St. Paul offers us this challenge: “Be filled with the Spirit . . . giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20) (emphasis added). Be thankful “at all times” and for “everything?” “Well that would seem to include suffering and evil. Really Lord – you want me to be thankful for that trial in my life? I'll be thankful for other things but not for that. That's impossible! Lord, at the very least, maybe you could tell me a little bit more about how I can live this radical gratitude? Help my unbelief!”
This is how my prayer dialogue went with God one day as I examined my attitude toward gratitude. I thought to myself, “Do I treat gratitude as just one of those nice pious sentiments that I should do in general, but ignore when it costs me? In other words, do I make gratitude just a platitude?” I know I have treated gratitude in that way and have brushed off the Christian teaching to be thankful 'at all times' as idealistic on more than one occasion. I began to examine my soul more in depth. Why do I do this? “Usually,” I concluded, “it is because of a lack of knowledge as to why something is good for me and because my thoughts are too limited on the topic.” But God wants to break open our limited thoughts and actions. So I pressed on in my search for a deeper meaning of gratitude. Here is what I discovered.
I read a book recently that changed my perspective on gratitude. The author explained that gratitude is not just a good practice to do occasionally to uplift our spiritual lives, but is actually a necessary law of every Christian spiritual life. Gratitude is not an option; it is something we have to practice regardless of temperament, disposition, or circumstance. Based on my reading, I came up with two patterns for our spiritual life: the “cycle of spiritual fruitfulness” and the “cycle of spiritual emptiness”.
The cycle of spiritual fruitfulness begins with trust in God, which is nourished through faithfulness to one’s prayer life. Through prayer, gratitude grows. Gratitude is being aware of God’s many gifts in the daily happenings of our lives. Gratitude then becomes a necessary part of trust, especially in the midst of our suffering because gratitude opens up our heart to God. As we see more of God in our lives, then we give more to God and in turn are better able to receive more of God's love and grace in our life. This cycle, which begins with trust and gratitude, then repeats as we grow in love and become more loving gradually. This can be boiled down to:
Trust through Prayer → Gratitude → Opens Heart → More Love
The cycle of spiritual emptiness begins with a lack of trust in God and a lack of faithfulness to one's prayer life. Negativity focused on our weaknesses, what we lack, and our suffering replaces gratitude, closing our hearts and making us less capable of receiving God's love. We may even sin, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, whose ingratitude ultimately led to the first sin (Genesis 3). If we let this endure too long, then our whole life can become one big storm of sadness and anger. This can be boiled down to:
Distrust through Not Praying→ Negativity → Closed Heart → Less Love
Radical Gratitude Reconsidered
The cycle of spiritual fruitfulness offers us several good reasons for why St. Paul instructs us to be grateful at all times and for everything with no exception. If I want to open up my heart more to the Lord and thereby love more, then I must find a way to be thankful - even for the most difficult suffering. Thankfulness is not an option reserved only for those who describe themselves as sanguine or optimists; thankfulness is a necessary part of holiness. It is therefore no coincidence that the highest Sacrament in the Church, the Eucharist, in Greek literally means “thanksgiving, gratitude.”
With this in mind, I went back to my dialogue with God. I asked God for the grace to be more grateful in my daily life for everything. God, in turn, has asked me when I am tempted to be ungrateful and negative to make an act of trust in the moment and find something to be grateful for – health, the fresh crisp autumn air perhaps, or even more profoundly – my daily Sacrament with my wonderful wife – and thereby to become more aware of His love in my life. Slowly then, I become a little more grateful and a little less negative. Eventually I hope to build a habit of radical gratitude for every occasion in my life.
This gratefulness does not come overnight and does not necessitate a formal act of thankfulness at every moment. As I become more grateful in those little moments, I will not only be able to resist ingratitude in the more difficult moments, but will also be better able to be grateful even for new sufferings. In this way, I am trying slowly to become thankful at all times by committing to a few acts of trust each day through gratitude. Radical gratitude is possible, but only through God’s wonderful grace! Through grace, I have come to learn the importance of radical gratitude and the cycle of spiritual fruitfulness. I choose the cycle of spiritual fruitfulness.
What cycle are you on?
Come Holy Spirit, make all of us more radically grateful!