Pay it Forward
by Robert Emmons
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What is the Science?

Robert Emmons, a leading expert in the science of gratitude, has found that as communities practice gratitude, they develop a “moral memory,” leading to the positive cycle of “paying it forward.” As community members “pay it forward” they also commit themselves to receiving and returning affirmation and feelings of self-worth, therefore empowering the cycle to continue. Emmons’ findings are supported by a study conducted on a group of participants who kept “gratitude journals” for a ten-week period. After ten weeks, participants reported improved emotional health, increased optimism about the future, and were “25 percent happier” than those who did not intentionally practice gratitude. 

What is the Theology?

Gratitude has always been central for Christian communities. The apostle Paul stresses the communal importance of gratitude (Eph. 5:20) and he warns against the looming dangers of ingratitude (Rom. 1:21-23). In the Old Testament, gratitude has covenantal implications (Deut. 8:7-18) while the Psalms continually remind worshipers to approach God with thanksgiving and praise (Psalm 95). In the Gospels, Jesus’s commitment to giving thanks shapes modern Eucharistic language and practice (e.g. The Great Thanksgiving). Sermons, therefore, might explore the depth of this research by observing the prominence of gratitude in the Bible and naming the ecclesiological implications for Christian communities.

“We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness. As such, we are called to gratitude.” -Robert Emmons

What to Consider

  • How does your church community practice gratitude together? What worship practices encourage and deepen a culture of gratitude in your community life?
  • As a preacher, how might practicing gratitude change the way you view both your sermon and the community to which it is offered?  
  • Have you ever participated in a cycle of “paying it forward?” How would you conceptualize or sermonize on that experience theologically?
  • In your community, where is ingratitude occurring, and how might that practice complicate the cycle of “paying it forward?”

How to go Deeper

  • Challenge your community to keep gratitude journals for ten weeks. When the ten-week challenge concludes, create a space in which participants can share stories and process their experience.
  • Read through a few thanksgiving Psalms (e.g. Ps.7, 28, 95, 100) and practice writing one of your own. In a community setting, read or preach on a thanksgiving Psalm, and have parishioners respond by writing their own Psalm of thanksgiving.  
  • Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and consider the theological implications of gratitude in light of “costly grace.”
  • Facilitate a time of responsive prayer in which parishioners can practice building a “moral memory” by remembering moments or persons in the community for which they are thankful.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

By | 2017-03-21T02:43:06+00:00 October 27th, 2016|Gratitude, Research|6 Comments

About the Author:

Michael Wiltshire serves as an assistant pastor at Rose City Church in Pasadena, CA. He holds an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016) and a B.S. from Cornerstone University, double majoring in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he co-led the Fuller Faith and Science student group and worked in residential community. Michael is passionate about pastoral care, and is dedicated to exploring how preaching, practical theology, and organizational systems can empower churches to care well. A Michigander at heart, Michael enjoys cloudy weather and the NBA.


  1. Weabz April 12, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    Thankfulness is such an imperative part of the Christian life. And yet we tend to only be thankful for when we get what we want, if even then. Yet we are told to be thankful at all times and in all circumstances (1Thess 5:18).

    Our lack of thankfulness is because we are self-consumed. We are consumed with our own desires and wants and our acknowledgment and desire to live and seek the Lord’s will for us is somewhere else down the list.

    If truly loving a life pleasing to Him was our priority then gratitude in all circumstances even the painful and difficult seasons of sanctification would be automatic. Let’s truly be thankful in ALL circumstances and watch how the Lord blesses us in our spiritual growth and relationship to Him

    • aidenkang June 8, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks for your word of exhortation. I know this is true of me – Sometimes the most difficult times I’ve had in my spiritual walk have been when my expectations don’t line up with my reality. Its then that I find myself swirling in ingratitude, so thanks again for your word of exhortation.

  2. AustinF May 22, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    Good discussion on how important gratitude is to community praise. Praise centers on who God is and what He has done for His people.

  3. JarrodCraw May 26, 2017 at 11:42 am

    Makes me think that prayers of thanksgiving should be given more ‘space’ in our services. I know in our setting, petitions tend to take up the bulk of prayer time. Perhaps enhancing thanksgiving prayers would stir people to this communal gratitude.

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