While I was in seminary, I lived with a very nice family in a very nice house rent free. Not only will I always be thankful for their kindness, generosity, and hospitality, I also learned a profound lesson about gratitude through my experience. On the face of it, the idea of gratitude seems a simple one. Everyone is familiar with the feeling of being thankful. Yet, gratitude is actually an ancient concept, and when we talk about gratitude we are borrowing from ancient theological and philosophical traditions. When talking about ancient ideas such as gratitude it can be helpful to look back at those traditions in order to better understand why it is important and how we can best practice it. To begin, gratitude is essentially biblical. There are hundreds of passages in the Bible calling the reader to be grateful. In the Old Testament, back when offering physical ritual sacrifices was key to Judaic worship, the psalmists tells us, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies [God].” (Psalm 50:23) In the New Testament, alongside instructions to be peaceful and students of the word of God, the Apostle Paul implores his readers in Colossae to be thankful. (Colossians 3:15) These verses, and the main passages like them in the Bible demonstrate that gratitude is important to God. To be sure, when I received the offer to live with this generous family, I was naturally grateful, and I also know that God would want me to be grateful. So I was doing the right thing by having gratitude. Yet, in the early days of my stay in their home, I was missing an important part of gratitude. I hadn’t learned that gratitude was something I needed to practice, rather than merely feel. Had I known more about gratitude as an ancient tradition I may have learned this lesson more quickly.
Ancient morality was a bit different than the way we think of morality today. Modern people tend to think of morality in terms of actions which are either right or wrong. As Christians, this can be a focus on whether a single action is or is not a sin. Ancient Christians, while deeply concerned with living a sin-free life, were more concerned with becoming a righteous person through habitual practice infused by the the grace of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of course they obeyed specific divine commands, like do not steal, but obedience to such commands was considered the easier part of one’s moral life. The real challenge came in the form of daily practicing the virtues. Our modern conception of being a good person is often along the lines of a type of moral scale. A person is considered good if all of their good actions outweigh all of their bad ones. In contrast, the ancient idea of a good person was that of a complex amalgamation of moral characteristics. A person only lived up to the potential of their humanity if they cultivated virtuous habits through the practice of good behavior. Ancient philosophers and theologians – people who spent a lot of time thinking about and practicing virtues – believed gratitude was essential to the human life in three interconnected ways.
First, the ancients believed gratitude is one of many unified virtues which must be practiced in order to have a good life that honors God. When people were instructed to be grateful in the Bible, readers at the time would have understood the practice of gratitude as part of what it takes to be a flourishing person. It was not merely a command to them. Divine directives towards gratitude are supernatural moments wherein the creator reveals an essential component of the purpose for which he designed human life. It is not just another rule to obey. God is telling his people, “Hey, this is what you are designed for, and without it you will not experience true joy.”
Secondly, the ancients believed gratitude is an essential part of justice. God commands his people to have gratitude because there is no justice without it. (For example: 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Philippians 4:6, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Colossians 4:2) In fact, the English word gratitude, as well as the word grace, comes from the the Latin word grātia, which refers to actions done out of favor or kindness. In English translations of the Bible we use simply read the word gratitude in passages that much older Latin Bible uses the phrase gratiarum actio, which literally means, “action in response to grace.” Gratitude is a just response to favor. This we expect someone to say “thank you” when we do something nice for someone. In a small way, when people do not say “thank you,” injustice has indeed occurred. In a perfectly just world everything would be in its proper order, and everyone would be given what they deserve. In such a world every person would be grateful whenever they received a favor. Of course, because God is the cause of everything as the creator and sovereign ruler, God always deserves the most gratitude. If there is anything in our lives to be grateful for, it began with God and God has seen it through to completion. Furthermore, when we show gratitude towards the correct source for the correct favor we honor God by glorying him by participating in his justice.
Lastly, the ancients believed gratitude is a necessary part of friendship and community and that gratitude required action. As people embedded in communities it is actually our duty to not merely be grateful. They believed, we must also demonstrate our gratitude. The only way to be grateful is to somehow appropriately reciprocate act of kindness in question. Having a sense of gratitude in response to a nice thing someone has done for you is only the starting point. As modern people we tend to resist an idea like this. The duty to pay back a favor seems to cheapen act of kindness. We rightly believe a truly authentic favor should not have any strings attached. Yet, this is where it is important to remember the unity of virtues. Being authentic is good, but like any virtue we can focus on it too much. Undue focus on the authenticity of singular actions can lead us to justifying ingratitude in our heart. We can think, “I don’t owe them anything. In fact, if I pay them back then their original act of kindness will be reduced to an economic exchange.” This was my mistake when I first lived with the family who took me in. I said thank you because I was grateful, and went on with my business. My actions would have looked like nonsense to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas who likened our duty to gratitude within a community to the liveliness of our faith. (Summa 2.2, 106, 1) Just as faith without works is dead, gratitude without its appropriate demonstration is also dead. In fact, without some kind of demonstration, gratiarum actio is meaningless, since the phrase itself entails some sort of action. The practice of gratitude is not just trying to remember to feel thankful. It is real action motivated by gratitude. The feeling of being grateful might be a good feeling, but that feeling only benefits the person having the feeling True gratitude is practiced and demonstrated in action. As part of a faithful community, God’s church, we ought to make it a habit to demonstrate our gratitude to those in the faith community, as well as those around us in general.
When I was given the enormous favor of living rent free during seminary I no longer needed a second job to cover my rent, affording me extra money and extra time. Eventually I learned that I could say thank you a thousand times, but if I used my newfound time and money to go surfing and buy unnecessary stuff, I was not practicing gratitude. Even though I had said thank you and even though I felt very thankful that I they invited me to live with them, I initially wasted much of my saved time and money, and thus was not actually grateful for all that family had done for me. Over time I learned that in order to truly practice my gratitude, in addition to volunteering for chores and tasks to help the family, it was appropriate to us my additional time and money to focus on my studies and being a better youth minister. This was also how I could best demonstrate my gratitude. Now, I am not only still grateful for the opportunities the family afforded me with their generosity, which I try to mimic in the hospitality in my own home, I am also grateful that God used that time to teach a lesson about who I am and who I ought to be as God’s creation. If you would like to do your own research on the ancient tradition of gratitude you can expect to find a wealth of great reflection on the topic from three of my favorite early Christian theologians: Augustine, Ambrose and Aquinas.