Grace and Gratitude, Issue 93

August 18, 2016 by Presbyterian Foundation

The Christian life is shaped by gratitude – gratitude for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. It is by God’s grace that we receive the gift of our own lives, and so we are called to shape the whole of our lives by our grateful response. “The stewardship of all of life” is a common phrase, yet too often stewardship is reduced to an annual program, the annual program is reduced to the means to achieve an end, and the end is reduced to the church budget. “Gratitude for all of life” may be a way to broaden and deepen our understanding and our use of the gifts God has given us.

Thomas Aquinas, in his typically methodical way, sets forth three features of gratitude: recognition, expression of thanks, and repayment “at a suitable place and time according to ones means.” First, we are to recognize that we have, in fact, been the recipient of a favor, of grace. Then, we must give thanks, and finally we must repay the favor. Aquinas is not thinking in monetary categories, but terms of personal and communal interactions. It is easy enough for us to understand (although not always to practice) what it means to recognize when grace has been offered, and to express our gratitude. But what does it mean to repay a human favor, let alone God’s grace?

Aquinas says that “Gratitude regards the favor received according to the intention of the benefactor; who seems deserving of praise, chiefly for having conferred the favor gratis without being bound to do so. Wherefore the beneficiary is under a moral obligation to bestow something gratis in return. Now he does not seem to bestow something gratis, unless he exceeds the quantity of the favor received: because so long as he repays less or an equivalent, he would seem to do nothing gratis, but only to return what he has received. Therefore gratitude always inclines, so far as possible, to pay back something more.” (Summa Theologica)

Aquinas is not talking about money; that transaction would be repaying a loan not responding to favor/grace. Aquinas is drawing our attention to gratitude as something more than mental acknowledgment and verbal utterance. Gratitude is something we do. Of course it is not possible to respond to God’s grace by “exceeding the quantity of God’s favor,” but it is possible to respond with faith, with trust and loyalty, with our lives. The shape of gratitude to God may be seen in a modern translation of Psalm 143:8 – “Let morning announce your love, for it is you I trust. Show me the right way, I offer you myself.”

Gratitude is something we are to practice in human interactions as well. Gratitude in church life should not be seen as a commercial transaction – we give money to the church to “pay” for the services we receive. Rather, because the community of God’s people offers itself to us “free of charge,” we can offer ourselves within the community and as part of the community’s service to others. Gratitude in personal life can be understood not only as responding “in kind” to the grace of others, but to become persons who freely offer grace to others – to family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and anonymous persons far away. To paraphrase Aquinas, “Gratitude always seeks to respond to grace by offering grace, not only as return to the giver, but as gift to many others.

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