By Peter Amsterdam
January 10, 2017
Becoming more Christlike is about becoming a better Christian through a more committed application of the teachings of Scripture coupled with the guidance and grace of the Holy Spirit. This application of Scripture cuts two ways: first, it calls for doing away with ungodliness, for believing that what the Bible calls sin is in fact sin and needs to be resisted and overcome as much as possible. Second, it calls for us to put on Christ,1 to embrace the godly virtues spoken of in Scripture, the fruit of the Spirit, and live in a manner which strengthens these virtues within our lives.
Growing in godliness is a lifelong pursuit. It requires intentional change, commitment, and willingness to regularly put in effort to positively alter our actions, thoughts, desires, and outlooks. It’s a spiritual transformation, a renewal of mind, becoming a new creation, determination to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life … to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.2
In previous articles, we covered the basic foundation of Christlikeness and Christian character, and also looked at sin and holiness. The rest of this series will focus on the various attributes and virtues which help us to develop Christlikeness in our lives, as well as the sins that work against it.
As a starting point for our study of these attributes, I will focus on gratitude, and the related virtues of contentment and generosity. We’ll also look at eliminating characteristics which work against gratitude, such as covetousness, envy, and greed. I chose gratitude as a starting point after reading Cultivating Christian Character by Michael Zigarelli.3 He conducted a survey of 5,000 Christians and found indicators of which virtues seem to help in the growth and development of Christian character. He identified three attributes which appear to be major building blocks in developing Christlikeness.
There are three attributes that best explain why high-virtue Christians are different from average-virtue Christians. Those attributes—those three pillars of success—are gratitude, joyful living and God-centeredness … Christians who have sown these three seeds into their lifestyle are far more likely to reap maximum Christian character … to see manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Fundamental but elusive Christian virtues (e.g., love, inner peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, and the ability to forgive) all flow from the roots of gratitude, joyful living, and God-centeredness.4
Gratitude is key to Christlikeness because it is a “parent virtue”—a virtue that helps produce other godly virtues within us. It has a transformational effect on our character. While we’re looking at the virtue of gratitude from a Christian perspective, it is also widely understood in fields such as psychology and self-improvement to be beneficial, improving one’s health and emotional, social, and psychological well-being, among other things. Gratitude is universally considered a basic foundation for a better, happier life. Some of its benefits include making one more optimistic, spiritual, resilient, relaxed, and friendly; less materialistic, self-centered, and envious; causing one to have more self-esteem, better sleep, happier memories, a better marriage, more friends, deeper relationships, and more energy.
Besides providing these benefits, gratitude is a key element of growth in Christlikeness, especially when practiced concurrently with joy and God-centeredness. (The concept of God-centeredness was covered in a previous article, The Foundation of Christlikeness.) While gratitude, joy, and God-centeredness each individually help us grow in godly character, when practiced together, they effect growth in godliness in a much greater way. This combination of joy, God-centeredness, and gratitude is seen in what the apostle Paul wrote:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances,for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.5
Gratitude or gratefulness is expressed in Scripture as thankfulness and thanksgiving. It’s based on the concept that everywhere and in every situation, God’s people should continually give thanks to God, the One who has created and redeemed them. The giving of thanks in the Old Testament is indicated most often by the Hebrew word todah, which is translated thanks, thankfulness, and thanksgiving. It’s also how you say “thank you” in modern Hebrew. The word todah is found most often in the book of Psalms, which contains a great deal of praise and thanksgiving to God.6
The New Testament is also full of examples of expressing thankfulness to God, as well as instruction to do so. We read of Jesus’ example of giving thanks;7 of believers giving thanks to Christ,8 through Christ,9 and in His name.10 We also read of giving thanks before eating;11 for the supply of our bodily wants;12 for love exhibited by others;13 for deliverance from indwelling sin;14 for victory over death and the grave.15 In fact, we’re told to give thanks to God for everything16 and always.17 Gratitude is meant to be a way of life. While we express our gratefulness to other people as well, our ultimate gratitude is toward God, who has given us life.
