You Don’t Have To Be Grateful

We have reached halftime in the holiday season sprint from Halloween to Christmas: Thanksgiving. The […]

Connor Gwin / 11.16.18

We have reached halftime in the holiday season sprint from Halloween to Christmas: Thanksgiving. The least commercialized of all American holidays, Thanksgiving stands apart as a holiday focused not on gift-giving or material consumption, but on gratitude. Problematic history aside, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to gather with family and friends and reflect on all the blessings of life.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I recently stood in front of two-hundred middle and high school students to talk about gratitude. I talked about the impact of gratitude on our brains and showed a TED talk about gratitude as the root of happiness. I asked the students to work in small groups to write gratitude lists of their own.

As I stood in front of the group, I saw their eyes roll as they began to write. At that moment I realized that the gratitude list had become the law. I was effectively telling them, “You must feel grateful.”

I am not fully to blame. Around this time of year, our zeitgeist shifts to the requirement that we all feel #blessed and grateful for all that we have. Of course, this message is not confined to the third week of November. All around us these days, we hear this message as we are peddled gratitude journals and pillows that remind us of our obligation to be thankful.

Gratitude is great; I am a big fan. However, like anything in my life, the moment you tell me I have to do something or feel a certain way, everything inside of me starts to rebel. That is the problem with the cultural shift to gratitude. By demanding gratitude of everyone, we have rendered that same gratitude null and void. Feeling grateful because you’re told to feel grateful is not gratitude, but it is now part of an endless list of demands we must (but cannot) live up to. It is no longer enough to be successful or happy or fit, you must also be grateful for all of these things.

Hear this good news: You don’t have to be grateful.

You do not have to be grateful because that blogger said so, or because that wall hanging from Target said you should. You do not have to be grateful because it is what you are supposed to do.

Holidays are hard. Families can be awful. Being a parent is really darn tough. Grief waits and pounces right when you are supposed to be boiling potatoes for your signature dish. It is amazing how things can fall apart right before a holiday.

You don’t have to be grateful.

To be honest, it is really hard to be grateful all the time. It is not how we are wired. Human beings are primarily selfish. I have a four-month-old child at home, so I can attest to this firsthand — we are hardwired from birth to go after the things we want and scream if we don’t get them. Our fallen nature prevents us from seeing past our own nose. Gratitude is a learned skill that goes against this wiring. It is always a burden like learning Spanish or working out. Just like any skill or pursuit, if I am told enough times that I must be grateful, I will develop a resentment towards gratefulness. (I’m sure this is just me, right?)

There is one type of gratitude that is fairly easy, but it is not the gratitude that gets talked about at Thanksgiving.

Societal gratitude is aimed at a generic god (or the Universe or whatever) for the fact that I was born a human being in America and not a beetle in Bulgaria. This cultural thankfulness is shallow and centers on the blessings of our economic system more than the blessings of God. This is the gratitude that is hard work, because it adds another filter through which I have to interpret my world. Add “Am I grateful enough?” to the long list of other enoughs I am trying to be.

In contrast, Scripture talks about a gratitude that comes easily.

Jesus put it this way, in Luke’s Gospel: “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” (7:41-42)

Gratitude is a natural outcome of being saved by God; it is the natural response to being pulled from the hole we have dug for ourselves. Countless stories in Scripture tell of people showing gratitude towards God, from the Psalms to the Gospels. Gratitude is the proper response to God, and yet, no story or verse mentions Jesus reversing a healing because the recipient didn’t show an attitude of gratitude.

Later in Luke’s Gospel (17:11-19), Jesus heals ten lepers and only one comes back with God on his gratitude list. Jesus does not strike down the other nine. Presumably, they go on living their lives as ungrateful recipients of the healing of God. The lesson is that the power to heal is solely in the hands of God. It is not connected to our feelings or attitudes.

You don’t have to be grateful to God for God to be God.

You don’t have to be thankful for the work of Jesus on the Cross for the work of Jesus on the Cross to work.

“It is finished,” Jesus said from the Cross. Tetelestai.

The sign out front of Calvary-St. George’s Church in New York City proclaims the Gospel message. It is not “Be grateful” or even “Give thanks,” but “Enjoy your forgiveness.”

That is how we show gratitude to our family, friends, and ultimately to God, by simply enjoying our lives with them. Not because we are told to or because it is expected, but because we can through the freedom we have been given in Christ.

You don’t have to make a gratitude list. You don’t have to be grateful. The table will be set regardless. Enjoy your forgiveness. Enjoy your holiday.

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8 responses to “You Don’t Have To Be Grateful”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Another humdinger, C – and one that leaves me feeling, well, really really grateful. Plus, the images! That still from Private Life has me feeling second hand embarrassment all over again… Brilliance.

  2. Sheila says:

    Connor, this is marvelous. Thank you

  3. Bryan J. says:

    Dear Connor. I’m giving the sermon at the ministerium hosted thanksgiving service this Sunday evening. It is literally this exact idea. Get out of my head. ♥

  4. Marissa says:

    I was just thinking how much I hate doing a table round robin of sharing why we are thankful. This post puts into words so much of how I have felt in my life. Thank you…for real.????

  5. Sarah Gates says:

    Thank youuuuuu!!!

  6. Duo Dickinson says:

    This is great. God Bless You.

  7. Jt says:

    I love the economy of God: “…and when they could not pay, He canceled their debts…”.
    Great post, Connor!

  8. Allison Taylor says:

    Grateful for Harper Jane’s first Thanksgiving!