All this month, my Facebook feed has been filled with friends participating in 30 Days of Thanksgiving, posting each day about something for which they are thankful — their family, their friends, the goodness of God’s provision, etc. The regular practice of gratitude is an important guard against cynicism and self-righteousness and something that I endorse. Even so, it was hard for me not to laugh at the Facebook post of a friend, who recently left a PhD program in Second Temple Judaism and is currently struggling to find meaningful work:
Well I know I’m late and that I’m a novice at it, but here goes; Day 8:
“…God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” For what are you grateful for today? 
Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline
Gratitude is hard. When things are going well, it’s easy to believe that we have accomplished our success entirely through our own effort and that we owe nothing to anyone else, least of which God. In his book The Beauty of God’s Holiness, my InterVarsity colleague Tom Trevethan writes of people he has known whose careers have taken off quickly or who have given themselves entirely over to someone or something else, ignoring God and, like the praying Pharisee of my friend’s joke, becoming deluded in their quest for success apart from God.
Now the idolatrous character of this sort of thing is clear. But those of us whose careers have not been wildly successful can see all too much of ourselves in it as well. Our envy and admiration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous speaks volumes about our deepest loyalties, desires and ambitions. Again, it must be said, “A deluded mind misleads us.” (The Beauty of God’s Holiness, 43)
Tom and I hear regularly from young scholars who struggle to find work, to complete their programs, to follow God in the midst of academic competition. One of the first things I wrote for ESN — The Calling of a Christian Scholar — dealt with the difficulty of finding work and following one’s calling in the current academic job market. That was in 2008, and things haven’t improved much, in academia or elsewhere in the economy. Earlier this month, I lost the job that I had taken in January after moving from full time to part time with ESN. It’s been difficult for my wife and I to be thankful while calculating how far my severance package will stretch.
Gratitude, however, is a spiritual discipline. In fact, it’s one of the first disciplines addressed in Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
Thanksgiving is possible not because everything goes perfectly but because God is present. The Spirit of God is within us — nearer to us than our own breath. It is a discipline to choose to stitch our days together with the thread of gratitude. But the decision to do so is guaranteed to stitch us closer to God. Attend to the truth that “bidden or unbidden, God is present.” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 2005, 30)
Developing the Discipline of Gratitude
Like any discipline, gratitude must be practiced in order for us to get better at it. Another InterVarsity colleague, National Co-Director of Spiritual Formation & Prayer Jay Sivits reminded me of that in her recent article for The Well, Developing the Discipline of Gratitude.
Why is the discipline of gratitude so important? Why must I cultivate this disposition in my life? Gratitude is an interactive spiral between a giver and a receiver. It recognizes that a gift has been given. It recognizes a favor done by someone for us. Gratitude is also a response to that gift. We thank the giver with an expression of appreciation. A gesture of gratitude completes the circle and lets the loving act flow from giver to receiver and then back to the giver again.
Like the good chaplain that she is, Jay doesn’t stop at an abstract discussion of gratitude — she gives us practical work to do! Jay provides three spiritual exercises, and I encourage you to take some time this week, when Americans are supposed to stop for a bit and give thanks, to work through one or more of the exercises. Here’s a taste, but I encourage to read the whole article:
Wherever you are right now, look around and become aware of your surroundings. Be open to nature, other people, and your own self.
- What do you see? Make a list. What you observe can lead you to a prayer of wonder.
- Who do you see? If you are alone, make a list of five people whom you have seen today. What do you know about them that you are grateful for? Write their name and what you are grateful for. When you see them later today or during the week, tell them what you’re grateful for.
- Yourself. What are you grateful for about you? Where have you seen God at work for which you can say Thank you God? Write these things below and give him thanks.
- For what are you grateful for today?
- If you don’t get the joke, click here. ↩
- As a reminder of the independence of gratitude from circumstances, consider the holiday of Thanksgiving. While we usually recount the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, the holiday actually traces its origin to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War. ↩