Godless vs. Godward Gratitude

This fall, I wrote a short response to an essay by Laura Hillenbrand, which she wrote on the topic of gratitude called “Two-Minute Ode to Chocolate.” Actually, it’s probably the other way around; it was Hillenbrand who wrote the short essay, and I who wrote a long response.

Regardless, my central critique was that real gratitude must terminate somewhere (or better, not somewhere but on Someone). Hillenbrand’s gratitude, however, while abundant in her essay, doesn't terminate anywhere or on anyone. Instead, her thanksgiving just wafts away, as though it will be reabsorbed back into the impersonal universe that gave her such marvelous gifts in the first place.

This, however, is not how gratitude should work. This is god-less gratitude. It’s not godless because it is the sum of all evil; it’s godless because it is gratitude devoid God.

At one place in my response I wrote,

I love Hillenbrand’s prose, but she simply stops short; she traces [the source of her many blessings] around the globe to farmers and seeds and donkeys and red soil and even to the heavens for rain. But while she traces them “in every direction,” her gratitude arrives nowhere, like a perpetual road trip without a destination. Hillenbrand explores the rivers but never to their source.

True gratitude traces blessings back to their source, their ultimate source. True gratitude is Godward.

We see this kind of Godward gratitude very clearly in Psalm 136, which serves as a stark contrast to Hillenbrand’s essay. Psalm 136 has 26 verses, each with a unique statement that expresses thanksgiving to God followed by the repetition of, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

The psalm starts with God,

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

And it ends with God,

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

And in the middle, the psalm thanks God for general things, such as

25 [It is] he who gives food to all flesh,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

As well, the psalm thanks God for specifics things, such as

15 [he] overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

This is Godward gratitude.

It’s gratitude that starts with God and ends with God. It’s gratitude that sees every blessing, the specific and the general, as gifts from a personal God—not an impersonal universe.

In two days, millions of people will celebrate Thanksgiving. We’ll sit around a table, we’ll eat a hearty meal, and we’ll (hopefully) express our gratitude. This is a good thing. It’s healthy to remind ourselves of the many blessings that we have received.

But this Thanksgiving, don’t make Hillenbrand’s mistake. Don’t make the mistake of failing to direct your gratitude towards God. Instead, trace your thanksgiving to it’s source.

As you go around the table to express your thanks, rather than simply saying, “This year, I’m so thankful for ___________,” instead say, “This year, I’m so thankful to God for ___________.”

It’s a subtle but huge difference. If you say this from your heart, not as a Christian cliché, it’s the difference between godless and Godward gratitude.