Navigating Knowledge: The Conflict of Gratitude and Equality

Image by J. Nathan Matias

Image by J. Nathan Matias

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. – I Peter 4:9-10 (NIV)


I have recently been analyzing large datasets of appreciation for research on cooperation and diversity online. I used to think that thanking others was an straightforward good, but a literature review has changed how I see the role of gratitude in my life as a Christian and the communities I serve.

Jesus discouraged gratitude, argues theologian Peter Leithart in Gratitude: an Intellectual History. In the New Testament, Christ’s followers are urged to give in secret without expecting anything in return, thanking God as the giver of all good things and avoiding public acknowledgment. Leithart argues that the church, which is ordered around love and equality rather than patronage, social debts, or bribes, became an important precursor to modern institutions (Webb).

A word of thanks often recognizes a favor that might need to be repaid (McCullough et al), what Stoic philosopher Seneca called “the first instalment” in repaying a gift. The New Testament rejects this kind of indebtedness, according to Leithart. When we recognize God as the ultimate giver and rewarder, who exercises free grace towards all, we can give and forgive freely without calculating personal benefit. That free grace is at the heart of the radical equality essential to Christian community.

Imagine however a community without thanks, where people interact primarily to accept or reject each other’s work. For much of the history of the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, it was hard to show appreciation and easier to disagree and revert contributions. Wikipedia’s designers defended it from bad edits rather than encouraging good faith collaboration, creating a high quality encyclopedia but turning away well-intentioned newcomers (Halfaker et al).

Wikipedia added a “thanks” button for specific edits in 2013, among many other inclusion initiatives. I have sampled the English language Wikipedia’s network of 2,244 thank-yous over three summer days in 2014. Figure 1 shows the largest connected component in the graph: each dot is a single editor, and each line shows at least one expression of thanks.

Gratitude is a small voice on Wikipedia (only 0.8% of edits in those three days received thanks), but the thanks network includes many who respond with gratitude of their own — returning appreciation and thanking others in turn. In this period, 839 unique accounts gave or received thanks, and 50% of them were linked to each other in this single connected component of gratitude.

While the New Testament directs our trust and gratitude toward God rather than people, both Paul and Peter praise churches and collaborators. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul praises Macedonian churches for unusual generosity, hoping it will inspire others. In I Peter 5, after encouraging all Christians to “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another,” Peter acknowledges Silas, the co-author of the letter. Gratitude towards the people and institutions who make our work possible is a necessary part of humility.

Equality, gratitude, and pro-sociality are also linked. In one study, successful marriages went beyond fair division of household chores to include a fair “economy of gratitude” that valued both partners’ physical and emotional domestic labor (Alberts et al) (Hochschild & Machung). In life narrative studies, people who actively support their communities often describe their lives through a lens of redemptive gratitude, talking about people, institutions, and deities who gave them advantages and turned difficult times into positive experiences (McAdams).

At home and among our colleagues, practices of thanks and acknowledgment can create traps of social indebtedness and inequality, or they can foster the generous hospitality of a supportive community. As “faithful stewards of God’s grace,” we have the privilege to generously share both hospitality and appreciation, using “whatever gift you have received to serve others.”


  • Do I see my career or home life in terms of gratitude or personal achievement?
  • Do I usually expect something in return when I offer help?
  • Am I adding or detracting from the spirit of appreciation in my relationships and communities?


Dear Father of grace, giver of all good and perfect gifts,

Fill us with the humility that recognizes the gifts of others.

Grant us a spirit of love and equality,

So that we may give and serve without partiality,

And grow like you in kindness and hospitality,

Who gives freely to all. Amen.


  • Alberts, J.K.; S.J. Tracy, A. Trethewey. An Integrative Theory of the Division of Domestic Labor: Threshold Level, Social Organizing and Sensemaking. Journal of Family Communication 11, 1 (2011), 21–38.
  • Halfaker, Aaron; R. Stuart Geiger, Loren G. Terveen. 2014. Snuggle: designing for efficient socialization and ideological critique. (CHI ’14). ACM, New York, NY, USA.
  • Hochschild, A. and Machung, A. The Second Shift. Penguin Books, New York, 2003.
  • Matias, J. Nathan. Gratitude and its Dangers in Social Technologies. MIT Center for Civic Media blog, August 5, 2014.
  • McAdams, Dan P. and Jack J. Bauer Gratitude in Modern Life: Its Manifestations and Development. In The Psychnology of Gratitude, eds Robert A. Emmons & Michael E. McCullough. Oxford University Press, 2004, 81-99.
  • McCullough, Michael; Shelley D. Kilpatrick, Robert A. Emmons, David B. Larson. “Is Gratitude a Moral Affect?” Psychological Bulletin 2001, vol 127, No 2, 249-266.
  • Seneca. de benefeciis. In Moral Essays. Loeb Classical Library, 1928, 480.
  • Webb, Stephen. Review of “Gratitude: An Intellectual History by Peter J. Leithart” Christian Century, April 30, 2014.
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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

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    gravesjk commented on September 28, 2014 Reply

    Interesting article. From an anthropological point-of-view, combined with a Christian point-of-view, I think of cultures in which this sense of indebtedness is a thoroughly ingrained aspect of the culture, which often expresses itself in negative ways. However, could the kind of gratitude that the early Church advocated be a redemptive expression of the cultural values that lead to indebtedness?

    J. Nathan Matias commented on November 25, 2014 Reply

    Gravesjk, that’s, from the limited amount I’ve read, is what Leithart argues.

    In more recent reading, I’ve also learned that indebtedness works both ways. Even when the giver doesn’t expect direct favors in return, people often feel indebted to that person. Expressions of gratitude (and small gifts) sometimes lessen a person’s sense of indebtedness in those cases. It takes time to unlearn direct reciprocity norms when participating in a community that’s organized around network generalized exchange (where you don’t expect people to return direct favors to the people who helped them, and you expect things to balance out across a network). In those cases, a receiver’s sense of indebtedness is reduced when givers to make it clear that they find value in the act of giving, without expecting direct reciprocity.

    During a conversation with colleagues at MIT, someone noted that St Paul often uses a phrase that thanks God for things that other people do for and with him. For example, when thanking his collaborators in the letter to the Philippians, he notes that “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Fascinating!

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