For Christians, most virtue words do not actually describe virtues unless they are directed properly. To put one’s faith, hope, or love in the wrong being or thing is actually a vice and not a virtue. That’s why when attempting to measure Christian virtue, it is always hard to find appropriate psychological scales. Hope in the hands of secular psychologists becomes little more than optimism or a “can do” attitude (see for example this trait scale claiming to measure hope). Christian hope, faith, and love must be first and foremost, directed toward God.
Of course, not all virtues are to be directed towards God—some are rightly directed toward other people. For example, justice and mercy are virtues we need to show each other. In fact, we really cannot be merciful to God and if we think we are showing God mercy we are demonstrating the vice of pride.
So where does gratitude fit into the mix? Like other character qualities in positive psychology, most measures of gratitude emphasize one’s self and only occasionally reference other people. For example, the widely used Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form uses a seven part Likert scale. It asks you to rare yourself on six items:
____1. I have so much in life to be thankful for.
____2. If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.
____3. When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.*
____4. I am grateful to a wide variety of people.
____5. As I get older I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.
____6. Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.*
*Items 3-6 are reverse coded.
Gratitude, according to this scale, is not measured primarily by how it is directed but by the amount of things or people for which we feel or experience gratitude. It is the amount of thought and feeling and not the direction that counts the most. Interestingly, in only a couple of questions of this scale are we asked to consider gratitude as directed to a person, persons or oddly, even things (“grateful to something”), and even then it is still only to determine the amount a person feels grateful to that person or thing. The direction (the object) of gratitude, understandably for an instrument hoping to be used by all humans, is left ambiguous and quite general. It is certainly important to think about the extent to which we are cognitively grateful for things or people. Yet, Christians must consider both the amount and the direction when it comes to gratitude.
Christians, of course, should be more precise in how they practice and think about the direction of gratitude. For example, I am never thankful to my computer, but I am certainly thankful for it. This distinction is subtle, but it highlights an important truth, the reality of one who sustains all for which we are grateful. The most common form of Thanksgiving in the Bible pertains to thankfulness to God for others in the body of Christ in the midst of praying for them (I Cor. 1:4; Eph. 1:15; Phi. 1:3; Col. 1:3; I Thes. 1:2; 2 Thes. 1:3). As these prayers indicate, true Christian gratitude requires direction toward God, the true giver of all good gifts (James 1:17), especially for the body of Christ.
In this regard, Christianity provides a particular and unique impetus for gratitude. As Peter Leithart writes in his wonderful intellectual history of gratitude, “Christianity infuses gratitude into every nook and cranny of human life. Because all comes from God, thanks is offered to him for everything.”1
In fact, the general sense that we should be grateful to Someone is a powerful reason to believe in God. The famous Christian writer and apologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century G.K. Chesterton was actually led to Christianity through his sense of gratitude. He realized he experienced gratitude for his life, so he must have someone to thank. In his words, “I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom…. We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”2 Indeed, when we realize God created and owns it all, the most appropriate and natural response is a sense of gratitude for what he has given us. The triune God also models this practice of gratitude for us. Christ continually gives thanks to the Father (Matthew 15:36; 26:26; Mark 6:41:8:7).
Overall, gratitude is a virtue that is often distinctly theistic. For non-theists, gratitude, in an ultimate sense, devolves to thankfulness to abstract notions of luck or fate or an over realized sense of autonomous accomplishment. Aristotle for instance, thought a key quality of a person was their self-sufficiency and not their dependence. Americans often hold up self-sufficiency or rugged individualism as a key virtue. Christians, however, should recognize and celebrate our wonderful dependence—that everything we have is from God. Indeed, the practice of gratitude is something that helps us remember our dependence upon God. May you enjoy engaging the wonderful privilege of this Christian virtue this Thanksgiving season.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Col. 3:16
For a review of Peter Leithart’s book on Gratitude in CSR see https://christianscholars.com/gratitude-an-intellectual-history/