“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” —Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance
Developing a discipline of gratitude is essential for us as we grow in our knowledge of God and our experience of him. Perhaps thinking of gratitude as a spiritual discipline is a new idea for you. Growing and continuing in our spiritual formation means that we need to continue to expand our thinking of what spiritual disciplines are. There is the discipline of surrender, the discipline of listening, the discipline of denying self, the discipline of waiting. And there is the discipline of gratitude.
Why is the discipline of gratitude so important? Why must I cultivate this disposition in my life? Gratitude is an interactive spiral between a giver and a receiver. It recognizes that a gift has been given. It recognizes a favor done by someone for us. Gratitude is also a response to that gift. We thank the giver with an expression of appreciation. A gesture of gratitude completes the circle and lets the loving act flow from giver to receiver and then back to the giver again.
Such an exchange opens us up to another exchange. The gesture of thanks moves both the giver and receiver to another level. In realizing that God showers us with gifts, we also recognize our dependence on God. We admit our weakness and allow him to fill us. Having received from him a blessing and a gift we acknowledge his goodness, his love for us, and his grace by responding with gratitude.
God is the giver and we are the thanks-givers. The circle is complete and it allows us to open yet a deeper part of our life where there is weakness and we acknowledge our dependence on God. God meets us at that point with another blessing and gift. His grace and help come into our lives. We recognize that he has met us and blessed us. We know that it is a gift of grace that he has brought into our lives, so we respond again with gratitude, praise, trust and faith. The circle is complete and the spiral of our life and experience with God continues to deepen and widen. Life begins to change, not because the circumstances are easier or less demanding, but because we begin to see them in a new light.
The life and discipline of gratitude is one reason why the David of the Bible could write Psalms of magnificent praise in the midst of very difficult times in his life. This is why he can write this in Psalm 13:
O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the light to my eyes, or I will die. Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!” Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing praises to the LORD because he has been so good to me.
King David experienced God in a deeper and life-giving way through the discipline of gratitude. A disposition of gratitude is important for us to develop too.
It’s a discipline that is different from what appears to me to be more active ones. Bible study is something I do. Prayer is something I do. Fasting is something I do. Giving is something I do. But gratitude is something that I am. It is the difference between doing and being.
Gratitude Exercise 1
Jesus Heals Ten Men With Leprosy
New International Version
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
New International Version
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
Leviticus 14 talks about the process referred to in Luke 17:14, that only a priest could declare someone clean.
In verse 16, the word thanked is the Greek word eucharisteo, to show that one is under obligation, “be thankful, and feel obligated to thank.” We derive our word Eucharist from this Greek Word.
Into the Passage
Using your Holy Imagination place yourself in the passage. Where do you see yourself? Are you one of the lepers, the leper who returns, a disciple, in the crowd? What do you see, hear, smell, and feel? What are you thinking? How do you emotionally respond to this experience?
What do you think the lepers expected from Jesus? When we are feeling hopeless, what kind of prayers or requests do we ask of God?
Luke notes that the lepers were healed as they went — in the process as they started to obey Jesus. When has obedience helped build your faith, and the outcome of your faith?
One leper returns to thank Jesus. He was a double outsider — leper and Samaritan. When have you felt like you are outside the circle in some aspect of influence in some way? How did you response?
Set with the Samaritan leper for a few minutes. How does he show he is thankful? Think about people who you know that you would characterize as thankful or grateful, and those who show no gratitude. Take a few minutes to compare the two.
What is Jesus’ response to the thankful leper? And his question about the nine other lepers — why do you think they did not return? Why is so easy to not thank God for his blessings? What blessing does Jesus give to the thankful leper?
As you think about your own faith experience right now, for what are you most thankful? Take some time to talk to Jesus about your gratitude.
Gratitude Exercise 2
Wherever you are right now, look around and become aware of your surroundings. Be open to nature, other people, and your own self.
- What do you see? Make a list. What you observe can lead you to a prayer of wonder.
- Who do you see? If you are alone, make a list of five people whom you have seen today. What do you know about them that you are grateful for? Write their name and what you are grateful for. When you see them later today or during the week, tell them what you’re grateful for.
- Yourself. What are you grateful for about you? Where have you seen God at work for which you can say Thank you God? Write these things below and give him thanks.
- For what are you grateful for today?
Gratitude Exercise 3
Considering your life and God’s gifts to you, spend some time responding creatively with thanksgiving. Suggestions: write a poem, sketch pictures of what your are thankful for, write a letter of thanksgiving.
For example, InterVarsity Graduate Faculty Ministry Area Director Melodie Marske writes poetry as she is inspired by various Scriptures. Her poem, “God the Giver,” was written on a fall retreat day.
God, the Giver
Who is a God like you,
Who gives all that we need.
You walk with us in life and death,
And by your Spirit lead.
You give the gift of righteousness,
You give the gift of life.
You fill our lives with riches,
And offer peace amid the strife.
God who shaped the sun and land,
Who sets Fall leaves on fire.
God who daily holds my hand,
You never sleep nor tire.
A God of patience, full of grace,
Always watching for the lost.
One who never turns his face,
Because of Jesus and the cross.
Thank you for the friends you give,
Putting flesh on love and grace.
Teach us how we best can live,
Until we see your face.
Father help us hold the gifts,
That you so gladly give.
In hands wide open to your heart,
So we can fully live.
And may we spur each other on,
To love and to good deeds.
Living in joy and abandon,
And trust you for our needs.
Father give us grace to live,
With our questions and our tears.
Help us where we don’t believe,
To let go of all our fears.
Help us bring our faith and doubt,
To you and to your cross.
To trust the Giver of all gifts,
Remembering your sacrifice and loss.
How could the Giver of all gifts,
Not give all that we need?
If He did not withhold his Son,
So all our souls could be freed.
May we live our lives in you,
Teach us to abide in your love.
So we can walk in grace and truth,
‘Til we walk with you above.
This discussion and accompanying exercises on gratitude were adapted from a half-day retreat Jay Sivits conducted with InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries staff.
Jay would like to thank Chuck Hohnbaum for his work on gratitude and for his gracious permission to draw on his material to develop the retreat and ideas used in this article.