One of the marks of a Christian is gratitude or thankfulness (Ps. 118:1; 1 Thess. 5:16-18); one of the marks of a non-Christian is being ungrateful or not thankful (Rom. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:2). This contrast is made sharp and clear by the Psalmist. When God’s works in their lives are pondered, “the upright see and rejoice, but all the wicked shut their mouths” (Ps. 107:42).
Christians, almost without exception, give thanks when things are going well (granted, there are those who live with expectations with little sense of gratitude, but I am not thinking of those here). But often those same Christians do not know how to respond or process the pain when things are not going well. Worse, they process issues no differently than a non-Christian.
The way in which we respond during these time speaks volumes about the gospel and our understanding and living of it. Paul reminds us, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies . . . so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our moral flesh” (2 Cor. 4:7-12). The life we live in union with Christ displays the gospel in our lives which we also affirm with our lips.
I find that often those who affirm a strong sense of the sovereignty of God do so almost from a Christian Scientist perspective. What I mean by that is that the bad, hurt and pain is merely an illusion. But this is far from true! This denies biblical truth that states we live in a fallen world. We do not “grin and bear it.” Yes, we are redeemed and some day in the future there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But not yet, and until that day we groan (Rom. 8:23). We give thanks in all things, not for all things (1 Thess. 5:18), knowing that the true miracle is that God, in His sovereignty, causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
In light of this, I found Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint Commentary helpful: “Radical Gratitude: Grateful for God in Tough Times.” He refers to Jonathan Edwards’ helpful distinction between “natural gratitude” and “gracious gratitude.”
While they often mingle together in the life of a follower of Christ, there are actually two types of thankfulness. One is secondary, the other primary.
The secondary sort is thankfulness for blessings received. Life, health, home, family, freedom, a tall, cold lemonade on a summer day — it’s a mindset of active appreciation for all good gifts.
The great preacher and American theologian Jonathan Edwards called thanks for such blessings “natural gratitude.” It’s a good thing, but this gratitude doesn’t come naturally — if at all — when things go badly. It can’t buoy us in difficult times. Nor, by itself, does it truly please God. And, to paraphrase Jesus, even pagans can give thanks when things are going well.
Edwards calls the deeper, primary form of thankfulness “gracious gratitude.” It gives thanks not for goods received, but for who God is: for His character — His goodness, love, power, excellencies — regardless of favors received. And it’s real evidence of the Holy Spirit working in a person’s life.
This gracious gratitude for who God is also goes to the heart of who we are in Christ. It is relational, rather than conditional. Though our world may shatter, we are secure in Him. The fount of our joy, the love of the God who made us and saved us, cannot be quenched by any power that exists (Romans 8:28-39). People who are filled with such radical gratitude are unstoppable, irrepressible, overflowing with what C. S. Lewis called “the good infection” — the supernatural, refreshing love of God that draws others to Him.
And that, more than any words we might utter, is a powerful witness to our neighbors that God’s power is real, and His presence very relevant, even in a world full of brokenness as well as blessings.
As Christians evidencing God’s transforming grace in our lives, may we be people of both natural and gracious gratitude, especially during this season of Thanksgiving!