Gratitude & Grace

One of the vestigial traces of Christianity in a secular society like ours is some general expectation of interpersonal graciousness. Even if most people think of politeness or good manners as appropriate, however, whether they are always connected to actual gratitude we can be less sure. As a child, I may have had a bigger dose of total depravity than most children, as my mother claimed to believe, but I wonder if my memory of learning social niceties such as saying “please” and “thank you”—pretty much in the pursuit of self-interest—wouldn’t be the experience of lots of little kids during their formative years. Connection to anything resembling the virtue of gratitude comes much later, and probably then only in family circumstances where gratitude is regularly expressed in other ways.

I admit that even then it can take a while for gratitude to become habitual in the way the Bible regards as fundamental to spiritual health. In our home during my pre-teen years, we had a pretty regular weekly menu. Sunday was our feast day, so we typically had roast beef for dinner, usually a pot roast slow-cooked with vegetables, timed to be ready when we got home from church. Saturday night was baked beans, soaked over Friday night and, when cooked most of the day with molasses and served with a loaf of fresh bread brought home by Dad from Slater’s bakery, almost as tasty as the roast. These were my favorites, and I remember being honestly thankful for both. Codfish on Friday I was less enthusiastic about, but it was food. Thursday night seemed to me another matter altogether: liver and onions, rain or shine, summer or winter. Ugh. One Thursday evening, after grace over the meal was said by my father, I had the temerity to ask if it was necessary to be honest when saying grace. My father said, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Some of us might not be all that thankful for liver and onions,” I replied. Bad moment: I was thoroughly upbraided for my ingratitude. “Think of all the poor children in Africa, for goodness’ sake. They are starving to death and here you are complaining about such highly nutritious food!” My mother was not amused. Then I made it worse. “I bet those kids wouldn’t like liver either.”

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David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and Guest Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Peking University. Among his recent books are Luke: A Theological Commentary (Brazos 2012) and In the Beauty of Holiness: Art & the Bible in Western Culture (Eerdmans, 2018). He is the grateful father of five children. This essay is extracted and modified from his forthcoming book with Baker Academic (2019), Scripture and the Poetic Imagination.

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