The Difference Between Saying "Thanks" and Being Grateful, Part 1

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We can say "thanks" but not be grateful. We can mouth words but our hearts are elsewhere. We are fixated on ourselves. I know, because I have seen this in myself. The Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:2 that people can be "lovers of self . . . ungrateful."

We can even sing a song of thanks while in a worship service at church but inwardly dwell on the hurt and offense we feel toward someone who wronged us the day before.

We can be like parrots. Though parrots do not have teeth nor lips, they learn words, phrases, and songs. They have an extraordinary ability to imitate tones. With keen hearing and a complex voice box, they reproduce the sounds they hear. But that's all they do. They parrot. They have no comprehension of the meaning of those words. There is no heartfelt understanding when saying, "Thank you." The parrot is not grateful but merely mimicking the words even when singing Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World.”

I can be just like that parrot, and so can you.

A parent instructs an eight-year-old boy, “Say 'thank you' for the ice cream and cake." He obeys by repeating, "Thank you." But is his "thank you" sincere?

As an immature child, he is less than grateful and more focused on his appetites. He selfishly zeros in on the dessert to satisfy his sweet tooth. He says “thank you” to insure he'll get his cake and ice cream. He isn’t thinking how fortunate he is compared to the rest of the world that have no refrigeration to store ice cream or ovens to bake a cake.

Immature children are self-centered, and this controls their inner emotions. Gratitude isn’t natural. Gratitude must be learned. Eventually such a child must take the focus off himself and see the bigger picture. He must begin to appreciate his many blessings. Interestingly, the English writer Walter Landor wrote, "We often fancy that we suffer from ingratitude, while in reality we suffer from self-love.”

What is fascinating is that the parent can command the boy to say "thank you" but the parent cannot coerce the child into having a grateful heart. That’s an internal decision the boy must make for himself as he matures. Eventually, he must turn from thinking only about his appetites to an appreciation of others and of God who have supplied his many needs and desires.

As with this boy, we can possess an ungrateful heart though we possess what the rest of the world craves to own. Oh, sure, periodically we express, "I am blessed and very thankful for all that I have," but we could very well be uttering these words while thinking about what we don't have and how to get it.

This is why the song "Give Thanks (With a Grateful Heart)” is so potent. The words in the parenthesis, which are part of the title, capture the distinction between giving "thanks" and giving thanks with a grateful heart. We can sing a song of thanks like a parrot—hitting all the right notes—but stand there without an attitude of gratitude. God can even command us to give thanks in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 but He won't coerce us. That's our choice based on our maturity.

On Thanksgiving Day we can say thanks but not feel it or mean it. During the prayer of thanksgiving, we can nod our heads in agreement and whisper loud enough, “Yes, Lord" so others can hear our deep spirituality, but truth be told we primarily think of the gravy waffling its delicious aroma beneath our noses as we peek over at the dessert table to see if there will be enough of our favorite pie. Furthermore, we want grandpa to hurry up his prayer since the food is getting cold. We can only give thanks so long. Don't go much over a minute.

Is everyone who says “thank you” hypocritical and ungrateful? Not at all. Grateful people express thanks, and should. The giving of thanks is vital. God commands it. However, we can be inauthentic. Both the grateful and ungrateful say “thanks."

Let me insert, some ungrateful people do not give thanks to remain true to their bitter soul. They do not celebrate Thanksgiving. But no truly grateful person can refrain from conveying thanks. Anyone who claims to be grateful but never says “thank you” is self-deluded.

"Okay, Emerson, how can we give thanks with a grateful heart? How can we mature given that ingratitude is rooted in unhealthy self-love?"

Two suggestions. Focus on the tangibles and intangibles, and anything in between. Humor aside, let me explain in parts 2 and 3 of this blog.

-Dr. E

Discussion Questions

  1. When was a time when you were like a parrot, saying “thank you” with your words but not with your heart? When did you know that you were not truly grateful for what you had previously given thanks for? Did others realize it too?

  2. Emerson wrote, “Gratitude isn’t natural. Gratitude must be learned.” Do you agree or disagree? How have you struggled with that concept, whether with yourself, your child, or someone else?

  3. Have you ever thought about why the parentheses are used in the song “Give Thanks (With a Grateful Heart)”? What is the difference between giving thanks and giving thanks with a grateful heart?

  4. Have you ever met someone who was so ungrateful that they refused to give thanks so as to remain true to their bitter soul? Was there any joy in their life? What would you have liked to have said to them about becoming more grateful?