How Does Gratitude Motivate?

On May 29 in my message on Galatians 5:1-5, I opposed the “Gratitude Ethic” which says: “God has worked for me, now I will return the favor and work for him;” or: “God has given me more than I could ever pay back, but I will devote my life to trying.” But the question was raised by Steve Roy after the service whether there may be another way gratitude could motivate obedience that does not involve a debtor mentality. So I spent about six hours on Memorial Day trying to think that question through. Here is where I am.

Definition: gratitude is a species of joy which arises in our heart in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor. We do not respond with gratitude to a person if they accidentally do us a favor. Nor do we respond with gratitude if they do us a favor with mercenary ulterior motives. On the other hand, we do respond with gratitude to a person who tries to do us a favor but is hindered by circumstances beyond his control—say, he sacrifices his life to bring us medicine in the jungle but it turns out not to heal. We still feel gratitude toward him. Therefore gratitude is not merely the response of joy to a benefit received. It has special reference to the good will of another person. A person whose joy centers only on a gift received with no sense of joy in the good will of the giver, we call an ingrate. So gratitude is a species of joy which arises in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor.

This joy, like all joys, has in it an impulse to express or display the value of its cause. This is a crucial insight for understanding how gratitude motivates behavior. It is the nature of joy to demonstrate or express the value of its cause. When something gives us joy we feel an impulse to show the value of it by our words or actions.

The intensity of this joy and its expressive impulse is determined by three varying factors: 1) the importance to us of the gift offered (We are more thankful for a winter coat than for an ice-cream cone); 2) the sacrifice it cost someone to give the gift (We are more thankful if a person risks his life than if his gift is of no inconvenience); 3) our own sense of unworthiness to receive the gift (We are more thankful for free gifts than earned wages).

The question how gratitude can properly motivate good behavior is the question: how should we express or demonstrate the value of God’s good will toward us? Gratitude is the joy that arises in response to God’s good will toward us in all his gifts. This joy has an impulse to express the value of that good will. How should it do so?

Answer: It should express the value of God’s good will in a way that honors the nature and aim of that will and does not contradict it. (For example: I should not try to show my gratitude to someone who just paid my way through an alcohol treatment center by throwing him a beer party.)

Let’s take God’s good will expressed in sending his Son to die, for example. The nature of that act of love is that it was unconditional, undeserved, a gift of sheer grace. The aim of that act was to unleash a power of forgiveness and renewal that would transform people into reflectors of God’s glory. So the way gratitude for this act of God’s good will toward us should express itself is by saying and doing what honors the nature of it as free and the aim of it as God’s glory.

Certain attitudes are thus ruled out: any attempt to pay God back would contradict the nature of the act as free and gracious. Any attempt to turn and become God’s benefactors is ruled out as dishonoring to the nature and aim of the divine act. That was my point last Sunday. But there are some proper ways for the impulse of the joy of gratitude to find expression: 1) the admission that we don’t deserve Christ honors the gracious freeness of the gift. 2) Words of love, praise and thanks will pop out like fruit on the branch of gratitude. 3) Trust in the forgiveness and renewing power unleashed in the cross honors its aim. 4) Acts of self-denying love also show how free we are made by the all-sufficiency of the gift of love in the cross.

This is how I see gratitude motivating obedience to Christ. It does not prompt us to pay him back or to meet his needs. As a species of joy it has in it an impulse to show the value of God’s good will. What shows the value of God’s good will in its true nature and aim are words of praise, a heart of trust, and a life of love.

Thankful for you,

Pastor John

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