The Science of Giving Thanks

22nd November, 2022.      //   General Interest, The End of Humanity  // 

The Science of Giving Thanks to God

For many, 2022 has been a difficult year, and the perception of blessings are hard to come by. Once again, we find ourselves in the seeming contradiction of believing in an unconditionally loving, all-powerful God and experiencing the reality of the global crises facing humanity.

How might gratitude—and gratitude to God specifically—be vital for flourishing and resilience in today’s world? Amid pandemics, climate change, addiction, political extremism and polarization, financial collapse, crime, inequality, international conflicts, nuclear threat, and forced migration, is there a healing power in gratitude to God?

For a while, people relied on personal testimonies and scriptural admonitions to “give thanks” to answer these kinds of questions. Scientifically, research had little to say about being grateful to God since gratitude had largely been studied on a horizontal, human-to-human level. New projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation have theologians, philosophers, and psychologists like us exploring gratitude to our supreme benefactor.

Already, these researchers have discovered that believers who experience and express gratitude to God report feeling more hope, higher satisfaction, more optimism, fewer depression episodes, and greater stress recovery. Their studies suggest that gratitude to God magnifies and amplifies the effects of gratitude toward other people.

Grateful believers aren’t just happier because they’re better off, either. We see people experiencing gratitude to God in the midst of adversity.

Jason McMartin, a theologian at Biola University, in a paper not yet published, contends that suffering intensifies our encounters with God, reframing the experience of gratitude by expanding our vision of what we can be grateful for, including painful experiences as gifts themselves. Pain is real, but God’s grace abounds. Gratitude to God is our response to our suffering meeting God’s sovereignty.

Research ratifies this. A study by Joshua Wilt and Julie Exline at Case Western Reserve University found that among theistic believers, gratitude to God for negative events functioned similarly to gratitude for positive events in that both drew one closer to God.

Such findings suggest that when facing difficult life situations, the practice of gratitude to God can be cultivated to counter the natural tendency of prioritizing bad over good. This reframing is not merely a veneer of positive thinking but rather a deep and abiding sense that goodness dwells under the rancor and heartache of daily life.

Social psychologist David Myers has long observed, based on scientific research, that just as we can think ourselves into a way of acting, we can act ourselves into a way of thinking. If we deliberately practice gratitude, our thoughts and feelings often come around.

One idea is keeping a journal listing the blessings that we receive from God along with the lessons learned from our challenges. During times of adversity, we can ask ourselves, How is God present in this challenge? How is this challenge a reflection of God’s will for my life? How do I experience God uniquely through this challenge? How does this challenge make me closer to God?

Another practice is to intentionally engage in worship. Of course, this includes weekly corporate worship but may also involve a few moments of private worship throughout the week where gratitude is openly expressed. For example, it is hard to not be grateful, even in the worst of times, when singing hymns such as “How Great Thou Art”:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in—
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin!

Openly expressing such sentiments is yet another way of acting ourselves into being thankful.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in experiencing gratitude to God is the acceptance of unmerited grace as a gift from God. Our human relations are based on notions of equity; when others provide something of value to us, we want to somehow repay them.

In Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, former Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman wrote, “Second only to an inability to feel gratitude, the worst disaster that can befall a human being is to be blocked in the desire to thank the world by making a reciprocating gift that is adequate to the one he or she has received.”

Though God does not need to be repaid, Jenae Nelson, a postdoctoral research fellow at Baylor University, found that a sense of indebtedness to God in the form of wanting to repay God resulted in better social and individual outcomes than the sense of having to repay God as some form of social obligation.

Although we have begun to learn about gratitude to God and how it differs from gratitude to humans, many questions remain among our research team:

  • Why are public expressions of gratitude to God often dismissed, discounted, or disapproved of by observers?
  • What about people who have doubts about God’s existence or about whether God really cares about them? Can they be grateful to God, and if so, how?
  • Do people think God rewards or punishes people based on whether they remain grateful to him?
  • Is it possible to be grateful enough to God?

Whether directed toward God or not, we know that gratitude alone will not solve the world’s problems, let alone our internal daily struggles. But it’s doubtful we can solve any significant problem without it.

Yes, 2022 has not been an easy year. However, gratitude is among the greatest of the virtues, even in the midst of adversity and struggle, and God is the greatest of the givers.

These truths alone have inspired both of us to learn more about how we should respond to this gracious and giving God and the difference that makes in our lives. We hope that such truths do the same for you.

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