When Matthew Henry, the well-known churchman and commentator of eighteenth-century England, was robbed by highwaymen, he wrote in his diary: "Let me be thankful, first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed."
Gratitude is an important element in the Christian's life. Scripture admonishes us to have it, we benefit from it, and God appreciates it. But are our expressions of gratitude always genuine?
In his book Theological Dynamics ([Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972], p. 48) Seward Hiltner speaks of two faulty forms of gratitude. The first he calls pseudogratitude. It involves professing thankfulness for something for which one is not really thankful. He says it is an attempt to focus attention away from the problem—both the attention of the person himself and the attention of others. Hiltner says pseudogratitude is a dynamic stratagem of concealment, although it is rarely conscious and deliberate.
Hiltner terms the second problematic form of false gratitude reactive gratitude. With it one begins with honest feelings of thankfulness and a focus on the gift that has been given. But later one tends to feel resentful about the power of the giver and thus to depreciate the gift.
Christians may be threatened by either of these distortions of gratitude. Paul admonished the Ephesians that they be "always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father" (Eph. 5:20, R. S. V.). Some believe this means we are to give thanks for everything that happens to. us, no matter how fraught with evil. It seems to me that they make a real mistake here. We can find some good in almost any situation, no matter how terrible. But to say that everything that happens to us is good and something for which to be thankful is not to accept the reality of evil in our world. As Hiltner says, this is pseudogratitude: a strategy—whether conscious or not—for denying, ignoring, or concealing a problem.
Reactive gratitude holds its own dangers. It says, in effect, "You had better kowtow to me, because I am in the position to withhold something of importance to you." As Hiltner notes (pp. 49, 51), people have often required gratitude of others as a means of reminding them of their inferiority. So those in positions of power have often expected gratitude of society's less powerful groups—adolescents, blacks, workers, and women, for instance.
Since the Fall man has had an innate drive for independence from God. While we may be initially grateful to God for what He has done for us, we may come to resent His power in our lives. We may come to believe that upon entering His service we lost our independence.
Genuine gratitude must come to terms with the power of the giver in the life of the receiver. How can we avoid developing resentment and reactive gratitude toward God? I believe the answer lies in properly understanding His character and the reason for His giving. While in one sense we are totally dependent upon God for life and salvation, in another sense He has given us real independence. Even as "slaves" of His, we are to use our own minds to think and our own wills to choose. And His gifts come because of His unconditional love. They are not attempts to manipulate us into servility. As Jesus said, " 'He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust' " (Matt. 5:45, R.S.V.).
To be genuine, gratitude must arise spontaneously. How can we cultivate "spontaneous" gratitude? Not by willing or manipulating ourselves into this emotion. Since genuine gratitude arises when we clearly see God and what He has done for us, we nurture it as we reflect on His character in general and His goodness to us in particular.— D.C.J.