statement that God has blessed us with food but withholds it from others? On the contrary, such practices are really for our own spiritual formation. Pausing to say grace before picking up the fork is an opportunity to remember we don’t deserve it and to put ourselves in our place before God. As a bonus, it’s also our opportunity to remember all the faceless farmers, packers, etc. who are behind what’s on our plate.
Or consider tithing. There is a strong, positive correlation between gratitude and generosity, and that’s no accident. If we feel deserving of what we have, something like tithing is hard. But what if we saw tithing not as us giving God 10 percent, but instead God letting us keep 90 percent?
Gratitude is not just a good thing or an abstract virtue. It’s a life-stance that can radically change our approach to everything from our next-door neighbor to global issues.
Do we have the stance of gratitude with our neighbors, or do we believe we deserve to be left alone and control our space?
Do pastors like me have the stance of gratitude with our parishioners when they serve the church or listen to us preach, or do we believe we deserve an audience?
Do we have the stance of gratitude in how we care for the earth and use resources, or do we believe we deserve whatever we can domesticate, extract or use?
Do we have the stance of gratitude with Syrian refugees, or do we believe we deserve to stay isolated from the world’s problems?
The 13th- to 14th-century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
May your Thanksgiving be filled with gratitude — gratitude that may even change how you celebrate it.