“Everybody receives abundant blessings from God, but only a few give thanks to Him.”1
About two centuries ago, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) expressed a very deplorable moral constant which was revealed to him by his spiritual experience, “Gratitude is a rare virtue among people.”2 It is enough to look closely at the state of morals in the society we live in to understand that it is a constant and not a variable quantity. We can’t look into someone’s inner world and “measure” with a “ruler” his ability to thank, and we don’t need to. Some indirect indicators are sufficient to conclude that a considerable part (if not the best part) of our society has been infected with “pathological” ingratitude. I am first of all speaking of banal callousness in its ever more terrifying manifestations, people’s ever-increasing dissatisfaction with their lives and an ever more intensive desire to “roll themselves up into balls” like prickly hedgehogs.
“What has this to do with ingratitude?” you may ask. The fact is that the soul’s ability to be grateful is an effective antidote for such diseases. Someone with a grateful heart, receiving never-ceasing favors from God and his neighbors, naturally shows favor to others; such people are more than happy with their lives and won’t be preoccupied with their own problems. In contrast with this, the ungrateful heart will make someone view everything from a very different perspective…
The Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Timothy warns us: This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be proud…, unthankful… (2 Tim. 3:1-2). Pathological ingratitude, which can be found everywhere and in some cases (careerism) is becoming a norm, is a clear sign of the end times. Perhaps the most hideous manifestation of ingratitude, when someone cruelly pays for a benefaction he has received with evil, was widespread even 200 years ago, as St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) wrote: “Those who receive great favors often begin to feel seething, frenzied hatred for their benefactors. This unnatural oddity occurs so often that a popular proverb appeared: ‘You will not make an enemy before feeding him and giving him to drink.’ 3” What can we say about our time? What about children who send their parents to old age homes or simply turn them out into the street like lumber? Take frequent cases when others make use of your gullibility and unselfishness to get you into trouble “as a token of their gratitude”. And take the numerous cases when someone who has gotten used to your benefaction begins to demand favors from you frantically, and if you can’t show him favors anymore, you become an “offender” in his eyes.
Why do such things happen and how can we interpret extreme ingratitude? Ingratitude is a defect of self-understanding, and by the virtue of this defect someone has a distorted view of the world around him. An ungrateful person is like someone who sits in a room that has windows smeared with dirt. This person can’t see or feel the sunshine—he only feels that it’s dark and cold. What can he be grateful for?
The reason for this spiritual state when someone’s heart is not even warned up by the generous “sunshine” is explained by his view of himself. Pride, the root of all spiritual diseases, “smears” the human heart with the “dirt” of an exaggerated high opinion of themselves. Pride tells him that not only is he “worthy” of everything he receives from God and other people, he is also worthy of many other and better things; so he feels disappointed and thinks that it is unjust that he hasn’t yet received these “best things”. Hence his inability to give thanks, for he is “worthy” of everything he enjoys; hence his discontent with all he has, for he is “worthy of better”! Indeed, “the share of a madman is small in his eyes.”4 Meanwhile, life shows that by thinking in this way he deceives himself. Thus, entrapped by self-delusion, the one who is incapable of thanking hides himself from the “sunshine” of Divine grace and loses what is really best. As opposed to this, a grateful person always receives beyond expectation, for a thankful heart is a receptacle of Divine gifts. This is what the Gospel story of the healing of ten lepers by the Lord is about (cf. Lk. 17:12–19).
This episode is one of the few places in the Holy Scriptures which speaks about the need for the ability to be grateful. More than that, the Lord shows here that gratitude to God is a demonstration of someone’s true faith in God—the faith that saves and attracts God’s mercy to him.
One day, as Christ was entering one village, ten lepers were on His way. They were standing at a distance and dared not approach Him, since lepers were not allowed to be in contact with other people and were treated as social pariahs. Having heard about Christ’s arrival, they shouted loudly from a distance, “Jesus, Teacher, have mercy on us!” But the Lord didn’t heal the lepers in public: He sent them to their priests so that they could confirm their cure as true. Indeed they were cleansed on their way, but only one of them returned to Christ and, falling at His feet, gave praise to God. This man turned out to be a Samaritan—a member of the “unfaithful” and “alien” ethnic group whom the Jews shunned and weren’t on speaking terms with. The Lord said in reply: Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God... Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole (Lk. 17:17-19).
There are no coincidences in this episode, every detail is filled with deep meaning. Let us examine at least some of them.
