Barriers to Gratitude

By Mark D. Roberts

November 20, 2022

Thanksgiving Preseason

Scripture — Colossians 3:17

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Our lives would be better if they were filled with gratitude. They’d also be consistent with biblical teaching and example. But sometimes it’s hard to be grateful. Various barriers can get in the way: busyness, inattention, hesitation about depending on others, or a sense of entitlement. If, by God’s grace, we can address the barriers to gratitude in our lives, then we’ll find it easier to do and say everything with thanksgiving.

This devotion is part of the series: Thanksgiving Preseason.


Last week I began a short series of devotions I’ve called “Thanksgiving Preseason.” I hope to help you grow in gratitude as you approach the celebration of Thanksgiving Day. (If you don’t live in the United States, you can still participate in giving thanks even if it isn’t an official holiday for you. If you’re in Canada, for example, you celebrated your national Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday in October, but you can join us in November too, if you’d like.)

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul commends a life filled with thanksgiving: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Gratitude isn’t something we should do every now and then. Rather, it should permeate our lives. Giving thanks to God should be part of everything we do and say, according to Paul. This is another way of talking about what I called “a posture of gratitude” in last Friday’s devotion.

I’m “all in,” as they say, when it comes to the idea of being thankful in everything I do and say. But . . . sometimes it’s not that easy. For some of us, gratitude seems to come naturally. For others, not so much. I expect my own lack of gratitude is often a matter of inattention. Perhaps you can relate. We’re so busy rushing from one thing to another that we don’t slow down to attend to our blessings. We’re the sort of people who need something like a Thanksgiving holiday to pay attention to God’s good gifts so that we might abound in gratitude.

Others of us might struggle to be grateful for different reasons. Some of these reasons are laid out in the work of Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude whom I’ve mentioned before. In his article “Five Myths about Gratitude,” Emmons explains:

In fact, gratitude can be very difficult because it requires that you recognize your dependence on others, and that’s not always positive. You have to humble yourself, in the sense that you have to become a good receiver of others’ support and generosity. That can be very hard—most people are better givers than receivers.

What’s more, feelings of gratitude can sometimes stir up related feelings of indebtedness and obligation, . . . If I am grateful for something you provided to me, I have to take care of that thing—I might even have to reciprocate at some appropriate time in the future. That type of indebtedness or obligation can be perceived very negatively—it can cause people real discomfort.

If you’re uncomfortable with depending on others, even being indebted to them, then you’ll very well struggle with being grateful, even to God.

Emmons suggests other reasons we may struggle with being thankful in “What Gets in the Way of Gratitude?”:

People who are ungrateful tend to be characterized by an excessive sense of self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an unquenchable need for admiration and approval. Narcissists reject the ties that bind people into relationships of reciprocity. . . .

Entitlement is at the core of narcissism. This attitude says, “Life owes me something” or “People owe me something” or “I deserve this.” . . . Entitlement and self-absorption are massive impediments to gratitude.

The more you think you’re entitled to good things in life, the less you’re going to feel or express gratitude. If you think God owes you, then you won’t be inclined to thank God. You will be quick, however, to complain when God doesn’t give you what you believe you deserve.

As I consider my own gratitude or lack thereof, I expect there are times when my own sense of entitlement gets in the way. But, for the most part, when I pay attention to God’s gifts to me, I am blown away by God’s graciousness. I have not received what I deserve. I’ve received far more and far better.

If entitlement isn’t a major factor in my struggle to be thankful, I will readily confess to having a harder time with feeling dependent, even upon God. (I realize this isn’t logical, but I’m just being honest here.) I like feeling as if I can control my own destiny, as if I can solve my problems with my own ingenuity and effort. I sometimes assume that if I only work hard enough and smart enough, I can guarantee positive results. So my tendency toward self-reliance can get in the way of my gratitude to God.

All of us are wired differently, of course. Your hesitations might be quite similar to mine. Or they might be very different. No matter the case, I would encourage you to reflect on the barriers to gratitude in your life. If you can identify them, then, by God’s grace, you can begin to remove them or, at any rate, to get around them. The Monday before Thanksgiving Day seems to me like a good day to ask the Lord to help us deal with whatever in our lives keeps us from consistent gratitude.


If you sometimes have a hard time with gratitude, why?

Do you ever struggle with the things Emmons describes in his articles?

Positively, what helps you to be grateful to God?


If you can relate to any of the impediments to gratitude outlined by Emmons, even a little bit, take time to reflect on these. Talk with God about them. Confess what needs to be confessed. Ask the Lord to help you grow in gratitude.


Gracious God, sometimes it’s hard for us to be grateful. We confess that we can take your good gifts for granted. We might not even pause to acknowledge them. Forgive us.

It may be that we struggle with gratitude because it’s hard for us to feel dependent, even on you. Forgive us for our yearning for independence. Or maybe we believe that we’re entitled to good things in life. Forgive us for our self-centeredness.

O Lord, help me to grow in gratitude. May I accept my dependence on you and your grace. May I regularly rejoice in your goodness to me. Amen.

Banner image by Kevin Kandlbinder on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: For These and All Good Things We Give Thanks (Prayer).

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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