I often think of gratitude as a feeling. It’s what I feel when someone does something for me, when a need or want I have is met. And it’s contingent upon an expectation. I would expect a friend to hold the door for me, but I don’t expect a perfect stranger to. So when the latter occurs, I feel a deeper sense of thanks. I don’t just say it. I mean it. And, in fact, I’m more likely to hold a door for someone later on.
That’s the part that fascinates me. The reciprocal response when we actually feel a deep sense of gratitude. We all walk around with unspoken expectations for how people should act, but how many times do people come close to, let alone surpass those expectations? If we only express thankfulness when we feel it, we aren’t acting it out enough.
Gratitude seems easy when you meet those living amidst poverty. When I went with InterVarsity Global Projects to Ethiopia, the liberated child sex slaves I met were so thankful for what little they had. While working with them, I was struck by the horrors of sex trafficking. Yet I heard more gratefulness than bitterness when the girls spoke. I was completely dismantled by the gratitude they expressed for Jesus. These girls were thankful because even though it was humans that decided their lives were worth nothing more than profitable rape, it was also humans who rescued them.
And they were so thankful for Jesus.
Instead of crying over their past pain, they would weep over their families—the families who had sold them into sex slavery and then disowned them because they contracted HIV or developed fistulas. These girls wept for the same families who wanted nothing to do with them, because there were moms, dads, brothers, and sisters who still didn’t know Jesus.
Most of us will never be trafficked. We won’t be kept in a brothel for years, our existence won’t be comparable to an item on a menu. But that doesn’t mean that the gratitude we feel can’t be as deeply rooted. Jesus is calling us to live thankful lives. He doesn’t call us to be thankful when we feel it. He’s not calling us to act thankful when it’s easy to do. His last night alive, the Bible says he gave thanks. Jesus was aware of the betrayal and his impending murder and was still thankful.
It’s hard for us to feel that deep sense of gratitude, especially in the face of adversity or struggle. But Jesus doesn’t say to merely feel thankful. No, it’s the action he wants us to live out.
You don’t feel thankful for your parents because it’s difficult going home over break? Act like you are; write them a note.
You don’t feel thankful for your coworker because she is hard to work with? Invite her out to lunch and offer to pay.
You don’t feel thankful that you’ve never been held in a brothel against your will? Become a backyard abolitionist.
When you begin to act out the thankfulness you aren’t feeling, you’ll find out just how thankful you are.
Autumn Rupkey graduated from Drake University in Iowa with a BA in Magazine Journalism. The community of InterVarsity and the words of Pete Grieg have inspired her to live a life much bigger than her own. She dreams of redemption and pursues revolution. She is a freelance graphic designer and partner of Beza Threads.