Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


Surprised by Gratitude

I woke up one morning and sleepily stumbled into my kitchen. For some unknown reason, on the way to the far end of the kitchen where that sacred coffee pot rests, I decided to stop and look out the kitchen window into my front yard. It was there I saw it, or should I say, felt it. I must admit, it took me by surprise. It snuck up on me, and when it grabbed me it squeezed me pretty hard. It was gratitude I felt that morning. A deep river of thankfulness within I didn’t even know existed. I can’t take credit for it; I wasn’t even looking for it. I’d have to say that it found me, rather than I found it. With it came a gladness unrivaled by anything I’d ever experienced. I suppose what made it especially nice was that I knew who to thank. It’s been said that the worst possible moment for the atheist is when he feels grateful and yet has no one to thank. Gratitude. There is no doubt that one of the greatest pleasures on earth is this feeling of gratitude.

My father had a heavier way with gratitude. Years ago, my dad came home with from a shopping spree with a jacket he picked out just for me. His face shone with the gladness of a giver. I took one look at it and though I think I knew better, I cringed. It had squared-off shoulders and it was cut short at the waist and it just wasn’t the look I wanted. Few things ever made my dad as angry as my ingratitude on that winter evening. He did what all parents do, myself included. He pressed gratitude into the mold of duty: “Mark, you ought to be grateful!”

Certainly he was right. His sentiments reflect the wisdom of all ages. The Roman sage, Cicero, called gratitude “the mother of all virtue.” The ancient stoic, Seneca, wrote, “There was never any man so wicked as not to approve of gratitude and detest ingratitude.” Immanuel Kant, the Father of modern philosophy, agreed: “Ingratitude,” he wrote, “is the essence of all vileness.” And the great theologian, Karl Barth, said that gratitude is “the one thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded” of us.

More importantly, scripture speaks of the duty of gratitude. In Colossians 3:15 Paul very simply says, “Be thankful.” In his first letter to the Thessalonians he writes, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” And finally, in Romans 1:21 Paul names ingratitude as the chief characteristic of sinful man and the one thing that propels man into further darkness: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Settled then! Ingratitude reeks. Gratitude is our moral obligation. But still I wonder if we can really be thankful the way God wants on command. I wonder if God wants more than a thankfulness that proceeds out of a guilty conscience that says, “You ought to be grateful!” I wonder if that sacred moment I shared by the kitchen window wasn’t something closer to what God has in mind when he says to us, “You be thankful.”

Is thankfulness a duty we work at or a gift we simply stand by and receive? Perhaps a little bit of both. Lewis Smedes, whose book, A Pretty Good Person, has helped me formulate my thoughts on all this, says it like this: “Gratitude dances through the open windows of our heart. We cannot force it. We cannot create it. And we can certainly close our windows to keep it out. But, we can also keep them open and be ready for joy when it comes.” Later this week, as we prepare for Thanksgiving, I will write about some of these windows that we can learn to keep open so that gratitude might enter.