Living Fully, Living Gratefully: More Than Feeling Thankful

By Mark D. Roberts

February 26, 2020

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Colossians 1:3 (NRSV)


When we talk about gratitude, we often speak of “feeling thankful.” We may even envision gratitude mainly as a positive emotion. In this view, I am grateful when I feel particularly glad or joyful about something I’ve received as a gift or a favor.

Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, scholars who have done extensive research on gratitude, define it differently. They see gratitude as a two-step process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome” (see “The Science of Gratitude” by Summer Allen). This recognition may well inspire positive feelings. But the feelings aren’t the main point. Gratitude, according to Emmons and McCullough, is more a matter of recognition than of emotion.

The biblical notion of gratitude falls in line with this “recognition” perspective. Though we might certainly feel thankful when we recognize how God’s grace is at work in our lives, the main point is that we express our thanks to God. As Paul says in Colossians 1:3, “In our prayers for you we always thank God.” No matter what Paul happens to be feeling, he chooses to acknowledge God’s goodness through his prayers.

Robert Emmons, in “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times,” encourages us to see being grateful as a choice: “[I]t is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points. But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.”

Scripture would urge us to choose to be grateful, first of all, by acknowledging God’s grace as we pray. We don’t just feel thankful. We actually thank God in prayer no matter what we’re feeling. We tell God what he has done, recognizing his grace at work in our lives and acknowledging our dependence on him. As we do this consistently, we develop a “prevailing attitude that endures.” Our regular expression of gratitude shapes our thinking, acting, feeling, and being. We become grateful people in the full sense of the word as we practice saying thanks to God in prayer.

Something to Think About:

How would you define gratitude? Do you think of gratitude more as a feeling, an attitude, or an activity?

What helps you to express your thanks to God in prayer?

Do you think of yourself as a grateful person? If so, why? If not, why not?

Something to Do:

Even if you’re going through a difficult time right now, choose to thank God for the good things you are receiving from him.


Gracious God, I certainly enjoy the feeling of gratitude. It gladdens my heart and enhances my living. But it is right for me to thank you no matter what I’m feeling at this moment. So I thank you for the gift of life, for people who love me and whom I can love, for those who have made a real difference in my life. I thank you for good work, good rest, and good play. I thank you for your activity in the world, for gifts of beauty, peace, and justice. Most of all, I thank you for your love in Jesus Christ, for the gifts of salvation, community, and vocation. Amen.

Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
Gratitude at Work

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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