Gratitude in the Christian Tradition
The centrality of the virtue of gratitude is evident in all Christian traditions and across all denominations. St. Augustine is concerned in his Confessions with his sins, but we misread what he has to say if we think these are his ultimate focus. In fact, careful attention reveals an underlying awareness of and deep thankfulness to God. For God, despite Augustine’s ignorant and gross misbehavior, never took away his God-given delight in friendship and the desire for truth. He may only later have appreciated these and put them to the creative use for which they were intended, but God was present with him all the time (Augustine, 1907, I, 31). Aquinas affirmed gratitude to be a virtue since it was an aspect of justice with respect to the gifts of all benefactors—above all, to God, whose range of unmerited gifts he believed flowed from his personal commitment of himself to his creation (McDermott, 1989, p. 238f.). Martin Luther claimed that gratitude was “the basic Christian attitude.”
The virtue of gratitude is integral to the Christian theological framework that informed the spiritual practice of the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich. She paradoxically enjoyed a profound optimism because of, not despite, awareness of her sin. Without the actual experience of “losing” God, Julian believed she would not have become aware of the reality of his presence. This is expressed in the words attributed to her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), the American Reformed theologian and preacher, regarded love and gratitude as basic signs of religion.
Examples could be adduced from the writings of theologians, hymn writers, and poets and from the prayers of simple believers throughout the centuries. They bear witness to lives transformed by feelings of gratitude toward God for all that they enjoy and can share with friends, who in principle include all people.