The Meaning of Gratitude

brown wooden board

Gratitude is a second-order activity. It isn’t merely the immediate pleasure of a thing, the sensations of being full, or the exhale after nearly missing some harmful event. Gratitude involves our reflection on those things for which we are thankful. Perhaps that’s why G.K. Chesterton described gratitude as “our highest form of thought” and as “happiness doubled by wonder.”

There are certainly times when we assume something is the result of pure chance. But when we stop to reflect on the thing, when we express our gratitude for it, it can come dangerously close to recognizing providence. It’s not just that we hesitated before that first step into the street before realizing a vehicle is coming from the direction we weren’t looking. It’s that it seems as though there’s some purpose behind it. I’m not suggesting you must profess belief in God in order to be thankful, but rather that most people, whether they believe in God or not, have a suspicion that life is more than a random collection of chance events.

That’s what makes giving thanks and worship closely related activities. Both require reflection. Both require direction. We reflect on something that makes us happy or thankful, and we direct out gratitude towards someone or something.

Even if we see an event as random chance resulting in an outcome we like, we will still likely want to find someone to share our joy with. That’s because gratitude is intrinsically personal. It’s a thing, like worship, that must be shared. C.S. Lewis describe this in his book Reflections on the Psalms:

 “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . ” 

It’s funny to see how some secularists will happily contradict themselves when it comes to gratitude. For example, in his book Free Will, the celebrated atheist Sam Harris argues that no one has any sort ability to make real decisions. Our brains tell us what to do, not the other way around. We aren’t in any way in control of our choices, he argues. Yet, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Harris gives thanks for his wife who faithfully edits his writing projects. How can we give thanks for someone’s actions over which they have no control?

While most secularists see the world as the product of chance, governed by nothing, and heading nowhere, their expressions of gratitude reveal a curious contradiction. Deep down we all know the feelings of gratitude are pointing somewhere. For the Christian, we recognize there is both a person and a purpose behind all of life.

Our giving of thanks is an act of interpretation. We recognize there is someone worthy of our highest form of thought, our heart-felt appreciation. As we reflect on the things for which we are thankful, may we see they are all pointing to a Purpose and more importantly to a Person. As the Apostle Paul said, let us “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”