In his recent column for the New York Times titled “The Structure of Gratitude”, David Brooks offers his thoughts on the relationship between expectations and gratitude. He describes how, for example, he is often happier in a cheap motel because his expectations are lower and amenities that seem common place in nicer hotels become pleasant surprises in more economic accommodations. Brooks concludes that “Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.”
To that end, he argues that there are really two kinds of people when it comes to gratitude: those who express thanks when they feel it is deserved and those who seem to be “grateful dispositionally.” The latter consists of individuals that do not take the good things in life for granted, never reaching the point where they feel entitled to life’s blessings.
Brooks goes on to compare such a perspective to the “capitalist meritocracy” where “you get what you pay for” and “earn what you deserve.” He contends that people with a grateful disposition live in a different sort of emotional economy where they believe that what they have been given far surpasses that which they were owed. In short, there’s often a surplus of benefit in any given interaction that should lead the individual to be thankful for what he or she has received.
And the key to consistently having such a disposition, according to Brooks, is that they “see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.” However, there is an important and potentially difficult balance that must be maintained in order to incorporate such a perspective into one’s approach to life. While it is certainly beneficial, not to mention biblical, to not think too highly of ourselves, the danger comes when we go too far in the opposite direction, devaluing ourselves to the point of low self-esteem in an effort to be a more gracious person.
It seems that they key to such a balance is having our source of self-worth come from something, or someone, beyond ourselves. When that source comes not from something we have done but rather from our relationship to another, then we can live with the dual knowledge that we are immensely valuable but that such value is not of our own doing. We are less inclined to become prideful because we recognize that we have little of which to boast. Yet, at the same time, we are filled with a recognition of our own worth because we can trust the source from which that worth comes.
Ultimately, God is the only such source upon whom we can consistently rely. He thought us worth the humiliation, torture, and death of his only son (John 3:16). He values each of us highly enough to wait patiently in the hope that we will accept his offer of salvation (2 Peter 3:9). And when we accept that offer, we are welcomed into his family as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
Yet, scripture is clear that none of that should lead us to arrogance or a heightened sense of entitlement. As Paul concludes in 2 Corinthians 12 after listing all the things God has done through him, “on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Cor. 12:5-6).
If anyone in the early church had reason to boast, it was Paul. But instead of focusing on what he had done and what he was entitled to as a result of his efforts, he allowed his awareness of God’s goodness and mercy to lead him to gratitude. As he told the church in Philippi and as he exhibited throughout his Christian walk, such thankfulness was the key to experiencing the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:6-7).
God was the source of his self-worth and he was filled with a never-ending sense of gratitude as a result. He knew peace in troubling times and contentment in the presence of calamity because his eyes never strayed from God’s goodness. He lived with a grateful disposition because his life was defined by God’s gracious dispensations.
The same should be true of every Christian. Can you imagine what our witness would be if it was? Can you imagine what sort of transformation God could achieve in our culture if the lives of each of his children expressed the proper gratitude for his goodness? God can and that’s a big part of why he calls us to live that way.
A right relationship with God should automatically generate a gracious disposition within us. Even in tough times, we have more to be thankful for in Christ than we could ever fully express. So live like it and watch the difference it makes in both your life and the lives of those around you. Gratitude and the joy it generates are contagious. Who will see it in you today?