The Lovely Insufficiency of Gratitude
What Thanksgiving Can’t Do for You
Thankfulness is a wonderful virtue. It is among the most morally beautiful of the human affections, and perhaps among the most undervalued. When we really feel grateful, we find it a delightful and refreshing experience. When we observe it authentically in someone else, we find it admirable. Like a glorious sunset, we don’t need to be convinced of the loveliness of thankfulness.
What makes gratitude so beautiful is its rare combination of humility and joy. Like real love, real thankfulness displaces human selfishness — it’s impossible to feel conceited or conniving and feel truly thankful at the same time. When thankfulness should be present but isn’t (in us or someone else), we know something is wrong or disordered.
When it comes to God, few realities fan the flames of our love for and worship of him like gratitude. That’s why thanksgiving is commanded and exhorted so often in the Bible:
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:1–4)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16–17)
We might ask, though, if God is so good to us, if it’s so good to give thanks to the Lord, why would we need to be commanded to be grateful? Wouldn’t we just naturally be grateful?
Spiritually Healthy Prescription
We all know the answer to that question: no. We know how often we “naturally” lack appropriate feelings of gratitude. If we’re willing to look long enough, we realize the reason for our chronic ungratefulness most often has to do with where we’re focusing our attention: what we’re afraid of, disappointments we’ve experienced, ways we’ve been hurt, persons we envy, self-centered desires, and on and on — things on which we’re naturally inclined to dwell.
“The Bible never describes Christian obedience as the obedience of gratitude.”
God’s most repeated commands in the Bible, such as “give thanks,” are not given to us to perform out of a mere sense of duty. The commands of God are life-giving prescriptions for our spiritual health. They are given to us to increase our happiness in God, because God loves us. When God commands us to give thanks, not only is he instructing us to do what is right; he is at the same time directing our attention away from things that are draining our hope and fueling our discouragement, to what will fill us with hope and fuel our courage (Romans 15:13). The commands are themselves graces.
In the two texts I referenced above, we can see what thanksgiving produces: joy-inspired worship — “You, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4) — and spiritual encouragement — “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
The very practice of giving thanks directs our soul’s attention away from what burdens us toward the great Source of unearned, undeserved, powerful, abounding, and sustaining grace (2 Corinthians 9:8). Giving thanks also helps us see that grace with fresh awareness and renewed hope and joy. That’s what thanksgiving is for: to both give God the glory he deserves (Psalm 29:2) and to lift yokes from us that feel so heavy in order that we might receive joyful rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28–29).
What Thanksgiving Is Not For
But there’s something gratitude was not designed to do: motivate our obedience to God. If this sounds wrong, you may, like me, have been on the receiving end of some mistaken teaching about how gratitude really works.
Numerous times in my early life I heard Christians say some variation of God has done so much for you; you should be willing to do much for him. In other words, out of thankfulness for all God’s grace toward me, I should follow and obey him. Something about the idea always seemed a bit off to me. I knew that feeling gratitude for all God had done for me was right, even if I wrongly didn’t feel it, but trying to make gratitude inspire a life of obedience just wouldn’t work. All the effort seemed to inspire was a sense of demotivating guilt.
Then John Piper filled in some missing pieces to my puzzle by explaining the biblical concept of “future grace.” He said, “Nowhere in the Bible is gratitude connected explicitly with obedience as a motivation. We do not find the phrase ‘out of gratitude’ or ‘in gratitude’ for acts toward God.” What do we find instead? That when God wants to motivate us to obey him, he calls us to live by faith.
“Thanksgiving is wonderfully healthy for our souls.”
Text after text after text showed that the Bible describes Christian obedience as an “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), a “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3), “[living] by faith” (Galatians 2:20), “[walking] by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7), “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), and more. The Bible never describes Christian obedience as the obedience of gratitude. It’s faith in what God promises to be for us and do for us now and in the future that motivates our obedience, not gratitude for what God has done in the past.
The lights really came on for me when John explained it this way:
Grace is not only a past experience of pardon; it is a future experience of power to do what God commands us to do. This is why gratitude for past grace is not the fuel for today’s obedience. You can’t run your car on gratitude for yesterday’s gas. You need today’s gas for today’s trip. You need today’s grace for today’s obedience. And the pump is not gratitude but faith in future grace.
Let Gratitude Spark Your Faith
Thankfulness and trust, gratitude and faith, have a dynamic relationship, but distinct functions in the soul. That’s why we frequently see them mentioned together in Scripture, like in Psalm 9:
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1–2)
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:9–10)
Do you see the connection? The psalmist recounts with thankfulness all the past wonderful deeds of the Lord and therefore resolves to put his trust (faith) in the Lord in the troubles coming his way. He’s not trying to make gratitude motivate his ongoing obedience; he’s stoking his faith in God’s future grace by remembering with thankfulness the past grace God has provided.
Thanksgiving is wonderfully healthy for our souls. It redirects our attention from focusing on life-depleting and faith-shrinking concerns to focusing on God in Christ, who is our life (Colossians 3:4), by recalling the varied graces we have received from him through the supreme grace of the cross. Gratitude inspires joyful worship and sparks our faith.
But we can’t run our car on gratitude for yesterday’s gas. We need tomorrow’s gas to keep going tomorrow. And the gas that keeps us going is faith in God’s “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4), faith in God’s future grace. So, give thanks today with your whole heart for all you have received from God, and let it do its work to encourage your trust in him for all you will need tomorrow.