Gratitude has been shown in study after study to help control anger, resentment, jealousy and other negative emotions and it is connected to reduced substance abuse, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, among others. It aids physical health by helping with heart disease and inflammation and improves sleep, athletic performance, over all well being and enjoyment of life. Gratitude increases confidence, willpower, memory and encourages improved creativity, academic ability and healthier relationships. There’s more but you get the point.
In an interesting and touching chapter from Diana Butler Bass’s book Grateful she presents the importance of involving the heart in matters of gratitude. We are used to the kind of gratitude that is ‘targeted’ – we know who gave the gift and we find a way to express our thanks in some way with a card, a word, a hug. But there is also ‘un-targeted’ gratitude which is a state of feeling gratitude even when there is no one to thank.
In the past, when something good happened – you survived a sickness, found some money, enjoyed a good harvest – there was no place to direct your thanks to specifically so you would direct it to God.
Receiving un-targeted gifts presents a problem though. Why did you survive the epidemic but your husband didn’t? What about the person who lost the money? What if the weather sent a tornado that destroyed the village? In those cases was God punishing or withholding gifts for some reason? Maybe somebody wasn’t thankful enough and he was angry!
Questions like these would also push people in the opposite direction to doubting or being angry at a randomly good God.
I appreciated Diana’s thoughts on James 1:17 ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’ The verse seems to say that God gives us goodies by intentionally targeting us when we’re in his favour. Instead she suggests it means that all gifts are reflections of the light of God’s goodness which is shining all the time. Gifts from God are not targeted, they’re un-targeted. They simply are.
Jesus said in the book of Matthew that the sun rises and the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteousness. God’s good gifts are un-targeted and are sprinkled on everyone without favour! That principle is illustrated in Jesus’ life and parables: lavish weddings, multiplying bread and fish for thousands, a party for a wayward son, the best wine, the poor and the hungry are blessed.
But how do we respond to the good that falls to us?
Opening our hearts to the pure grace of God, without expectation, surprises and sustains us. ‘Untargeted gratitude takes us out of the cycle of obligation into a larger circle of shared gifts…’ and ‘…if you understand in your heart that gifts and gratitude are part of the very fabric of the universe, you will both be a better person and do good in the world (her thoughts from James 1:19-27). (p 26)
Diana writes poignantly about her ongoing dark feelings toward an uncle who had abused her as a child. She had been unable to forgive him and even after his death in early 2007 she could not go near the church cemetery in Kentucky where he was buried.
At some point a friend who had experienced much suffering said to her, ‘Your life is like a garden, and it is not well tended. You need to grow your garden.’ (p 40)
The garden as an emotional metaphor became important for her. Experiences are the soil where our feelings grow and it nourishes both good and bad plants. Suffering is a type of soil she realized, and negative weeds can grow but the positive, healthy plants need our attention and tending. Rooting around in the soil is not easy but we come to recognize the difference between what is fruitful and what inhibits good fruit. If we do the work well, our garden flourishes and gratitude grows.
She progressed through years of inner gardening and then ‘…one morning some forty years after the fact, I woke up feeling sorry for my uncle.’ (p 41). Her thoughts went to his imprisonment, divorce and broken life. She saw a him as a human being. Had he been hurt in his early life? Had he been a victim too? He had died alone, a wasted life, without hope or love and now lay in an unmarked grave.
Somehow, through her weeding and seeding, the soil of her life was enriched. Sorry but I have to quote this important sentence, ‘All the shit had only enriched the dirt.’
She felt strangely grateful, not for what happened, but for her family, her courage, conviction, faith and the healthy place she had come to and she felt able to say thank you to ‘…those around me, to the universe, to God.’ (p 42)
Gratitude is the beginning of faith because it opens our eyes to the surprise, wonder and goodness of what God has provided.