The Difference Between Saying "Thanks" and Being Grateful, Part 2

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In part 1 of this Thanksgiving-themed article, we discussed the idea of being like a parrot in our giving thanks: we say the words with our mouth but have no heartfelt understanding behind the words and do not truly have a grateful heart. But I have two suggestions for you on how to live your life more with a grateful heart.

One, focus on the tangible things that we do have instead of fixating on what we do not have.

Not to be trite but this sage advice serves as a fitting reminder: "I complained about not having shoes until I saw a man without feet.” We have heard this but knowing it to be true and acting on this truth are not the same. All of us need the reminder to rejoice over having two feet instead of complaining that the high-heeled shoes don't perfectly match the new outfit. Mature, grateful people never lose sight of their feet. For that matter, they do not lose sight of the fact that they were invited to a special event where they will dance as a couple, have grandparents nearby to babysit the kids, have the money to enjoy a great meal, and will be served by people who could be single mothers who have no high heels.

Though God has blessed many of us with many tangible things, we won't be humbly appreciative if we view "stuff" as our birthright. People who develop grateful hearts review and rehearse the tangible blessings as undeserved gifts. They never see it as a kingdom of God entitlement program. Sarah and I remind ourselves of James 1:17 on a frequent basis: "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." We take the position that blessings like these come from God. Yes, we may have worked very hard to earn the money to buy stuff, but He allowed us to have that ability to work in the first place. A brain surgeon should never take all the credit but thank God from a grateful heart for allowing him to have parents who had high IQs and great eye and hand coordination. We must always give God and others credit, not ourselves. We must be grateful for the kindnesses and opportunities that came our way.

We must also remind ourselves of Job's wisdom: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). There will be no U-Haul behind our hearse. We can’t take it with us. Like Monopoly, the game of life will soon end and we must put all the houses and hotels back in the box.

As Sarah and I visited a friend in a retirement center recently, we looked around at those in the wheelchairs in the dining room and knew this would be a similar end for us. We did not gaze from a morbid and melancholy perspective but from humility. Being mindful of our end ignites gratefulness in us for all that we have during this temporary age and stage. It is only a matter of time before it all changes. We will not get out of this world alive. For this reason, how can Sarah and I be ungrateful in our present condition? This is why some very rich people who have more money than they can spend in a lifetime become bitter. They know their life will end before their money ends. They cannot enjoy it forever, and they are mad about this. The only alternative is philanthropy, to stop being lovers of self.

All of us must live with our end in mind. Many of us have been sobered by what Billy Graham remarked. He indicated that he was prepared to die but he was not prepared to get old. An interesting question for each of us: Will we one day in our aged state prize what we possessed only after we have lost it or can no longer enjoy it? Will we declare, "How could I have had such a complaining and churlish attitude? How could I have been so ungrateful for my many blessings?"

Getting a mature perspective, and suppressing our narcissistic self-love, is the key to becoming grateful. Right now, for instance, many of us possess tangible health but in thirty years we may not. As a maturing soul we must meditate on these kinds of realities and be grateful.

Perhaps an analogy can help us. Do you remember those times when you had the flu and were vomiting? Can you recall during the nausea thinking to yourself, Oh, if I could only feel good again. I want this to stop, or let me die? Then, the next day, the nausea leaves and we are happy campers. As we lie in bed, we feel on top of the world. Nothing is sweeter than hot tea and toast. Life is good, very good indeed. At that moment, we are grateful for health. Yet, how long does that gratefulness last?

The mature person works at storing these scenes and experiences in the memory bank so that during a down moment she says, "But I have health. I have eye sight. I have two feet. I am not nauseated. I can enjoy tea and toast. I have high heels. Life is really quite good." On the other hand, the immature and ungrateful are horrible at math. They do not apply the message they sing in song. "Count your blessings, name them one by one.”

Jesus addresses the unthankful person. In Luke 17 we learn of the ten lepers Jesus healed. A tangible blessing! With the healing, their condition radically changed for the better. However, only one returned to thank Him for the healing (17:15–16). Jesus asks, "Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they?” (17:17).

All who read the account are stunned at the human heart’s ability to be ungrateful. But even more stunning is the percentage of the ungrateful. Nine out of ten went their merry way. Jesus is not pulling this number out of a hat arbitrarily. Could it be that 90 percent of us are guilty of this vice?

The French have a proverb: Gratitude is the least of virtues; ingratitude the worst of vices. As I have reflected on this, I see its truth. We should be grateful for the many blessings that have come our way. What virtue is there in that? In the case of the lepers, they were all healed. It makes perfect sense to express thanks for this gift from God. We would not describe those who gave thanks for this tangible blessing as the ultimate example of virtue. They are doing what they should do.

However, ingratitude at such a moment does prove to be the worst of vices. How can one neglect giving thanks for the undeserved blessings of God? To receive such a gift and say nothing and feel nothing, and to go on one's way, is wicked, as even Jesus placed the ungrateful alongside of evil men in Luke 6:35: “ungrateful and evil men.”

On a more positive note, gratefulness need not surface from big blessings. When Sarah and I first married we had a used car. Because I was not a mechanic, there was always a sense of concern when taking a trip if the car would be reliable. Today, over four decades later, we can afford a better automobile. When we travel places each of us gratefully expresses thanks that we have reliable transportation because we remember when we didn't.

Nearly once a week when retiring to bed Sarah thanks the Lord for her bed. From her heart she thanks the Lord for rest. She goes a hundred miles an hour every day, so when she hits the pillow, she's out like a light. She enjoys her rest, so much so that she has mentioned many times a desire to watch herself sleep so she can enjoy it more! Grateful people give thanks for the basics. "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (1 Timothy 6:8).

Okay, if you want to give thanks with a grateful heart, count your blessings one by one, and keep that list in front of you. It is as simple as that.

In part 3, we will discuss my second suggestion to help one develop a more grateful heart: focusing on the intangible things that we do have instead of the tangibles we do not.

-Dr. E

Discussion Questions

  1. Why can we not become humbly appreciative as long as we view “stuff” as our birthright?

  2. How can being mindful of one’s end help ignite a gratefulness for all that one has during this temporary season of life?

  3. What do you think about Jesus’ story of the ten lepers and the idea that perhaps He was hinting that 90 percent of us are guilty of ungratefulness like this?

  4. What “basics” do you need to show more gratitude toward God about? What have you been taking advantage of or viewing as your right that you need to develop a grateful heart toward?