I’ve always been a word nerd. Anyone else ask for a thesaurus for Christmas when they were in junior high? After that, of course, I went through the phase of using words I didn’t fully understand, just because they made me sound smart: ingratiate, spurious, turpitude. Truth is, I still wake up in the middle of the night to scribble down the perfect word for a note or post or article. And sometimes those are overblown. But lately, I’ve been chewing on the difference between thankfulness and gratitude.
I’ve always used them as synonyms, interchangeably. But that may have been a little off the mark. And I’m just now starting to understand why.
Three years ago as Thanksgiving approached, I was feeling particularly unthankful. I was suffocating under 14 pounds of retained fluid that I thought was just extra weight I had gained, even though I hadn’t eaten in a week. I was so exhausted I couldn’t put my socks on without sitting on the floor, and then it took several minutes. I thought, this must be what pneumonia feels like. And with my children coming in for the holiday, I wasn’t thankful to be in that state. I was disappointed that the few days I had to spend with them would be marred by this inconvenient and poorly timed illness. Whatever it was.
I scoffed at the words in ads describing the approaching holidays: thankfulness and gratitude. I felt neither of those and had no idea where to get them. Or if I even could.
Paul, who knew something about suffering, was certain that it was all good. He was determined to give thanks always, regardless of the chains and pains and broken plans. He encouraged us to let every single detail of our lives be done with a sense of gratitude. No matter the outcome, every step of the way. For him, it was a way of life.
I began to think Paul and I had different definitions of thankfulness…or was it gratitude?
I muttered thanks every day in prayer, but what I desperately wanted was what Paul had. And I needed it ASAP.
But what exactly is gratitude? How is it different from thankfulness?
Thankfulness is a reaction you have, without much internal thought. A singular appreciation for benefits received: a door held open or a clothes iron received for graduation. Whether we feel it or not, we express it. It is more a social norm, something your mother taught you (or should have) about being polite.
But gratefulness runs deeper. Gratitude is a sense of thankfulness that becomes a way of life. Not a surface reaction, like a forced third grade thank-you note, but a mature thankfulness. An established thankfulness. Thankfulness in action. Paul’s thankfulness.
I understood the difference, but I couldn’t figure out how to go from my routine thankful words to the rich grateful living I desired. So I did what I knew to do.
As my heart failure diagnosis began to sink in, my head did what my heart could not. I prayed dull thanks even when I wasn’t feeling it or acting like it. I was scared and so much uncertainty hung in that November air. In my illness-tinted attempt to be deeply thankful, I knew something was missing. And turns out, it was something big.
Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast explains that gratitude has two qualities. First, an outward appreciation for goodness, gifts, blessings. Spoken thankfulness.
He goes on to explain that to get beyond mere thankfulness to a deeper gratitude, we must add something. The second quality of gratitude is knowing that the blessing is freely given from a source apart from us, unearned and undeserved.
Sounded like grace to me.
It was an ah-ha moment. Thankfulness plus grace equals gratitude. Because grace does. Like grace going to the cross. Grace propels affection into love, and thanks into gratitude. Grace is the force that takes us from saying we’re thankful to living gratefully.
What I had been missing was a recognition of that grace. And even though I couldn’t see it that dark Thanksgiving, grace was already there.
Grace walked into my home with homemade food for weeks after my diagnosis.
Grace filled my mailbox with cards for over a year.
Grace covered my counter with flowers for months.
Grace sat with my husband in the hospital.
Grace took my vitals with tears in her eyes and a promise of prayer.
Grace took my daughter into her home as we traveled for medical care.
Grace held my hand and prayed when I could not.
Through the grace-filled hearts of many others, our fraying edges were gradually and carefully bound together when it would have been so easy to fall apart.
Maybe we need each other to understand grace. Maybe we need each other to be truly grateful. Paul, the apostle of grace, who had more to say about the subject than all other bible writers combined, would surely agree.
Grace. Undeserved favor. Unearned merit, meals, mercy. By experiencing it through others, I began to appreciate grace from my God.
Three years ago this week, I was diagnosed with heart failure, an incurable, progressive condition. From an outside perspective, that might seem like the end of gratitude. But for me, it was the beginning. I began to recognize that what our souls become in our best moments is a lifelong culmination of unmerited goodness from outside of ourselves.
My raw yet determined thankfulness was boosted by so many who came bearing such grace.
And because of that grace, thankful words began to grow into full-fledged grateful living.