The following article is an edited transcript from a teaching session Ken Boa delivered in November 2017 (watch here).
It’s my opinion that gratitude should be added to the list of spiritual disciplines.Gratitude is not meant to be left to spontaneous moments. It has a short half-life and ages quickly.
Fydodor Dostoevsky, in his Notes from the Underground, wrote this of human beings: “But if [man] is not stupid, he’s monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe the best definition of man is an ungrateful biped.”1
There’s a fundamental mindset of entitlement that we sometimes embrace. This can be seen in the story of a young man with a bandaged hand who approached the clerk at a post office and asked him if he would address a card he wanted to mail. The clerk happily did so. Then the clerk asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The man looked at the card for a moment and said, “Yes, add a P.S. that says, ‘Please excuse the handwriting.’”
There’s another story of a grandmother spending time at the beach with her only grandchild. A huge wave comes in and carries the kid off. She’s horrified, falls to her knees, and pleads with God, “Please, God! I’ll do anything! Take me instead! He’s my only grandson.” All of a sudden, another wave comes in and deposits the grandson at her feet. She raises her eyes to heaven and says, “He had a hat!”
You see, it’s never enough. We always want more. This is the mindset many of us have.
The Connection Between Remembering & Gratitude
You may recall the story of the 10 lepers in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus healed all 10, but only one came back to thank Him. Jesus responded, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17). The one who returned was a Samaritan—not the first time Jesus held up one from this group (hated by the Jews of that day) as an exemplar. The other nine took Jesus’ healing as somehow being their due—again, an entitlement mindset.
We have a holiday devoted to this idea of gratitude. And yet, Thanksgiving seems to be more about gorging than gratitude. There’s a perfunctory, almost embarrassed prayer offered up around that time, because we’re not accustomed to gratitude as a habit. It’s foreign to our daily routine. But thanksgiving is what we really should be doing all year long.
Israel had numerous themes and festivals to help them “remember.” It’s a motif throughout the Hebrew Bible: Do not forget!
Moses, in Deuteronomy 8, laid out the importance of remembering in this iconic text on gratitude:
Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 8:11–14, emphasis added)
Moses went on to remind them that God had cared for them in the desert place, providing for and protecting them:
He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know … (Deuteronomy 8:15–16a)
All of this God did to humble them, with their good in mind (8:16). Then comes the key phrase—the warning of what would happen if they did forget God:
Otherwise, you may say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:17)
If they forgot God, then rather than seeing God as the giver of everything, they would become either proud and presumptuous on the one hand (if things appeared to be going well), or they’d become bitter and resentful (if things started going badly). Either of these attitudes—presumption or bitterness—is a result of ingratitude, which ultimately stems from forgetting God. And both attitudes are sinful, preventing God from being able to work in our lives and yield the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” that He wants to produce (Hebrews 12:11).
So the question is, how do we guard against ingratitude by ensuring we don’t forget God?
Gratitude in All Things
God, through Moses and the prophets, warned His people again and again not to forget Him in three different ways. Specifically, they should not forget God for His:
- Deliverance in the past
- Benefits in the present
- Promises for the future
If they forgot God in any one of these areas, ingratitude would result—leading to missed blessings and missed opportunities for growth. And the same is the case for us.
Sadly, despite the warnings of Moses and the prophets, Israel did forget. Hosea tells us God’s perspective:
Yet I have been the Lord your God
Since the land of Egypt;
And you were not to know any god except Me,
For there is no savior besides Me.
I cared for you in the wilderness,
In the land of drought.
As they had their pasture, they became satisfied,
And being satisfied, their heart became proud;
Therefore they forgot Me. (Hosea 13:4–6)
Hosea goes on to detail the terrible consequences the people would suffer for their forgetfulness.
Their mindset was one of forgetting. Forgetting led to ingratitude. And ingratitude led to negative consequences, even destruction and calamity.
How about you? What is your reaction after God brings you through the land of drought? Do you remember His deliverance and faithfulness when you’ve arrived to the “pasture” (a point where you feel satisfied with your life)? Or do you, like the Israelites, take your eyes off of God and let that subtle sense of pride seep in, as though you were the one who achieved your own success?
Remembering God’s past faithfulness is a daily and intentional task. Forgetting Him is always a possibility. It’s easy to slip into a mindset of thinking our abilities contributed to our success. This is foolish. Not one of us sat around in a primordial cafeteria selecting the attributes we’d have. Some of us may simply be tempted to believe we contributed to our success through our hard work and devotion. Yet, God alone has the power to raise us up in a day, and He has the power to bring us down in a day (see the stories of Joseph and King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible). Anything we possess, and any skill we have, is derivative. It’s all gift and grace.
Anything we possess, and any skill we have, is derivative. It’s all gift and grace. —Ken Boa
In times of difficulty, forgetting the past can lead us, as it did the Israelites, to a heart of ingratitude—causing us to grumble, complain, blame God, and fail to grasp that He always has our best interests at heart.
Whether we become ungrateful and proud or ungrateful and bitter, either posture ignores this reality: everything we have and everything we own is from the hand of the living God. He has the power to give and the power to take away. We should never suppose that our hands made our wealth (tangible or intangible). He Himself gives us life and breath. As 1 Corinthians 4:7 reminds us, there’s nothing we have that we didn’t receive from Him.
What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
This is the key to humility. Humility isn’t the result of trying to be humble. (That only produces perverse forms of pride—“I’m humble and proud of it.”) True humility is attained not by trying to become humble but by remembering who we are in this world and who God is, and recalling that everything we have is a gift from Him.