As we focus on cultivating gratitude, it changes our outlook on life, as over time it produces a new context or lens through which we process our circumstances. We begin to see our experiences and everything we have in the light of God’s love, and thus we can be thankful. This changes our perspective, as we recognize that no matter what our situation, it could be worse—but it isn’t. This doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to improve our situation, but we view it with thankfulness, thankful for what we have; that we are alive, that though there may not be abundance and we may not have what others do, we have sufficient.
In a sense, gratitude is a mindset, a worldview. No matter what our circumstances, we choose to see through the lens of thankfulness to God for His love, care, and supply. Rather than comparing with others or bemoaning our lot in life, we thank God for what we have. It requires thinking in a new way, focusing our thoughts on our blessings instead of what’s missing from our lives or having the attitude of how much better life could be “if only…” Gratitude causes us to want what we have, to be content with whatever state we are in, and to regularly thank the Lord for our blessings, whether they’re meager or abundant.
Developing a mindset of gratitude requires conditioning our minds to put off thoughts which cause us to be disgruntled with our circumstances and envious or jealous of others. The more we compare ourselves with others, wanting what they have, the less satisfied we become with our state. This causes us to develop an envious frame of mind, which blinds us to God’s love and care for us, causing us to be unappreciative of what He has done and continues to do in our lives. If we don’t rid ourselves of disgruntled and envious thoughts, we will be trapped in a mindset which steals the joy and happiness that comes from awareness of God’s presence and blessings.
How do we develop a grateful mindset? To begin with, we need to work on eliminating envy—the desire for what others have, the resentfulness and unhappy feeling we get when comparing ourselves with someone we feel is better off than we are, more successful than we are, or has qualities or possessions that we want. It’s expressed in the Old Testament as coveting:
You shall not covet … [or] desire … anything that is your neighbor’s.18
In the New Testament, envy is included among sins that are warned against in both Paul’s and Peter’s writings.19 (There will be more on envy in an upcoming article.)
Through Zigarelli’s survey, he found that Christians who rated high in gratitude were those who learned to be content, who rarely desired what others had. They consistently, throughout the day, remembered how much God had blessed them. It’s interesting that those in the survey who were most grateful generally came from a lower economic bracket, so their material possessions weren’t what drove or sustained their grateful heart.
What does drive [gratitude] is proper perspective—seeing clearly, remaining mindful moment by moment of what God has bestowed upon you. High-virtue Christians are perpetually aware of their bountiful life, regardless of what that life entails. They have trained their minds to think about the abundance in their life rather than the insufficiencies. And it is this habit—a habit of keeping perspective—that transports them to the next level of gratitude and of character.20
Developing a grateful mindset is based on trust in God’s unfailing love for us. It’s often difficult to feel grateful when we face adversity in our lives, when it seems life doesn’t make sense, and our prayers seem to go unanswered. But a grateful attitude isn’t based on events around us, it’s anchored in faith that God loves us, that He hears our prayers; and a belief that even if circumstances don’t change, there are always things to be thankful for even in the worst of situations.
One way to cultivate gratitude is to keep track of the things you are thankful for. Keeping such a gratitude journal helps you to take account of and focus on your blessings. This is part of developing a positive and grateful mindset. Each of us has numerous things in our daily lives that we are thankful for, yet we rarely take time to realize that we are thankful for them. Since we don’t acknowledge them, they don’t consciously register in our minds as blessings and something we are thankful for.
I recently started to regularly keep such a journal, and I’ve been surprised at how many things I am thankful for that I’ve rarely given much thought to. I go through my day surrounded by blessings—food, clothes, a place to live, a loving wife, friends, work to do, good weather, health, etc.—and until I started listing five things I’m thankful for each day, I rarely took specific notice of the many blessings I experience. Of course, I regularly thanked the Lord for my blessings, but I did so in general terms. I’ve found that keeping track of specific things which have happened, or which are blessings to me on a regular basis, has helped me both to be aware of my blessings and be more specifically grateful to the Lord for the many things which I have taken for granted for so many years. Even in the short time I have been doing this, I’ve found it to be changing the way I respond to things. Just yesterday, I found out I had an unexpected bill to pay, and my first reaction was to complain about it; but shortly thereafter, I reframed my thoughts and was thanking the Lord that I had the funds on hand to pay it. I went from complaining to gratitude. It felt so much better.
