It’s good to be thankful—the so-called attitude of gratitude. I’m not sure that’s all there is to thankfulness, though. As I write this, Thanksgiving Day is upon the land, so it seems appropriate to reflect on this aspect of faithful living.
Thankful thoughts can fill my spirits with other positive feelings—they come with the attitudinal territory. Two possible problems, though: First, like soap bubbles of emotion, my grateful thoughts can float away after the moments when they were first generated. Second, I can be too-easily satisfied with only being thankful. (A cognitive bias might play out here: My brain can be fooled into believing that thinking is an action, that I’ve already done something important when I’ve only thought about a problem or a decision.)
At its core, thanksgiving implies action—an observable behavior. Thanksgiving is not only a set of thoughts, but also a collection of deeds that can be seen and heard. When I’m truly thankful, I might say something—as in “Thanks a lot!” Or, when it comes to thanking God, I might voice my praise for unspeakably wonderful gifts, favors or blessings. Again, these are all good things to engage in. But perhaps they still don’t get to the heart of thanks-giving.
Sometimes I find myself not entirely satisfied with even my most genuine and heartfelt expressions of gratitude. I wonder how else I might show my thanks, perhaps even repaying others for their kindness. So I might add a hug or handshake to my words, or take the time to write a note that adds additional substance to simple verbal thanks.
Here again, those actions don’t always satisfy my wanting to somehow expand my gratitude to match the favor that’s been extended to me. And “repayment” just doesn’t work when it comes to God’s bountiful love for me; God’s grace dwarfs any reciprocal actions I might take.
What has occurred to me recently is that another possible avenue for thanks-doing is available to me, a way of extending thanks-thinking into thanks-living: My thankfulness can motivate me to extend to others the favor I’ve received. Simply stated, I can pass it on.
What am I paying forward? Grace! Both gratitude and grace come from the same Latinate root, gratus, which is why Spanish-speakers express their thanks with ¡Muchas gracias!, perhaps translated literally as “much grace”! I have received kindness—undeserved favor from others or from God—and now send that out into other’s lives. Tangibly, practically, joyfully. In my interactions with others, I can “do grace”—offering pleasing, life-enriching, helpful thoughtfulness wherever possible. And when I am thanked by others, I can acknowledge the gratitude, and say “Pass it on.” In this way, my gratitude becomes part of a long string of grace that extends into others’ lives and attitudes.
At this time in my life, this framework for thankfulness seems especially fitting. During this season of thanksgiving, the full extent of God’s grace is nearly overwhelming. I think I understand in a fresh way what the writer of Psalm 136:7ff (KJV) meant with the question, “What can I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” And in these older adult years, I can find new opportunities to encourage others to keep gratitude alive in our society.
This kind of thankfulness rests on a grateful attitude, but its ultimate source remains God’s grace. This long-lived truth motivates my responses in almost every aspect of my life. I become and remain a thanks-giver, a grace-bringer—evidence of the original thanks-worthy blessing I’ve received.