What Gets in the Way of Gratitude?
Article by Robert Emmons (2013)
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What is the Science?

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, recognizes that our cultural landscape creates obstacles to expressing thankfulness.  Finding happiness by accumulating things – materialism – generally creates a sense of entitlement, a belief that we are owed our portion of happiness.  Everything is a commodity, including relationships.  Gratitude simply cannot survive in such an environment.

Research shows that people who are ungrateful also tend to exhibit narcissistic characteristics such as self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an over-reliance on approval and admiration.  Entitlement fuels these tendencies, centering focus upon ourselves and what we believe we deserve but fail to obtain.  Emmons suggests that humility is the antidote to the poison of entitlement.  By turning our attention outward (and upward), we sense our interdependence upon others – we are not self-sufficient.

What is the Theology?

Ingratitude is a behavior, refusing to acknowledge a favor and therefore failing to return kindness to others.  As Karl Barth said, “All sin is simply ingratitude.”  Thankfulness, then, is more than a feeling and spurs us to action.  Gratitude and humility expresses themselves before God and others in response to our interconnectedness with one another.

“We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation ever has grown; but we have forgotten God!”

-Robert Emmons

What to Consider

  • Emmons recognizes the counterintuitive nature of humility and gratitude.  Discipline will help us develop a “second nature,”  but it will feel strange at first.  A sermon that acknowledges this tension as a matter of fact can help others see their cultural surroundings and how they inhibit expressing gratitude.  
  • A robust ecclesiology can help us consider how we need each other to draw us beyond ourselves.  The sermon can name stories that exemplify the communal aspects of the congregation as they receive and express gratitude to God and each other.  Even the consistent practices of worshipping and serving God with a body of believers can counter-culturally challenge notions of materialism and entitlement.  When we define ourselves as a people united by faith rather than our spending habits, we challenge the wisdom of entitlement.
  • Finally, focus on gratitude as an expressive behavior rather than an emotion.  Expressing gratitude, even if we do not feel grateful, can be key in developing humble habits that form our “second nature.”

How to Go Deeper

  • Finding freedom from materialism may give gratitude room to grow.  In what ways has your congregation been doubly blessed?  Encourage a season of giving away in order to loosen the grip of materialism.  (Check out “Free” by Mark Scandrette as a further resource)
  • Consider incorporating postures of humility within your worship gathering.  Kneeling, mutual service, and even voicing thanks to one another puts behavior before emotion.  Give time for people to reflect and debrief on the experience.
  • Some may find release from powerful feelings of entitlement by laughing at its foolishness.  Invite the congregation to share stories about the absurdity of their own sense of entitlement (and be willing to share your stories).
  • Lead the congregation in a time of reflection about their sense of entitlement.  For example, you may want to explore how people in the service industry are treated simply because we spend our money where they work.  How does our entitlement economically, socially, and spiritually affect others in our community?  Humble confession would be an example of an appropriate response.

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.

Can Gratitude Make Our Society More Trusting?
Article by Elizabeth Hopper (2017)
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June 19th, 2017|3 Comments

What is the Science? While Americans may have become less trusting over the past few decades, social psychology continues to find that trust in a society brings "healthier relationships, lower crime, and even [...]

Six Habits of Highly Grateful People
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June 5th, 2017|9 Comments

What is the Science? Psychological research suggests that, when we commit to specific practices, gratitude can become a habit that increases resilience and happiness. But how exactly does one form a habit of [...]

The Psychology of Gratitude
Book by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (2016)
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May 15th, 2017|6 Comments

What is the Science? In their book, The Psychology of Gratitude by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough weave together fourteen insightful essays on the science of gratitude, demonstrating that the virtue [...]

How Grateful are Americans?
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October 28th, 2016|7 Comments

Recent research by the Greater Good shows that Americans think gratitude is important even though they are not very good at showing it. As a part of this research on the science of gratitude, [...]

Pay it Forward
by Robert Emmons
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October 27th, 2016|6 Comments

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 [...]

Gratitude is for Lovers
By Amie M. Gordon
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October 21st, 2016|6 Comments

What is the Science? Research shows that the virtue of gratitude can become a sustaining force between romantic partners. Why? Because gratitude is a reciprocating practice. Researchers find that gratitude [...]

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About the Author:

Kyle Sears is a church planter and ministry coach (and husband and father). He is pursuing an M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary while working for the STAR Office at Fuller. He loves a good story, and finds himself called to help others envision a life lived between the overlap of heaven and earth.

8 Comments

  1. aidenkang March 21, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Note to self – “Ingratitude is the failure to both acknowledge receiving a favor and refusing to return or repay the favor. Just as gratitude is the queen of the virtues, ingratitude is the king of the vices” – Importatance of obeying God out of gratitude & not out of fear or obligation.

  2. Weabz April 5, 2017 at 12:48 am

    Ditto^^^ Our ingratitude is a result of an idolatrous heart. We think we deserve something, but a Christ focused heart is always thankful.

    • aidenkang June 1, 2017 at 3:12 pm

      Amen – Is that Calvin you’re quoting?

      • Weabz June 8, 2017 at 5:04 pm

        Haha no bro. Sorry it’s funny because I go to a hugely Calvinistic school but I couldn’t tell ya the first thing about Calvin outside his five points (which I only agree with 2-3 of em). Couldn’t quote him to save my life. It’s just what I know to be true from the testimony of Scripture. So it’s an Adam quote grounded in Scriptural truth;)

  3. Weabz April 8, 2017 at 8:51 am

    And, as far as Karl Barth saying, “All sin is simply ingratitude.” That may have fit within the context in which he said it but at face value it’s incorrect. The reality is: All sin is simply pride, period, and from our rooted pride flows the many manifestations of sin, one being ingratitude.

  4. matt@ncstudycenter.org May 17, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    ^^ Agree, I’m reminded of Lewis naming “pride” as the chief among sins (the root of all sin) in Mere Christianity. Bonhoeffer says something very similar in Life Together

  5. JarrodCraw May 25, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    St. Augustine said the same thing, “Pride is the commencement of all sin.”

  6. marymact@gmail.com August 12, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    The idea that thankfulness is more than a feeling resonated with me. I think it is easy to say, “well I just don’t FEEL ______,” but I think the more appropriate, and ultimately best, response is to choose gratitude and to choose to be thankful. And then, to allow this thankfulness to spur us on to action.

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