The question: If in the Incarnation of Christ we have received the fulness of “grace and truth” (John 1:14), how should we respond and what should our gratitude look like?
In discussing the science of gratitude through the work of U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons a few nights ago, my friend Bill and I were engaged in a spirited debate about the nature of gratitude, especially as we look at the greatest gift of all this season, the birth of Jesus Christ. I thought some of that discussion is worth posting here. My comments below will serve mainly as foils for Bill’s reflections.
(And, in order to get this posted by Monday--which is my pattern--you're seeing this in a form that's still a bit rough-hewn. So I reserve the right to make a few edits this week to help clarify our meaning. Still I think the essence of our discussion/debate is here.)
Feel free to comment on how you see the answer to this question.
Bill: It’s become popular to reduce gratitude to an emotion, but I resist that idea. While I agree there are emotions associated with it, it is much more than a feeling. My emotional responses have a lot to do with my chemical or hormonal levels at the moment. Identifying gratitude as an emotion overlooks that an actual debt is incurred. The debt is real, despite the giver waving it off. Gifts create bonds that we actually feel some reciprocation is necessary. It’s misused as a common sales technique to manipulate someone to reciprocate by buying a product. The emotions that go along with gratitude are those associated with relationships involved. Gratitude does not exist outside of a relationship.
I’ve been excited in seeing that the biblical word for gratitude or thanksgiving (eucharist) literally means “to return good grace.” Returning grace is not a payment for something received, but is an expression of love. When we recognize ways our value has been elevated, we return grace by doing something to elevate the value of the other. “Thank-you” is not properly an expression of gratitude. It is a “place-holder” expression that says, “I am ‘thinking’ of you…” (which is the literal meaning of “thanks”). It is like a yet un-cashed “I.O.U. It says, “I will remember this debt of kindness in some future encounter.”
Greg: Bill, this implies that somehow gratitude necessitates something that we received. I want to challenge the idea that gratitude always meant I personally benefited. It often does, but if that’s the only definition, then gratitude is always selfish. And what the Spirit leads us toward is serving others and moving beyond our interests alone: “Look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others,” as Paul write sin Philippians 2: 4. And there are even more mundane examples. We can experience gratitude when something good happens for a friend. “Hey, I’m thankful you won a car at the Almond Bowl football raffle” (which really did happen to a friend of mine).
Bill: I find your example challenging. It does give me something to think about. However, I would ask, “Why chose the word grateful?" The word “gratitude” itself contains a form of the word grace and it implies that you have received grace.
Greg: We must be careful of taking the roots of words too seriously, sometimes words do in fact mean what their roots imply, other times the meaning has meandered through the centuries. To note the ways that words change, C. S. Lewis, for example, points out in Mere Christianity that gentleman had nothing originally to do with kindness or propriety, but simply that you were in a particular social class. To be more precise, originally, a gentleman was a man of the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire and above a yeoman. But the word has morphed. And the little roots of “gentle” and “man” don’t really help much either.
Bill: While this is true, words change meaning, it is also true that the etymology of words frequently point to important distinctions in reality… distinctions we can point to and identify. These distinctions are lost, forgotten, or obscured when we reduce the meaning of a word. If we begin to use the word “gratitude” as a synonym for “glad,” then we have in effect lost the word.
As C.S. Lewis has also pointed out, there is a tendency for a culture to reduce all words to synonyms for “good” and “bad.” This is also one of my concerns in focusing on gratitude as an emotion. It has the effect of reducing it to an “emoji.” It is reduced to a subjective experience to be studied by psychology. Gratitude is an excellent word to describe the response to receiving grace. It means we didn’t deserve or even ask for it, but we have personally benefited.
A second consideration to be addressed in your example is this: Who are you grateful to? The consensus of those in our group, and the papers we had read together [from the work of Emmons and texts he edited], seemed to agree that gratitude was personal and intentional response to gift that was both intentional and personal. Who are you grateful to for this benefit? If emotions “move us” toward some action (as the word and research implies), what did his gratitude move you to do.
Greg: Yes, gratitude implies indebtedness. And when we think of the Incarnation during this month, the grandeur of that gift leads us to sense indebtedness to God—and that is reflected in the biblical texts. But there is this higher way our relationship with God that Jesus points to when he refers to his disciples as “friends” (John 15:15). Simply put, friends aren’t just debtors. Even more, Paul’s deepest conviction—expressed passionately in Galatians—is that we are free for Christ (not, of course, free from doing what’s right). Faith receives grace freely, apart from works. I'm concerned that to feel the burden of reciprocity twists grace into a form of works that nullified the grace given. We can never pay back what God has done in Christ, and to act as if we could is to live in a form of slavery God never intends.