True humility is attained not by trying to become humble but by remembering who we are in this world and who God is, and recalling that everything we have is a gift from Him. —Ken Boa
Gratitude isn’t just about remembering God’s goodness and acts in the past. It’s also about thanking Him for the blessings He gives in the present. These include blessings all around us—in His creation—as well as personal blessings (material, relational, and spiritual ones).
Gratitude, at root, is a choice, not a feeling. If you leave it to spontaneous experiences, the feelings will diminish. But if you see gratitude as a series of choices, the difference is huge.
Gratitude, at root, is a choice, not a feeling. —Ken Boa
One choice we can make is to bookend our day with gratitude: thanking Him for His blessings the moment we wake up, and reviewing the day with gratitude before we fall asleep at night. But we don’t need to limit ourselves to those times—or to mealtimes. Writing in the 19th century, G.K. Chesterton advocated a continual mindset of gratitude in everything:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in ink.2
Chesterton’s words illustrate the power of the accumulation of small acts and thoughts. Over time, these add up, producing a gradual but significant shift in mindset. A habit develops. We become more inclined to look for the good things that come along rather than immediately focusing on the bad things.
Most of us have, by default, a deficiency mindset—focusing on what we do not have—rather than a sufficiency mindset—focusing on what we do have. I’m not advocating a shallow philosophy of positive thinking; I’m suggesting God is serious when, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, he tells us to acknowledge Him and give Him thanks in all things. When we obey this wise counsel, we’ll thank Him for the simple pleasures of life (cultivating humility). We’ll also see what appear to be negative events and circumstances as necessary for our journey—things that we don’t want to go through but that are needful for our growth and development.
Giving thanks amidst adversity is the “hard thanksgiving.” It’s hard because we’re giving thanks for something that doesn’t make sense to us yet. But God always has a reason. And I can thank him in advance even though I don’t grasp what that reason will be.
Most of us have, by default, a deficiency mindset—focusing on what we do not have—rather than a sufficiency mindset—focusing on what we do have. —Ken Boa
We’re to remember and thank God not only for His deliverance in the past, and not only for His benefits in the present, but also for His promises of the future. And these promises are abundant indeed.
God promises that what He has planned for us is far beyond our grasp—far beyond what we can imagine or think of on our own (Ephesians 3:20; 1 Corinthians 2:9). When we understand this, we have no choice but to conclude that God has a better vision of our good than we do for this life. So often, we can shoot ourselves in the foot and make an inferior choice by resisting and pushing back against the promptings of the Spirit of God. But if we obey His promptings, we’ll never regret it.
One of His promises is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4–7, emphasis added)
Paul is saying that, right now, no matter how you feel, the reality is that you—your deepest self—have been made alive and raised up with Christ, and God has seated you with Him in the heavenly places. Furthermore, your earth-bound life is but a few decades; by contrast, your time with Him is eternal, and in those ages to come, His intention is to lavish the riches of His grace in acts of kindness toward you. What more can we possibly hope for?
We see a glimpse of our heavenly Father’s ultimate intention by watching earthly fathers (Hebrews 12:9–10). Human fathers train our children for a short time, as we deem best, for an ultimate purpose that is good—though usually our children don’t understand or appreciate the discipline until later. In the same way, God is training us in righteousness (not as punishment, but as discipline), that we might “share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). The writer of Hebrews makes the understatement of a lifetime when he notes that discipline “for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (12:11a). But God’s promise is this: “to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11b).
And so we can thank God in our trials because of His future promises. He uses this “momentary, light affliction” to give us the skills and wisdom we need to lead a life of excellence—and ultimately enter into His glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is a better vision than we would ever desire for ourselves. But if we acknowledge it and thank God for His promised blessings, it will have a radical effect on our daily lives and mindset.
Conclusion: Do Not Forget!
In conclusion, everything we have is derivative—a gift from God, an expression of His grace. We’re stewards of His possessions, ambassadors on His business (not our own). If we remember these things, from the perspective of God’s faithfulness and goodness to us in the past, present, and future, our lives will be marked by gratitude and humility leading to joy.
I encourage you to recalibrate your mindset on a daily basis, perhaps using these words of King David and adapting them into a prayer of your own to God:
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O Lord, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. Both riches and honor come from You, and You rule over all, and in Your hand is power and might; and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone. Now therefore, our God, we thank You, and praise Your glorious name.
But who am I and who are my people that we should be able to offer as generously as this? For all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You. For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided to build You a house for Your holy name, it is from Your hand, and all is Yours. Since I know, O my God, that You try the heart and delight in uprightness, I, in the integrity of my heart, have willingly offered all these things; so now with joy I have seen Your people, who are present here, make their offerings willingly to You. (1 Chronicles 29:10–17)
Put It Into Practice
Many of the ideas and practices in this article are incorporated in the spiritual exercises found in my training book, A Guide to Practicing God’s Presence. Download it here or order a print copy, and check out the following exercises:
- Lifestyle 1 (Four Areas of Gratitude)
- Lifestyle 2 (Gratitude in Everything)
- Lifestyle 12 (Before Going to Sleep)
- Lifestyle 14 (The Hard Thanksgiving)
- Sensory 3 (Turn Pleasures to Praise)
- Time & Work 5 (Avoid Presumption)
- Wisdom 9 (Reflect on the Past)
- Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), accessed at https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/notes-from-the-underground.pdf (p. 38).
- In The Collected Works of G.K. Chesteron (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994), 43. Original source is an unpublished poem from his early notebook (early 1890s).