Drew's Blog: Nov. 23, 2016

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Is there an attitude of heart that makes for fruitful living?

Michael Zigarelli, Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College, looked at the beliefs, behaviors and character attributes of 5,000 Christians worldwide in an effort to identify just such an attitude. He compared a group of what he determined to be “high-virtue Christians” (i.e., people who consistently display “fruits of the Spirit” virtues, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) to a group of comparably “low-virtue Christians.” His research led him to conclude that for those individuals who displayed more of those fruits, one characteristic stood out above the rest:  gratitude.

While this may be news to some of us, the philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) would have nodded in agreement. He described gratitude as “the parent of all [other virtues]” – i.e., that quality of heart that begets even more virtues. Zigarelli writes, Gratitude sets a new context for processing our circumstances: a context where everything we have is a gift. Through this lens our view of the entire world is different and there is empowerment to love God, to love neighbor, and to love our own lives.”

Notice the relational character of gratitude. Genuine gratitude invariably arises out of our relationships with God and with others, and the deepest gratitude finds its source in the love and grace of God in our lives. His Spirit-led transformation of our hearts generates an immense gratitude for all we have been given – and for all we have been forgiven.

This became clear to me when, about a month into my new journey of faith in my 20s, I suddenly began to see disturbing evidence of my own “low-virtue” character – that I was in dire need of God’s forgiveness. The Apostle John (anticipating my “self-discovery”) helped fill in the blanks for me. He reassured me that, “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). In other words, my love for God was a response to His “already-there” love for me. Thus, at the very moment I saw my need of God’s forgiveness, I found myself already standing within God’s grace and mercy. This is why the Apostle Paul could write with such profound and overflowing gratitude, “Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2).  

So, paradoxically, in those moments when our relationship with God may feel a little thankless, even our awareness of “dullness or distance” in our relationship with God is only because His love and mercy are drawing us back to Him! Paul reassures us that, “…if we are faithless, He remains faithful.” (2 Timothy 2:13).

As a result, whenever that realization dawns upon us, the spark of Spirit-led gratitude that follows can cause us to lean into God and once more recover the reality of His gracious, merciful intervention in our lives. In the very act of finding ourselves in need of His grace, we discover afresh that He really is that gracious, that absurdly patient, that radically kind, and that outrageously generous and merciful. His love for us is, after all, supremely faithful and unwavering, no matter how unfaithful, unstable and all over the place we are.

And as this reality seeps back into our hearts, from the very core of us something deep rises up, something that is beyond us to suppress, and that is gratitude – with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control following in close pursuit.

The heartfelt gratitude expressed by Zigerelli’s “high-virtue” Christians is the gift that comes when they realize that they are, in fact, “low-virtue Christians” – that they have absolutely no virtue of their own save for the undeserved love and mercy of God. In just this way, speaking as a self-confessed “low-virtue” Christian, G.K. Chesterton concluded, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”