The other day I grabbed a bite of lunch and hurriedly ate it, sitting in my car on the way to the next thing. As I finished up and headed out, I breathed a prayer of thanks for the satisfaction of a tasty meal. Just then, I realized I hadn’t thanked God before eating, but only once my belly was full. It was better than not remembering God at all, but was it a prayer of faith or the flesh? I was merely feeling gratified, not grateful.

Gratitude exalts the giver, but gratification exalts the gift.

We might even say that gratitude wants more of the giver, but gratification wants more of the gift. In the proper response to God’s blessings, C.S. Lewis said, “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

Every good and perfect gift comes from God, but we do well to remember that God is a jealous God. This is not some character flaw or insecurity on His part; He knows how He designed us. We won’t function well if we worship, “the creature rather than the creator”—read Romans 1 to find out what people descend to when that happens. He “came that we might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) and doesn’t want us to settle for less than that. Our Maker knows when we are idolizing gifts. We can’t serve two masters.

Gratitude is other-oriented; gratification is self-oriented.

Gratitude takes two: one is the giver. The other is the receiver, who then expresses appreciation. Gratitude is relational. Gratification can be solitary like I was as I chowed down on my lunch. I “had my reward,” as Jesus might say, tuned in only to myself. Gratitude for the meal would have led me to put into words my thanks to God and to those who worked to prepare it.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the older brother manifests his jealous desire for gratification as he watches his wasteful younger brother being embraced with a feast, a ring, and a robe. The older brother says to his father, “You never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30). The father’s response poignantly illustrates the difference between the older son’s mindset and gratitude; he answers, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31), focusing on the relationships in his family. How sad he must have been to see that the older son just salivated for property, recognition, and fresh beef.

Gratitude instructs those around us; gratification turns inward

Ps 107:22 says, “Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!”

When I visit my sister’s family, we say a blessing over dinner. The husband thanks God for our food and then often says simply, “Thank you for our salvation.” In an ordinary moment, he reminds us of something much more important than a meal.

Those who express gratitude among others are often those who are leaders.

Hear Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as he proclaims the first annual national day of Thanksgiving as he thanks God for:

“…these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come…[T]hey cannot fail to penetrate and soften…the heart…to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God…[even] amid a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and provoke their aggression….”  Despite the horror of war on our own soil, Lincoln lifted our eyes to God and “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Gratitude is a discipline; gratification is a reaction.

Habakkuk (3:17-18) resolves that although “the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”

Why do we teach our children to say, “Thank you” even before they understand it? Because gratitude must be learned and cultivated. It is not the most glamorous of habits and virtues, but it quietly contributes to humility. The person who doesn’t say “thanks” is likely not to say “please” either but simply grab the item they want. I had a pastor once who was not raised by Christians. As an unchurched little boy, he once visited a friend for a meal, and that family said a blessing before eating. My pastor commented, “Wow, we don’t say that stuff before we eat. We just dive in.” The little friend said good-naturedly, “Oh–Like my dog Rex!”

It’s not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy His gifts—far from it. With regard to meals, for example, realizing how many people it took to provide this meal and how miraculous are its colors, aromas, and nutrients can actually enhance gratification.

Gratitude gives hope; by definition, gratification ends when pleasure ends.

William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, focused on the positive aspects of the colonists’ trying year, saying, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things out of nothing…and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.”

And Lincoln rang that hopeful note again when he said:

“I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens […] offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, [and] commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and Union.”

As our nation gathers in observance of Thanksgiving this year, may we rightly express our thanks to a faithful and loving Lord.

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