The Discipline of Gratitude

We often hear comments from friends and supporters that they wish their children could come and visit us in Cameroon for a time. What they mean is that their kids have been expressing attitudes of ingratitude or entitlement and they believe that some time spent in an African village will help them to see how much they have to be thankful for. We all chuckle, and sigh, with the recognition that we are not going to fly a child to Cameroon just for an attitude check. However, whether these parents know it or not, there is a greater problem with the plan than just logistics: exposure to poverty will never cure an ungrateful heart.

In Cameroon we live primarily with the poor, and we see the things you think about when you imagine an African village. I have seen a child die of starvation. I regularly see women walking to the fields with enormous goiters, and returning with impossible loads on their backs. I know one child that had to have his finger amputated because of an easily curable infection. Our neighbors primarily have dirt floors, cook outside over a fire, and have constant, gnawing needs that seem impossible to resolve.

I, on the other hand, have never gone long without a good meal. I have always had a way to get good medical care. No one in my family has ever died of a curable disease. And I do not worry about my children’s futures, ever. And yet, deep within my well cared for, overnourished flesh I consistently and disappointingly discover a deep, nagging, ingratitude. My mind tends to focus on what I lack, rather than what I have. And there is no physical experience that can bring remedy to this deep problem.

Fighting for Gratitude

I have come to learn that exposure to poverty does not make the rich less entitled. Exposure to the sick does not make the well more thankful for their health. Rather, I have come to see that gratitude is a discipline.

In his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Don Whitney says, “And in my own pastoral and personal Christian experience, I can say that I’ve never known a man or woman who came to spiritual maturity except through discipline. Godliness comes through discipline.” Godliness is something that is wrought of effort, not passivity. Godliness is not the result of experiences, but discipline.

Though Whitney does not include it as one of the spiritual disciplines that we need to work at, I believe gratitude belongs on the list. The main reason I believe that gratitude is a discipline is that in my own life, and in those around me, I have found that gratitude is not the natural condition of our hearts. This belief is reinforced by the sheer number of times the Bible calls us to “rejoice” and “be thankful.” We would not need a call to rejoice if we naturally rejoiced.

One verse is particularly convicting to me, especially when I am complaining in my heart about Cameroonian food:

1 Timothy 4:4-5 “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

God created all kinds of food which are to be received with thanksgiving. However, there are many foods that the Kwakum people eat that I am not used to. Their main staple is something that the English speakers call Fufu. I have eaten it for years and still cannot get used to the taste and texture. There are many bush meats that we eat: monkey, porcupine, and rat to name a few. My soul does not by nature rejoice at eating these foods. But do I have the faith to believe they were created to be received with thanksgiving?

In Cameroon, I am tempted to complain about the food, bugs, heat, and people. What that reveals is that what comes easy to me is love of self, and comfort. I do not have to work at selfishness, nor do my children, or the Kwakum for that matter. And it is therefore far too easy to ignore the suffering around me when I experience even minor discomfort because my eyes are naturally on myself. I have come to understand that I need to discipline my mind to fight for gratitude. In order to discipline myself, I need to change my way of viewing my circumstances.

Gratitude is rooted in faith

As I looked over verses about thankfulness for this post I was struck by the fact that we are often called to gratitude based on God’s works. Psalm 9:1 says, “I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” And Psalm 7:17 says, “I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness; I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.” Thankfulness to the Lord is rooted in a knowledge of who he is and what he does. Gratitude is all about God, believing that no matter what is happening to me, God is good and he does good. Gratitude says, “Even though I am uncomfortable or even suffering, I believe that God is faithful and will do the good that he has always done.”

I have found that the suffering of others will never really make me more content with what I have. Rather, I just become discontent for both of us. But if I understand that God is infinite, eternal, not lacking in anything, and that God is for me, and that he works all things together for my good, then I can know thankfulness. I can know gratitude because I know that whatever is happening is God’s plan for my good. Gratitude, then, is an expression of faith. Gratitude is a belief that everything that happens ultimately comes from God and knowing God as one who keeps his promises, is therefore for my good.

Generosity leads to gratitude

I have no idea if the following is a true story, I don’t even remember where I got it. But I have it attributed to someone named Josh Wolcott. He said,

“Another time, my dad gave 50 bucks to a guy who said he needed to buy medicine for his kids. I told my dad he was probably going to spend the money on alcohol or something, but my dad said that ‘whether he was lying or not says something about HIS character, but hearing someone in need and choosing not to help when I have the means to says something about mine.’”

This story is an oversimplification of things, I know. In Cameroon I am faced with constant moral dilemmas when people ask me for money. One time I gave money to a man for his child who had a severe infection. The man took the money, got drunk, and never used any of the money for his kid. This resulted in the amputated finger I mentioned above.

However, I believe the story attributed to Josh Wolcott above does have truth in it. Not that we are always going to give, but that when we are pressed to provide for the needs of others, our hearts are exposed. A lack of desire to give indicates a character problem. It indicates a lack of faith, a lack of gratitude. I believe that godly gratitude leads to generosity, which is something I have seen in my own heart as well as in those around me.

But as I was reflecting upon how gratitude leads to generosity, I also came upon the following verse:

2 Corinthians 9:11 “You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”

Paul tells us here that generosity actually leads to gratitude. Yes, I think that this means that those who benefit from our generosity will be thankful. However, I think that it also creates thanksgiving in our hearts. Years ago I was a poor college kid in Southern California. I had a car, but it was a beater and always just on the edge of breaking down. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I needed to repair something urgently. I had told a few people about my vehicle woes, and one of them surreptitiously gifted me the money I needed to get the repair. When I found the money (which was hidden in my ashtray), I was over the moon. All of the anxiety of the last few weeks melted off my shoulders and I knew I would be able to continue to get to work, and school, and church.

My generous friend was not able to remain secret. I knew who it was immediately. The next time I saw him I couldn’t help but overflow with thankfulness. He responded to my thanks with something like, “I am just so thankful that I could help.” This godly man has blessed me over and over again throughout the years, and I know for sure that he would affirm with Christ that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog in which I shared a testimony of a woman named Mami. Mami shared that though her father had been murdered and unborn child died in the womb…she was thankful. Why? Because she trusted the Lord, and saw that he was working these things together for her good. This has caused me to ask: “If Mami can be thankful for a murder and a miscarriage, what is keeping me from being thankful in my comfort and plenty?”

Mami is poor, and has suffered so much more than I have. Yet, it is not her suffering that challenges me to be grateful, it is her faith. I think that the spiritual discipline of gratitude will require us to bring to mind all the good that God has done. It will mean that when we are enduring difficulty and suffering we will choose to believe that God will remain faithful to his promises. It will mean that we fight, battling against ingratitude, trusting that God is good, and giving generously out of a heart of faith.

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Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

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