On the importance of gratitude
Let us start with the action related to our subject. Soon after Christ had sent the ten lepers away, all of them saw they were healed. Did they go to the priests as Jesus had told them? They probably did because they couldn’t re-enter society unless they first went to the priest to be checked. But did they return to Christ to thank Him for this great miracle? Alas, only one of them came. According to the Holy Fathers, thus the Lord showed us the proportion of the grateful to the ungrateful among people. This is what St. Theophan the Recluse wrote about this: “Ten lepers were healed, but only one came to thank the Lord. Isn’t there generally a similar proportion of people who are grateful after receiving benefactions from the Lord? Who has not received good things; or, rather, what do we have in us, or what ever happens to us that is not good for us? Even so, is everyone grateful to God, and does everyone give thanks for everything?5” Agreeing with St. Theophan that not many of us show gratitude and not for everything, let us ask another question: Why is the ability to show gratitude so important? Who needs our gratitude? God? He certainly doesn’t need it because He is all-good and all-sufficient. People? But people who strive for goodness and sincerely do charitable acts without mercenary motives don’t need gratitude either. Who needs it then? Of course, it is we who need it; for only a grateful heart can respond to the good it receives properly, which guarantees future blessings. Only a grateful heart is the receptacle of multifarious gifts from God, and the Creator awaits our gratitude only in order to give us more blessings. St. Ignatius writes: “The gratitude of the receiver of gifts encourages the giver to give more gifts which are greater than the previous ones. The gifts are not multiplied only when there is no gratitude for them.” 6 There is a famous saying of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, “God does not need your gratitude, but you desperately need His blessings. Your grateful heart receives and preserves these benefactions.” Only a grateful heart can pray for future blessings with boldness, “for how should he ask for future things, who is not thankful for the past?” (St. John Chrysostom).
In other words, the ability to show gratitude is a “generator” of God’s blessings in our lives. Apart from this, this ability can serve as a strong weapon in our spiritual warfare. Specifically, against the sin of envy, as St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Let us be thankful for the benefactions that have been granted not only to us but also to others; thus we will be able to both destroy envy and strengthen love, making it most sincere. You will no longer be able to envy those for whom you thank the Lord… Such gratitude releases us from earth, resettles us in heaven and makes us angels.”
How should we show gratitude?
True, the overwhelming majority of us understand that we should show gratitude to God and people for the benefactions we receive. But how are we supposed to express gratitude? Are simple words of appreciation and a smile on our faces sufficient? Perhaps a grateful heart won’t be satisfied with this and will try to repay good with good. A believer will at least pray for his benefactor. But any benefactor is just an instrument in the hands of God; so the following question inevitably arises: How can we show gratitude to God Who is Himself the source of all good things and doesn’t need anything?
Sacrifices were the original form of gratitude to God. Beginning from the first human beings and later throughout the history of the chosen people we see the faithful offer blood sacrifices. Thus, Abel… brought of the firstlings of his flock (Gen. 4:4). Noah… offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savor… (Gen. 8:20-21). Sacrifices were performed in the Temple of Solomon and continued in the time of the Savior. However, the Old Testament sacrifices had a prefigurative meaning: In addition to the expression of gratitude they reflected the faith in the coming of the Savior—the True Sacrifice for the world. After the coming of the Messiah, blood sacrificial offerings lost their purpose, including that of gratitude. Long before the incarnation of Christ, King David prophetically pointed to the form of gratitude which can replace all blood sacrifices and would always be pleasing to God: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Ps. 50:19). Repentance for our sins and a remorseful heart are the required form of gratitude, along with praise of God for the benefactions we receive. As St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Do you want to know how you should show gratitude? To confess your sins means to give thanks to God; he who confesses his sins shows that he is guilty of innumerable sins but has not yet gotten the punishment he deserves. He thanks God more than everybody else.” Do you want to understand how it works in life? Look how the Patriarch Jacob pours out his gratitude to God in prayer: God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shewed unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands (Gen. 32:9-10). Consequently, when we happen to taste and see that the Lord is good (cf. Ps. 33:9), then, having glorified the Creator for His countless blessings to us, it wouldn’t be bad to proclaim together with the Patriarch Jacob: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shewed unto Thy servant.
Why should I be thankful for sorrows?
Everybody understands why we must be grateful to God for joys, but the fact that we must give thanks for sorrows and diseases is not clear to everyone. We read in one of St. Paul’s epistles, In every thing give thanks (1 Thess. 5:18). But we are seething inside when something happens and we are harmed. In such moments, especially if we suffer serious losses, we ask perplexedly: “Why should I be grateful for this if I feel so terrible?”
But even in unenviable situations we shouldn’t forget popular wisdom based on the Holy Scriptures and experience: “Whatever God wills is for the best.” This truth is confirmed by the New Testament teaching concerning God, which is our most authoritative source. God is love (1 Jn. 4:16), we read in the Holy Scriptures. God treats us with love. However, while some need joy or consolation, others need sorrows or illnesses for their salvation. This can be compared to a situation when a doctor sends one patient to a health resort and sends another patient to the operating room, “to go under the knife”. This “surgeon’s knife” is often the only possible way of saving someone’s life. God does the same by sending people sorrows and infirmities for the restoration of their spiritual health. Though people often doubt this in moments of trouble, later the good outcomes of trials give them important experience. There is an interesting parable on how this can work in our lives.
