A few years ago, university psychologists conducted a research project on gratitude and thanksgiving. They divided participants into three groups. People in the first group practiced daily exercises like writing in a gratitude journal. They reported higher levels of alertness, determination, optimism, energy, and less depression and stress than the control group. Unsurprisingly, they were also a lot happier than the participants who were told to keep an account of all the bad things that happened each day.
One of the psychologists concluded that though a practice of gratitude is a key to most religions, its benefits extend to the general population, regardless of faith or no faith. He suggested that anyone can increase his sense of well-being just from counting his blessings.
As my colleague Ellen Vaughn wrote in her book, Radical Gratitude, no one is going to disagree that gratitude is a virtue. But, Ellen says, counting our blessings and conjuring an attitude of to-whom-it-may-concern gratitude, Pollyanna-style is not enough.
What do we do when cancer strikes -- I have two children who have battled it -- or when loved ones die, when we find ourselves in the midst of brokenness and real suffering? That, she says, is where gratitude gets radical.
While they often mingle together in the life of a follower of Christ, there are actually two types of thankfulness. One is secondary, the other primary.
The secondary sort is thankfulness for blessings received. Life, health, home, family, freedom, a tall, cold lemonade on a summer day -- it's a mindset of active appreciation for all good gifts.
The great preacher and American theologian Jonathan Edwards called thanks for such blessings "natural gratitude." It's a good thing, but this gratitude doesn't come naturally -- if at all -- when things go badly. It can't buoy us in difficult times. Nor, by itself, does it truly please God. And, to paraphrase Jesus, even pagans can give thanks when things are going well.
Edwards calls the deeper, primary form of thankfulness "gracious gratitude." It gives thanks not for goods received, but for who God is: for His character -- His goodness, love, power, excellencies -- regardless of favors received. And it's real evidence of the Holy Spirit working in a person's life.
This gracious gratitude for who God is also goes to the heart of who we are in Christ. It is relational, rather than conditional. Though our world may shatter, we are secure in Him. The fount of our joy, the love of the God who made us and saved us, cannot be quenched by any power that exists (Romans 8:28-39). People who are filled with such radical gratitude are unstoppable, irrepressible, overflowing with what C. S. Lewis called "the good infection" -- the supernatural, refreshing love of God that draws others to Him.
And that, more than any words we might utter, is a powerful witness to our neighbors that God's power is real, and His presence very relevant, even in a world full of brokenness as well as blessings.