The Sacrifice of Gratitude:
There is a restaurant in Los Angeles called Café Gratitude, and at this restaurant – unlike a New Jersey diner where one might be accosted by a seasoned waitress with a “whatcha want?” – the patron is greeted with a “question of the day,” something along the lines of “What are you thankful for?” Though I’d prefer not tell a perfect stranger that I’m grateful that my child recently learned to use the bathroom independently before ordering a $17 black bean burger, I guess in some strange way it might disorient one’s perpetual self-focus by an acknowledgment of something outside of oneself – even if it is silly and (less than) half-hearted. And that I can, reluctantly, applaud. Yet the manner of ordering returns – in a no less awkward way than the “question of the day” – to the cultural norm of “self-affirmation.” The menu items: “Sharing” (nachos), “Enchanting” (warm broccolini), “Humble” (curry bowl), for example, are ordered by saying “I am Humble” or “I am Enchanting.” And missing no chance for awkward pseudo-positivity, the dishes are delivered by the server with an affirmation: “You are Sharing” (aka, “Here’s your nachos”).
While it’s always tempting simply to poke fun at cultural silliness from one’s theological high horse, it would be unfair to the truly positive effects that many have experienced from a “practice of gratitude.” While I feel comfortable denouncing the trappings of Café Gratitude – if not their food – as pure self-indulgent fluff, what might a Christian make of the more serious, if secular, practices of “cultivating gratitude” in one’s life? What might differentiate a truly Christian approach from the general cultural practice?
Psychology Today defines gratitude as follows: “Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what one has. It is a recognition of value independent of monetary worth. Spontaneously generated from within, it is an affirmation of goodness and warmth.” 1
Considering this definition, I want to suggest that there are two ways that distinguish a Christian understanding of gratitude from our current cultural understanding: the source and the end.
First, the source. The above definition imagines that we don’t simply cultivate a “practice of gratitude” but that we “generate it from within.” It imagines that we are the primary agents, that we are creating something: “a feeling of goodness and warmth.” While the definition admits that there is something already existing – “what one has” — that we can be reflective about, it suggests that the serious work is one that the individual agent manifests.
A Christian view pushes back the needle to the primary agent of creation: the Creator. Whatever we have, a Christian affirms, is a gift from God, through whom all things exist, in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We cannot spontaneously generate anything from within ourselves, as we are creatures. We begin not even as those who are merely reflective upon some pre-existent goodness, but ultimately as those who are primarily receptive. And from that posture of receptivity, we recognize the distinction between the Creator and his creatures.
Secondly, we must address the end of gratitude. Culturally, the end (or we might say purpose or destination) of gratitude is, as noted above, “affirmation.” In one sense, this is not wholly wrong. In recognizing the condescension of God’s love, as expressed by his giving us life, and sustenance, and community, and even a share of agency, we are surely “affirmed” as the apple of his eye. Our life is not meaningless, just “one damned thing after another.” Most profoundly, Christians believe that God not only affirms us, but that he took on human nature. He not only tells us distantly that he loves us, but he gives us his very self in his Son, Jesus. And because of this unbelievable gift, the gift to us not simply of some benign “goodness and warmth,” but of life in him, we must respond.
But a Christian response is not primarily a matter of individual agency: instead it is a corporate offering. In the liturgy we offer to God, in response to his gift of our very lives, “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.” We offer him a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” Gratitude for a Christian is a recognition that God is both the source and end of our lives. In our birth he gave us life, and in our death we will entrust ourselves to him. Every time that we gather to worship it is an opportunity to stand back from the busyness of our lives and to recognize the endless gifts bestowed upon us by the God who loves us and gave himself for us.
In this week where the whole nation is giving thanks, let us offer back to God what he has given us: our very lives, in a sacrifice of gratitude.
This essay by Fr. Jameson was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on Nov. 20, 2022. Image: Cafe Gratitude