The Discipline of Gratitude
Words by Bill Farley // Images by Alexandra Herron
Luke, age five, wants to go to the playground, but mom has other plans, so Luke throws a temper tantrum. He complains. He grumbles. He wallows in self-pity. Mom knows her son should be grateful. She has spent hours lecturing him on the virtue of gratitude, but the results have been meager. She is discouraged. Can you relate?
Teaching children to be grateful is important. First, it makes them winsome to their friends and yours. But there is a more important reason. Gratitude expresses humility. The opposites—complaining, whining, and pouting—express pride. Above all other virtues, God blesses the humble, and above all other vices he resists the proud. And every parent wants God to bless their children, not resist them.
Text after biblical text remind us that God exalts the humble but brings down the proud. "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:10), and Isaiah 2:11 counters, "The lofty pride of men shall be humbled." In addition Psalm 138:6 tells us "[God] regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar."
How does gratitude express humility? A grateful heart is one in contact with reality. Its gratitude flows from the conviction that it is utterly dependent upon God. It did not make itself. It is not in charge of today or tomorrow. Every circumstance in life comes to us through a sovereign and good God who loves us. He alone is the sovereign Creator.
By contrast, a heart that whines and complains rejects these truths. It does not believe that God is both sovereign and good. It is selfish and self-centered. It demands its own way, not God's will.
Most importantly, complaining rejects the cross of Christ. Here is the crucial center of the grateful heart's motivations. At the cross Jesus took the punishment that we deserve. He did this so that we could enjoy, for all eternity, the reward that he deserves. Faith internalizes this mystery. It confesses that, in light of Jesus' death on the cross, we are never getting what we deserve. No matter how bad our day is going, no matter how disappointed we feel, we are not getting crucifixion, and that is what the gospel says we deserve. The grateful heart confesses that it is always getting better than it deserves.
Paul lived out of this conviction. That is why, in his letters, Paul references thanksgiving and gratitude more than any other first century author. For example Colossians 2:6–7 commands us to "walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."
Because our children are born with original sin, they are proud. Gratitude does not come easy for them. In her book The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser observes that children must be trained to be grateful. One experiment set out to measure children’s propensity for gratitude. They were placed in a room with their parents. A person entered and gave the child a gift. The children spontaneously said hello and goodbye 27% of the time, but they only thanked their benefactors 7% of the time, and then often only after great pressure from their parents. There is a reason for this. Our children are naturally proud. They are not naturally humble. They must be taught the discipline of thanksgiving.
So what can you do to help your children learn this discipline? For smaller children, you might decide that corporeal punishment is appropriate. However, it should never be divorced from a clear explanation of the gospel described above. For older children, careful instruction and clear reasoning is crucial. This is why gospel-centered parents produce grateful children. Whether your children are young or old, parental perseverance is crucial. They will not learn gratitude after one explanation. In most cases it will take years of sweaty perseverance. However, the labor is well worth the reward; a thankful heart is the secret to spiritual joy.
Bill's book Gospel-Powered Parenting examines how children are changed when the Gospel is at the heart of their parents' teaching. His new book, The Secret of Spiritual Joy, is designed to encourage parents, as well as Christians at any stage of life, to grow in the discipline of gratitude.