A prayer card on the bulletin board in my office reads:
O Lord, you have given me so much.
Please give me one thing more — a grateful heart.
Owing to my long-standing fascination with word origins and derivations, I wondered whether gratitude and grace were related. It turns out they are: both are derived from the Latin word gratūs, meaning pleasing. That word made me think of a Scripture verse I learned long ago:
And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. 1 John 3:22 (KJV)
This verse speaks of us doing things that we know will please God. What he gives us, as reflected in the derivation of the words “grateful,” “gratitude,” and “grace” refers to things that are pleasing to us. When we seek to please God and he, despite his ultimate sovereignty and power, delights in pleasing us, the circle is complete. Could that be what Eden was like before the fall? Perhaps it’s similar to what heaven is like?
I started thinking about gratitude and grace a few weeks ago when I received a wonderful and entirely unexpected gift. About two years ago I registered with one of the commercial DNA analysis companies. They compare members’ DNA with that of known genetic groups to generate a profile describing each person’s genetic inheritance. It’s also possible to compare an individual member’s DNA with that of other members in the database, to identify those that are genetically related. I wanted to know about my genetic background because I was adopted at birth, and had only basic identifying information from my adoption record. Perhaps – ideally – there would be others in the database whose DNA matched. For many months only distant potential relatives showed up in the online match files, until I received an email from a man whose DNA matched mine at the 25% level, indicating that we are half-siblings. Since then we’ve been in touch frequently by email and have spoken on the phone. We’ve now embarked on a joint search for further information about our shared parent, and have plans to meet in person. Gratitude is the most fitting word I know to describe the gift of knowing someone who is related to me. I am so grateful for the former stranger I now know as family, as well as the technology that gives us the opportunity to connect with each other. A remarkable development.
At this point in human history our world seems tragically short of gratitude. It’s a natural human tendency, exaggerated by some personality traits, to look first for what’s missing rather than what’s pleasing in a situation. At least in western culture, possessing a “healthy skepticism” is considered wise. We believe we should always be on our guard because “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Our first impulse is not to be thankful, but to be wary. That’s a common outlook on life and not new, but these days such a perspective has been amplified. Fear is the common denominator, a strong and pervasive undercurrent in our present discourse.
What if we intentionally cultivated the habit of looking first for what there is to be thankful for, before looking for fault or risk? It may actually be fairly simple to change that perspective. Take, for example, a physician with whom I once worked closely. He came from Iran, and after many years in the U.S. his English was excellent, but he still had a few verbal expressions that readily identified him as a non-native English speaker. One such comment was “Thanks God.” This was his response to any piece of favorable news that he received. I couldn’t be sure whether he meant, “Thanks be to God” or maybe “Thank God,” as English speakers often say to express relief or satisfaction. Still another possibility could be a personal mini-prayer: “Thanks, God!” It was an efficient, multi-purpose phrase, useful in a broad variety of situations. In a way it really doesn’t matter which of the three meanings he intended, or even if there were other possibilities. Any one of them expresses gratitude. If we could prioritize thoughts of thankfulness over our typical skepticism, the rest of our thinking would fall into proper alignment. God, whose grace is sufficient for every circumstance and whose power is more than sufficient to meet every need, is in charge. The outcome is in God’s hands, not ours, no matter how diligently we search for lurking threat.
A final thought about the words “gratitude” and “grateful: ” both are related to “grace,” and grace comes from God. It’s a gift – unearned, unmerited, undeserved. We can’t be grateful without God. The prayer on my bulletin board asks for a grateful heart, that is, a heart transformed by God’s grace. It’s the process that gradually breaks down our defensive posture and removes our need to be guarded and wary, as the heart softens. We don’t make ourselves grateful: God’s grace makes us grateful. We need to be grateful for gratitude, as well as for every other good gift from the Creator. How many times today have you said, “Thanks, God!”?