Bill: While grace is freely given and cannot be earned, nor can it in any way be repaid… the act of grace has indebted me to another in that the value of my life has been increased at their expense. Even though they do this freely, without expectation of a return, the moral register of the recipient usually recognizes the debt of gratitude. While this debt can be ignored, in most cases, if it is brought to our attention, we respond with expressions of gratitude. We could imagine an exaggerated example of ingratitude… someone accepting gifts as if they were a right “because grace doesn’t expect anything in return anyway.” The exaggeration makes the point that we have an innate sense of the injustice in such a response. I'm not suggesting your advocating such a response… only that such a response could be a logical extension of what you seem to be proposing. I believe your initial instinct is correct, that grace is not a burden, but frees us. And it is important to guard against turning grace into manipulations. I believe what I’m saying addresses that.
I want to repeat, our indebtedness has nothing to do with what the other person expects in return. It has to do with the recognition of the moral law of justice, and what is rightfully ours to take at the expense of another. In other words, justice demands a return of some sort (and this has been the philosophical conundrum Aristotle talked about), but it cannot be a return that nullifies the grace in the gift. You can’t buy the gift. The justice required is when receiving grace, is a return of grace. A return of grace means you owe a debt of “gratitude.” This is expressed by doing something to elevate the value of the giver. This is not a payment or response to the gift, but to the giver. For grace is really not in the gift, but a gift of grace is really an extension of the persons themselves. Grace is always personal, intentional and relational and therefore gratitude must be so also. This is why Paul identifies ingratitude (in Romans 1:21) as the sin that darkens the mind to God.
Practicing gratitude (which we read in Emmons's work) are really practices of awareness. As we become aware of our connections to others through gracious acts, it should evoke the experience of being loved… which is why it has health benefits. But to be actively aware of, and to take advantage of, the love of another without intent of reciprocating that love will be self-limiting… for it is a form of injustice. It disregards the personal nature of the gift… that the gift is a form of the persons themselves. Any disregarding or demeaning of a person is an injustice… and ingratitude can be a form of injustice.
Greg: As you begin to talk about the practical form of gratitude, I think our perspectives are really close. The word ingrate is still, in my vocabulary, a sign of moral weakness, even sin. It would be hard to find a more fundamental theological statement about our life in response to God than James 1:17: "Every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights."
Bill: Yes, to ignore the debt of gratitude is equal to the mistake of trying to “re-pay” a gift given. Both actions nullify to person as a giver. They both focus on the nature of the gift and their relationship to the gift rather than the giver. Grace is the essence of relational bonds. You must “return grace” for “grace.” This must also be something that is not earned, but gives value TO the giver... rather than merely giving something of value to the giver. This is “grace for grace.”
Sex is an example of the exercise of grace and the return of grace (gratitude). If the sexual union becomes an exchange for money or reward for work, it is profaned by the denial of its true nature. Its nature is to bond a relationship in love and care. Despite claims of “free-love,” and the proclamation of “no strings attached,” there are always “strings” that will have a profound effect on everyone involved. The strings are real, not because the grace isn’t freely given, but because grace is always costly to the giver... and it directly affects our identity and value... and it undergirds our connection with the rest of the world. But this kind of binding is the nature of love. It frees us by securing us.
When grace is not returned, there is a breach in the relationship. Gratitude can never be selfish, because it is the recognition and care for these relational bonds. The danger of manipulation comes when we don’t recognize that grace and gratitude does not begin or end with us. We are not the source of the grace… for we all have received and can extend grace only to the extent we recognize we have received grace. We channel the grace we have been given. We are stewards of the grace of God. We should be grateful for every steward and show our appreciation… but our true debts are to the one who bestowed the grace first. Gratitude is what creates community, for it is a binding exchange that involves a long chain relationships that begin and end with God. The Apostle Paul’s solution to avoid manipulation is interesting. In a thank you letter to the Philippians he is careful to never actually say “thank you” to them. He chooses instead to say, “I thank God for you….” Gratitude, if it is not to be manipulative or diminished, is always in some way, a recognition of the grace of God.