One eminent and wealthy dignitary invited a tutor who was famous for his wisdom to educate his child. When his son grew up enough and acquired riding skills, they went horseback riding together. But during the ride the boy fell and the horse accidentally crushed his arm. The tutor hurried to support the adolescent morally with the words: “Don’t worry! Take heart! Glory be to God!” Writhing in pain, the latter replied angrily: “What have you given thanks to God for?! I am now an invalid!” And soon by his father’s orders the tutor was sent to prison.
Some time passed. One day the same young man, accompanied by a new tutor, undertook a faraway voyage during which they were captured by a native tribe that practiced human sacrifices. They quickly lit fires, and the tutor was the first to fall victim to the barbarous rite. Now it was the young man’s turn. Dozens of hands lifted him over their heads and carried him to the fire. But an unforeseen thing happened: at the moment they were about to sacrifice him, the high priest noticed that his arm was injured. Since their pagan gods demanded sacrifices without defects, the tribe with disgust rejected the young man and drove him away. So he trudged back to his native shores.
This parable reflects an important spiritual truth: Divine providence often allows adversity in our lives, foreseeing the greatest good that will result from it, just as a pure baby is born through severe pain.
God doesn’t want us to live in clover our entire lives; He wants to prevent us from ruining our souls for eternity. We should make efforts and realize that it is not possible to reach Paradise by “flying” there “business class”, that affliction and maladies are often needed to reach it. Our failure to understand this truth not only removes gratitude from our hearts but also gives rise to the opposite, namely grumbling and indignation. When St. Theophan the Recluse encountered this attitude towards sorrows, he would exhort: “There are even those who permit themselves to ask, ‘Why did God give us existence? It would be better for us not to exist.’ God gave you existence so that you would be in eternal bliss; He gave you existence as a gift, as a gift He has furnished you with every means for attaining eternal bliss. The job depends on you: you need only to labor a bit for this. You say, ‘But I have only sorrows, poverty, diseases, misfortunes.’ Well, these are also some of the ways to attain eternal bliss. Be patient. Your entire life is less than a moment compared with eternity. Even if you had to suffer unceasingly your entire life, compared to eternity it is nothing; and you still have moments of consolation. Do not look at the present, but at what is prepared for you in the future, and concern yourself with making yourself worthy of that; then you will not notice the sorrows. They will all be swallowed up by unquestioning hope in eternal consolations, and your lips will never cease to utter thanks7.”
Thus, beyond all doubt, our sorrows and diseases are gifts from God intended to help us attain the heavenly abodes. As with all gifts, they should be followed by thanksgiving. And the Holy Fathers see the proof of our true Christian disposition in gratitude. “If sorrows for Christ are gifts from God made by God to genuine Christians, then they must show their Christianity in practice by gratitude for sorrows, confess and accept the gift of God by showing gratitude for the gift8.”
So gratitude to God for sorrows is a duty of the Christians and an indicator of their progress in spiritual life. But not only that. The words of thanksgiving and glorification of God contain an effective remedy for sorrow. This is what St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) writes about the power of influence on us of such simple and familiar words as, “glory to God!”: “‘Glory to God!’ These are powerful words! In sorrowful circumstances, when your heart is beset with thoughts of doubt, faint-heartedness, discontent, and murmuring, force yourself to repeat the words ‘glory to God!’ frequently, unhurriedly and attentively. Those who take this advice with simple hearts and put it into practice when the need arises will experience the wonderful power of glorifying God; they will rejoice at gaining this useful new knowledge and acquiring a weapon against the enemies of souls—such a strong and handy one9.”
But that is not all. The Lord said to the thankful Samaritan, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole (Lk. 17:19). Why does the Savior equate thankfulness with faith? Because there is a direct link between these two virtues, and St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) points to it: “Thanksgiving to God has its particular attribute: it gives rise to and strengthens faith and brings us closer to God.” In contrast to this, “ingratitude and disregard of God destroy faith and move us away from God10.” The faith of the Samaritan appeared and became stronger in the living gratitude to Christ. He saw and felt the things that we so often forget. He learned that this perfect gift—the deliverance from an incurable disease—can come from God alone, and he bowed before God in the person of Christ.
“If something good happens, glorify God, and the good will remain; if something bad happens, glorify God, and the bad will disappear,” St. John Chrysostom used to say. And for him it was not just a beautiful phrase. He would begin every speech by hitting his index finger to his palm and saying: “Glory to God for all things.” He did it all his life, and before his last sigh he uttered the same words, pointing out the undying value of gratitude to God: “On account of the substantial benefit the soul receives through thanking God, He commanded us to practice showing gratitude to Him diligently and cultivating a sense of gratitude to God11.”
We must thank God both for joys and sorrows, for such is the will of God for us, and His will is holy to us. Divine providence and God’s care of human beings boil down to us reaching the haven of the Heavenly Kingdom. It is not bad if we have to face storms and hidden rocks on the way sometimes: the main goal is to reach the haven. However, not many can understand this; alas, the ungrateful are a majority, and they won’t hear these most important words from Christ: Thy faith hath made thee whole.