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Gratitude

The theologian, Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude—not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but gratefulness. “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?[1]Gratitude opens us to awe. A heart turned toward gratitude comes to see the goodness and grace of God everywhere and to slowly recognize that every good thing comes as a free gift from God. 

Some of my highest moments in life have come from unexpected joy. As Steve Garnass-Holmes says,  

Take nothing for granted,

even sunlight or breathing.

Don’t let your privilege blind you

to the sheer underserved miracle 

of your blessings.

Don’t think you’re entitled 

to colors or conversation.

Let gratitude overwhelm you,

sneak up behind you 

and lift you off your feet.[2]

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what we receive. With gratitude, we recognize the goodness in our lives. And often we recognize that this goodness comes from outside ourselves. In this way, gratitude connects us to something beyond us, something greater–to other people, to the natural world, to God. Gratitude is never singular. 

Gratitude opens us to amazement. In opening our hearts to gratitude, we become aware of God’s grace everywhere, even when life is charged and challenging. John Milton said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”  

For years, science has showed us that being grateful is good for our well-being. Dan Baker found that when we are actively appreciating something or someone, the threatening messages from our amygdala—the fight or flight center of our brain—are shut off. The brain cannot be in a state of gratefulness and anger at the same time. The two states are mutually exclusive.[3]

Robert Emmons, who has studied for many years the effect of gratitude on our health and our relationships with others, has found a host of benefits. People who frame their world with gratitude tend to have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They sleep better and feel more energy on waking. People who practice gratitude express higher levels of joy and compassion and report less feelings of depression, isolation, and loneliness. He says, “Gratitude drives out toxic emotions of resentment, anger, and envy, and may be associated with long-term emotional and physical health.[4] Why is this? 

Dr. Emmons believes it is because gratitude calls us to notice goodness. To be grateful is to notice that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits that have come to us. It doesn’t cloud or ignore problems or suggest that life is perfect. But it also doesn’t allow problems to imprison (totally claim) us. It makes a space for what is good, what is hopeful, what is beautiful, what causes us joy. 

And gratitude helps us recognize that the source of goodness lies at least partially outside ourselves. Goodness often comes through no effort of our own. Many times gifts come without us asking. They come as a loving surprise–the call from a friend, the visit from a neighbor, the letter, the food, the smile, the invitation. Gifts are often not something we have caused or created. A grateful heart can see gifts as the nature of the universe itself, given by God and the natural order. In gratitude we can be reminded that many good things are simply gifts—the rising of the sun, the beauty found in the natural world, being alive this day—are daily offerings to us. In gratitude we learn a deep spiritual truth; to be human is to be mutually reliant with all creation, dependent on our Creator. And in this recognition we develop a sense of connectedness with all of life.

In our reading today in the Gospel according to Luke, we hear Jesus calling out the importance of saying thanks. Jesus and his disciples are walking to Jerusalem in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” They are approached by ten persons suffering from leprosy who call out to Jesus for mercy. Leprosy is not much known in our modern times thanks to the successful treatments that are now available. But in the time of Jesus, people feared contracting leprosy. With no medical remedies, people suffered deeply disfiguring and disabling ailments that rendered them not only physically limited, but socially and emotionally relegated to the outlands of their society. In the story, the people are referred to as “lepers” so they were seen only through the lens of their illness. They were their disease. It was believed to be highly contagious so they were isolated from family and friends. The people in the Gospel story were required to stay at a distance from others forcing them to call out to Jesus,  “Master, have mercy on us!” defying social conventions and the restrictions on their behavior.

Unlike, Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus touches a man with leprosy and he is immediately “cleansed,” Luke’s Gospel provides no description of physical healing in this story. But Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests so their stigma can be removed and they can be restored to their community. As they walk away, they begin to heal. Nine of them continue walking, or skipping, or running to the priests. But one, we are told, recognizes what has happened to him. He stops, turns and in a loud voice, gives praise to God. Then he comes and falls at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks. Jesus asks, “where are the other nine?” Then he says to the one grateful man at his feet, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” 

Jesus offers the grateful man a wellness that runs beyond simply restoring his body. This one man, this Samaritan, this ‘foreigner’ has received a deeper healing. In returning, praising God with a loud voice, and giving thanks, he has tapped into the eternal reservoir of what God is doing in and through our lives. He has stopped and given witness to  the incomprehensible gift he has received and says, “thank you.” He has been healed all the way through into his inner being. When Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is telling us about the nature of gratitude. To be grateful is to be opened to the presence of God in and with us. To be grateful is to open every moment to eternity, to awe, that changes how we experience our life and the world. 

Gratitude at its deepest and perhaps most transformative level, is not warm feelings about what we have. Instead, gratitude is the deep ability to embrace the gift of life itself. It is the ability to give thanks for who we are, that we are, that in the multibillion year history of the universe each one of us has been born, can love, grow in awareness, and have a story. It grounds us in the world and with others, being aware of the gifts and grace that accompany us on our way.[5]

Gratitude is not just for the good times of life. Being grateful is not just when everything is going well. In fact, gratitude may be most important when grief claims you, when frustration and disappointment move into your guest room, when hardship takes a place at your daily table. Because gratitude creates resilience. David DeSteno says, gratitude is notabout passive reflection. It’s not about being thankful for things in the past that have already happened and cannot be changed. Gratitude is about ensuring the strength for what comes next. Gratitude creates resilience. Gratitude gives us the strength to get up, to face the next day, to take the next step and not let circumstances crush or define you.[6]

Gratitude is a part of our healing and deliverance. It is giving thanks that saved the grateful leper. His physical body was healed, but it was through his praise of God and thankfulness to Jesus that he was made well, fortified for the next step in his life. We can give thanks to God for a good day and we can give thanks to God for giving us the courage to face our day. We can give thanks to God for our good fortune and we can give thanks to God for those people who will walk with us in our hardship. 

One man, a Samaritan, a foreigner, who was affected by leprosy, remembered goodness and chose to embody joyful gratitude. He demonstrates a gratefulness that would not remain silent in response to what God has done in his life. Being thankful was not a precondition for his healing by Jesus. All ten were healed of their physical affliction and restored to their community. But the Samaritan turned around and came back, and opened himself to Gods’ continuing grace-filled work in him.

Every day we have the chance to notice the beauty, the wonder, and the love that surrounds us. Every day we are given the opportunity to lift up with thanksgiving all that we are and all that we have to God. Every day we have the chance to shout out loudly through our words and through our actions what God has done and is doing in our lives. Like the other nine people affected with leprosy, gratitude may not always come immediately or naturally. Gratitude may take attention and practice. But being grateful is the place where we can find our truest and best selves. Give thanks. Live in gratitude. Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life because it opens us to all the ways God is working in us .


[1] Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics ,III/3. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960, 564.

[2] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, www.unfoldinglight.net

[3] Dan Baker. What happy people know. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.

[4] Robert A. Emmons. Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, pp. 56-89

[5] Diane Butler-Bass. Grateful: The transformative power of giving thanks. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2018, p.42.

[6] David DeSteno, “Gratitude is about the future, not the past.” Huffington Post, September 21, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost,com/david-desteno/gratitude-research_b_3932043.html