The Parent of All Virtues
Appearing on Conan O'Brien's show last year, comedian Louis C. K. lamented how frustrated people get when cell phones and cross-country flights are slow or faulty. "Everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy," he said. When people complain that their flight boarded 20 minutes late or that they had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes before takeoff, he asks a few additional questions.
"Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?"
The appearance hit a nerve—with over a million YouTube views and counting—because it's true: Whether it's our impatience with technology or, more likely, with family members and friends, our complaints reflect how much we take for granted.
We know that God has given us our bodies and souls, reason and senses, material possessions, and relationships. Yet with all that God richly provides us daily, many of us struggle to be grateful.
This isn't just impious, it is also unhealthy. Studies show that grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. They are more forgiving and supportive than those who are ungrateful. They are less depressed, stressed, envious, and anxious. In fact, high levels of gratitude explain more about psychological well-being than 30 of the most commonly studied personality traits, according to two recent studies published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The Roman philosopher Cicero was on to something when he said, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." It's also the basic Christian attitude. Paul tells the Thessalonians to "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:18).
That might seem a challenge during a season of economic trouble and political unrest. But consider German pastor Martin Rinckart, who served a town that became a refuge for political and military fugitives during the Thirty Years War. The situation in Eilenburg was bad even before the Black Plague arrived in 1637. One pastor fled. Rinckart buried another two on the same day. The only pastor remaining, he conducted funeral services for as many as 50 people a day and 4,480 within one year.
Yet Rinckart is best known for writing, in the midst of the war, the great hymn that triumphantly proclaims this:
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices
Who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
How many of us could focus on God's blessings with death and hardship all around us? Perhaps the problem is that we think too highly of ourselves. Margaret Visser studied cultural differences in showing thanks as she prepared her 2009 book The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude. The Japanese sometimes accept gifts by saying, "I'm sorry." The subtext, Visser explains, is, "I am fully aware of my debt to you. I can never repay it."
There's a lesson in that expression. In the Gospel of Luke, Simon the Pharisee hosts a dinner party for Jesus. A sinful woman with a bad reputation shows up, gets near Jesus, and washes his feet with her tears and anoints him with perfume. When Simon grumbles, Jesus tells a story about two debtors. One has a small debt, the other a large debt. Neither is able to repay, and the lender forgives both debts. The lesson: the greater the forgiveness, the greater the thankfulness.
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