Gratitude: A Warm Feeling or an Inspiration to Act?

I wonder what thankfulness looks like.  It has almost become cliché to say that love must be lived, that love is not just a feeling, but an action.  Love surely contains feeling, but also must be embodied in concrete ways to a known neighbor. 

What about gratitude?

Isn’t it the same?  Gratitude contains feeling: contentment, joy, thankfulness.  But it requires an embodied living.  I thought of this recently when I saw a toddler at our church who was wearing a t-shirt I recognized.  I had an irrepressible smile because it was a shirt that we had given to the family after our son could no longer fit in it.  How cute and satisfying to see someone else enjoy it.  But even more poignantly, we were not that adorable shirt’s original owners either.  It had been given to us by another family when their son outgrew it.  And neither were they the original owners.  Gratitude is lived. 

A man has a little extra money in the bank this year.  Would we say he is grateful if he cashes it out and stares at the pile of bills on his kitchen table?  His gratefulness would be evident as he discerns what person or organization he can share that extra money with.  A family is thankful for being together and having food – so they share a big meal on Thanksgiving.  Perhaps they travel for thousands of miles to demonstrate their gratitude for being part of a family.  It is something many parents teach their children.  Share.  Give.  But so what?  This is all obvious enough. 

We are tempted to thank God for food, for family, for our country, and to leave it at just words

Is it?  On the contrary, we have a natural tendency to be the man in Jesus’ famous story who prays, “God, thank you that I am not like that man.”  And so our prayers of thankfulness become insular and even triumphant instead of infused with the humility that leads to action.  We are tempted to thank God for food, for family, for our country, and to leave it at just words.  We are glad we’re not hungry, we’re glad we’re safe, we are grateful to live somewhere with freedom and some sense of justice and peace.  We are thankful that we are not a refugee.  We are thankful that we don’t have to flee, that we don’t have to worry about our next meal, or the very lives of our families. 

Our gratitude is not an inward feeling.  It becomes intensely political and public at a time like this.  And in politics words are powerful.  How much of the anti-refugee sentiments have an ounce of gratitude?  For now, don’t ask whether it’s prudent or safe or politically expedient.  Just ask, are the words flowing from gratefulness or fear?  Abundance or desperation?   Our gratefulness grows very small when we turn away someone at the porch, close the door, and sigh “God, thank you that I am not like that man.”  But how large and lovely and expansive is thanksgiving when it overflows in hospitality, when it does not seek feelings of superiority, but public justice for those in need.  We are thankful for warmth and safety and provision.  And what a witness it can be when we do something with that, when we share or even give up those privileges for greater things.

Are we thankful for the safety and abundance we have and so clutch them nearer in fear that they will be snatched away?  Or are we ready to live out our thankfulness by sharing what we treasure so dear?

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.