Based on research over the past two decades, we know much about the virtue of gratitude to other people. Some scholars think that the models developed of person-to-person gratitude are applicable to gratitude to God.
But have you heard your congregants (or yourself) ever wonder...
Is being grateful to God really as straightforward as being grateful to others?
Why do I often struggle to be grateful to God even though I know that I should be?
Why do I sometimes fail to feel grateful to God even when I thank God, at meals for example? Is that even "real" gratitude?
Are some of us more naturally grateful than others and, if so, does this carry over into gratitude to God?
Under what conditions should we be thankful to God? It is easy when times are good but does God expect us to be thankful even in the midst of genuine suffering?
Is it possible to be grateful enough to God? Does God stop providing benefits if I'm not grateful enough?
Can I be grateful to God even when I doubt God?
Are there drawbacks to public expressions of gratitude to God? Why do such expressions tend to offend many people?
A group of national scholars (philosophers, theologians, and psychologists) including myself have been studying questions such as these for the past three years.
My research questions the assumption that the models of person to person gratitude are applicable to gratitude to God, because in comparison to others God is a unique (even strange!) giver, who gives unique gifts. For example, unlike other people, God is omnipotent, which means that in some sense there is no “cost” involved in God's giving. God gives and takes away freely which means that God's gifts are never quite fully “ours” in the same way that gifts from human benefactors may be. God is perfectly good, meaning that there isn't a clear contrast case to God's benevolence to us. That is, there is no counterpart to God’s goodness like there is among humans. And God gives us our very selves, meaning that the standard tripartite model of benefactor-benefit-beneficiary is stretched to the breaking point.
I propose that future empirical studies could test whether these conceptual differences matter in understanding the experience of gratitude to God. In fact, I am partnering with psychologist and professor Liz Hall at Biola to test these ideas.
My hope is that this research can benefit Christians by returning us to the biblical and theological sources that train us in the practice of gratitude to God. I think that Christians formed by these sources can practice gratitude to God in ways that strengthen their relationship to God and witness to the peculiar goodness of our triune God.
I’ll be sharing more at an all-day conference sponsored by The John Templeton Foundation in Anaheim, California on Saturday, December 3 — Gratitude to God Conference. I promise you this won’t be a dry academic conference. The conference features scholars and speakers such as Yale University’s Miroslav Volf, Fuller Theological Seminary’s Pamela King and UC Davis’ Robert Emmons. View a full list of speakers who have been selected due to their ability to present interesting research findings and ideas in an energetic style and in a language that is geared toward the general public on the conference website.