There are so many things in our lives, both small and great, which we can identify as God’s blessings: our gifts and talents, goals we’ve achieved, opportunities which have come our way, our health, and much more. Some things are more mundane, such as the car getting fixed, food on the table, water in the faucet, and a toilet to use. Then there is our family and friends who love us, as well as people who have helped or cared for us in some way. There are countless things to be grateful for, yet we often don’t take the time to acknowledge them. Keeping a journal helps us to do that; and as we do, we begin to train our mind to recognize them, and eventually our mindset can change so that gratitude becomes part of who we are, putting us on the pathway to greater Christlikeness.
Another stepping stone to gratitude according to Zigarelli’s study is periodic fasting. He found that fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines that help people cultivate a strong and persistent feeling of thankfulness. There are a number of reasons Christians fast: to strengthen prayer, when seeking God’s guidance, in times of grief, when seeking deliverance or protection, or to overcome temptation.21 The final two reasons—to humble yourself before God and to express love and worship to God—seem most closely linked to gratefulness. When we fast as an act of humility before the Lord, we become acutely aware that we are dependent on Him and are thankful that He provides for us and takes care of us. Fasting as an expression of our love for and worship of God is an act of devotion. It’s acknowledging that He is our Creator, the One who gives and sustains life. Fasting helps make us more aware of our dependence on Him and more grateful for His care for us. Through fasting, we may feel more appreciative and more grateful to the One who sustains us.
There is also a link between the confession of sin and greater gratitude. When we regularly bring our sins before God, it reminds us of our flaws and of His mercy. Knowing that we have been forgiven and are recipients of His gift of mercy generates feelings of thanksgiving. This in turn can create a regular cycle of seeking His forgiveness. Confessing our sins to the Lord is part of the process of putting off the old self and putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.22
Remembering the poor in our prayers can also enhance gratitude. When we pray for those who have less than we do, it reminds us of how difficult life is for some and makes us grateful for our lives. When we pray for refugees who have to leave everything behind and risk their lives to get somewhere safe, it helps keep our situation in perspective.
Our frame of reference becomes the impoverished widow, the hungry child, the jobless father, the disease-ridden infant, the refugee forced from home by war, the third-world neighbor without electricity or running water. Praying daily for these people is a practice that illuminates our own existence in the blazing light of God’s providence, and as a result, one may experience a stunning series of reversals. Envy gives way to fulfillment. Resentment gives way to contentment. Complaints give way to praise. The catalyst through it all is gratitude, born of a clearer perspective that’s generated by reflecting on the poor.23
As Christians, we possess the ultimate blessing—salvation, the knowledge that we will live forever with God. We are in relationship with the Creator and sustainer of all things. Our God is also our Father, who knows what we need and promises to take care of us. No matter our circumstances, we are in His presence. Ours should be a life of gratitude, of thanksgiving to God. Gratitude isn’t our natural state, and we need to develop this attribute; but as we do, as we work to cultivate gratitude in our lives, we will be on the path to greater Christlikeness.
(More on Gratitude in Parts Two, Three, and Four)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Romans 13:14.
2 Ephesians 4:22–24.
3 Michael Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 2005).
4 Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character, 24.
5 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 NIV.
6 E. E. Carpenter and P. W. Comfort, in Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 188.
7 Matthew 11:25, 26:27; John 11:41.
8 1 Timothy 1:12.
9 Romans 1:8; Colossians 3:17; Hebrews 13:15.
10 Ephesians 5:20.
11 John 6:11; Acts 27:35.
12 1 Timothy 4:3–4.
13 2 Thessalonians 1:3.
14 Romans 7:23–25.
15 1 Corinthians 15:55–57.
16 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
17 Ephesians 5:20.
18 Deuteronomy 5:21.
19 Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:3; 1 Peter 2:1.
20 Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character, 31.
22 Colossians 3:9–10.
23 Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character, 36.