I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – G.K. Chesterton

I became a Christian when a friend, Ronnie, told me about Jesus the summer before fifth grade. Every time I think about that, I feel a profound sense of gratitude. When I really think about God sacrificing his own Son for me, I am expanded to tears of thankfulness. It’s difficult to comprehend. When I think about how God brought me the good news, through a 10-year-old kid, I have this profound experience that is difficult to translate into words. But whatever is packaged in that experience, this is what we call “gratitude.”

Part of this experience is acknowledging the cost of the gift to God. I think about this sometimes in relation to my two sons, Brennan and Aiden. I can’t imagine the horrifying agony of deliberately offering one of my sons up to be tortured and killed as a sacrifice. To think that God did that for me is stunning. The cost of the gift makes it all the more valuable, and I feel all the more grateful because of it.

The cost is just part of what creates this experience of gratitude. It’s also the goodness of the gift. Entering into a relationship with Jesus doesn’t just change things after my physical death; it changes the kind of life I now experience. Knowing Christ brings me into an abundant life. There couldn’t be a greater gift. But I often lose sight of this gift and don’t approach life with gratitude. I have to constantly remind myself of this great gift from God.

Part of my experience of gratitude is recognizing that this gift came from outside myself. I recognize that someone else, in this case God, gave me a gift. This gift and the gratitude it engenders foster a deep connection with God. I am now in relationship with the One from whom I have received eternal life.

Part of my experience is a feeling of being “full.” It’s an overflowing kind of feeling that comes from the fact that I didn’t do anything to deserve this gift. It’s what we call unmerited favor, or, in theological terms, grace. God simply chose to send his Son to die for us, not because of something we did, but just because he loves us. This full, overflowing feeling compels us to want to give back. As 1 John 4:9-12 says, “...since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” God’s love, demonstrated in sending his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, naturally leads us to love others out of gratitude for what he has done for us. We pay God’s love forward out of gratitude.

In her book describing her spiritual journey in receiving a heart transplant, Journey of the Heart, Elizabeth Bartlett captures this sense of overflowing fullness beautifully:

“Yet I have found that it is not enough for me to be thankful. I have a desire to do something in return. To do thanks. To give thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. Give love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, the endless waterfall. Filling up and spilling over. To give from the fullness of my being. This comes not from a feeling of obligation, like a child’s obligatory thank-you notes to grandmas and aunts and uncles after receiving presents. Rather, it is a spontaneous charitableness, perhaps not even to the giver but to someone else, to whoever crosses one’s path. It is the simple passing on of the gift.”

There is something deep within us that yearns to acknowledge gifts from God. In our acknowledgment, gratitude is more than a private emotion. It is the fabric of experience out of which our common bond in Christ is woven; it is the fuel for loving others into loving — the heart of spiritual transformation.

When you stop and think about it, gratitude should be the central motive of the Christian life. Martin Luther called gratitude “the basic Christian attitude.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says, “No matter what happens, always be thankful.” The more I have reflected on this, the clearer it has become that gratitude is at the very heart of the Christian life.

Gratitude to God should fill us up to the point that love and joy ooze out of us. It should be a central motive behind everything we do. Let us, then, acknowledge the cost of the gift of Jesus, recognize that all good gifts ultimately come from God, experience the overflowing fullness of gratitude, and out of that fullness, “do thanks” each and every day.