When Gratitude is Hard (Or: The Reason We’re Not Grateful)

That little red number blazed at me on the top right of my computer screen. I had effectively ignored the fact that it was alerting me to the reality that someone had sent me a message, but every time I logged on it relentlessly popped up. Having stared at me three days, I was torn between my desire to make it go away and my desire to avoid the message’s content.

As I quickly transitioned to another web page, I caught myself in a sobering moment of immaturity: there was someone that I needed to thank, and I didn’t want to.

That little red icon unforgivingly reminded of a woman in our church who was reaching out to encourage me. Knowing her character, I knew the message was bound to be full of nurturing words that can only come from a woman of her maturity and wisdom. Without having read the message I knew it would nourish my heart, and that I should thank her for her kind words. What’s more, I should want to thank her. But something in me didn’t want to. Something in me consistently tried to evade the necessity of expressing my gratitude.

I am a person who has to work to be grateful. It is more in my nature to be cynical than to be thankful (can I get an amen?), and so I have to be attentive, to watch my heart carefully and cautiously, reminding myself to feel gratitude and to express it.

Though the Scriptures teach us clearly that gratitude is to be our daily habit (Psalm 118:24), that it is to be our posture in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and that it is to infiltrate every action we endeavor (Colossians 3:17), I have found myself, on more than one occasion, withholding my words of thanks to those around me.

Why? Why do I do this? Why do I see others do the same?

I used to think that a lack of gratitude came from being unaware of provisions around you. When I was young, my mother would constantly remind us at the dinner table that God gave us rain. And my young mind was always startled. Of course! I totally forgot that we needed rain to grow our food! I wouldn’t have PBJ if God didn’t send rain to grow the grapes! But as I entered adulthood I noticed more and more – often painfully – the number of provisions around me. As if waking up to the realities of the adult world, I was ever aware of my need for the provisions of health insurance, car insurance, gas money, and laundry machines. Unfortunately, noticing the provisions didn’t cure my ingratitude as I would have anticipated.

So if it isn’t being unaware of the things you need, what makes us avoid gratitude? What stirred in my sinful heart that made me work to evade my proper response of thanks to my friend?

I’ve found there’s one main reason we are not grateful and it is this: gratitude is vulnerable.

The nature of being grateful implies that you are the recipient of something you need, something that has blessed you – and that you are receiving what you need from a specific person. To be grateful for the service of others is to willingly place yourself in a vulnerable posture of receiving from a friend, a sibling, a parent, a minister. At the moment of gratitude you are not in a position of activity, productivity, or control, but a position of receiving. Gratitude is a way of saying, I didn’t (or couldn’t) do that, and I’m so glad you did (or could).

To be grateful in a relationship, whether it is between close friends or colleagues or acquaintances, is to surrender a bit of relational power for the moment. You put yourself in the position of receiving the abilities or powers of another; you succumb to the reality that you cannot do it all, be it all, manage it all. And someone else did something for you that you were not able to do.

It is vulnerable.

It is vulnerable to have someone come to your door and bring you a meal when you’re two weeks into have your second babe. It is a vulnerable to have someone volunteer in your ministry at church, filling in the gaps of your own gifts and time constraints. It is vulnerable to mentally conceive of the financially generosity of those who support us – from our parents to those in the Church. Receiving is vulnerable.

It is this vulnerability that makes us avoid thanking others. We don’t come right out and say, “I’m not really thankful she did that.” No, we’re not that brash. Instead, we elude the mental notification that keeps popping up insisting that we extend our genuine thanks, and instead rationalize away the gift extended to us by another. We tell ourselves that the inconvenience was her own prerogative, that she wanted to do it, and if it was difficult, well, that’s kinda her fault for signing up. We subtly – but strategically – avoid thanking people in our lives because we don’t want to acknowledge our need for others.

To thank others, to practice gratitude, requires that we submit ourselves to the help of others. It is to, for the moment, give up a bit of power in our relationships. Gratitude takes the back seat, places itself under the generosity or kindness of someone else.

This is why it will always be difficult for those who love power to be grateful. Take notice this week: the least thankful people in your life are likely also those who love to maintain authority in their relationships. They are those more comfortable maintaining the upper hand than lifting others ahead of themselves. When we love power, we cannot be grateful.

As women of the Gospel – as women who have been brought from death to life – it is incumbent upon us to be grateful people. And this change will involve more than just changing the words we press from our lips: it is heart-deep. We love power and we love to keep our worlds free from vulnerability. But our reality is this: in salvation, we gave our good God all the power in our lives, we submitted to Him alone as King, and submitted ourselves to being vulnerable before Him. There is no room for power plays in the kingdom of God because He gets all the power and all the glory – forever and ever! This reality frees us from our incessant desire to maintain authority or power in our relationships and lives. The Gospel of Jesus sets us free to be truly grateful, and enables us to look our sisters in the eye and say, “Thank you.”

Let’s work on this this week. You and I, let’s be women of the Gospel who are thankful, who are grateful, and who say it aloud. Let’s inch ourselves ever and ever in the direction of Christ, being sanctified from our sinful tendencies by the Spirit of God, women who walk in the light. Let’s be grateful, and with joy confess how much we need each other.


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