What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
The following is a talk I gave in our ward’s sacrament meeting today:
photo credit: Home Shopper
An Attitude of Gratitude
July 16, 2007 Journal Entry
I’m amazed at the ability of the Zambians to be content with what they have, which is usually next to nothing. This is demonstrated in a common conclusion of their prayers when they say "we have so many things to ask for, but these things we leave in thy hands, in the name of Jesus Christ." Alma teaches the same principle in Alma 29 when he learns that we should be content with what God has given us.
The people’s faith in God here is often amazing. They sing of him often. Just this morning while eating breakfast, the four women that ran the front desk at our little motel (if you can call it that) sang a few beautiful songs for us, most of which had to do with God’s love and power and ability to save us. It’s truly inspiring to see their faith demonstrated through song.
This summer I had the opportunity to go on a three week service trip to Zambia, Africa. What I witnessed was nothing short of a miracle in my mind: a destitute people, lucky to have one meal a day, and owning little more than what you could carry in a backpack. Poor living conditions, meager access to water, and a 94% unemployment rate. And yet, despite their struggles and temporal setbacks, these people showed me what an "attitude of gratitude" is. One might find it easy to be grateful when in the possession of a nice home, new car, an iPod, and other luxuries… but how does one cultivate gratitude when living in poverty?
What I learned over the course of my three weeks in Africa was that not only is it possible, it is powerful. Their demonstration of gratitude was genuine and pervasive. Whereas my gratitude had always been based on an appreciation for material possessions, theirs was based on the truly important things in life: family, community, love, daily sustenance, and the gift of life.
This genuine gratitude was manifested, among other ways, in devout, verbal expressions of love for God. In my mind, my Zambian brothers and sisters were epitomizing the counsel Amulek gave in Alma 34:38 when he counseled us to "live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which [God] doth bestow upon you." Many mercies and blessings, I learned, does not equate to material possessions and temporal comfort.
To properly understand how gratitude is manifested in our lives, we must understand the word itself. A wonderful resource for the meaning of words, especially those we find in our canon of scripture, is Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary. Webster offered the following definition for gratitude:
An emotion of the heart, excited by a favor or benefit received; a sentiment of kindness or good will towards a benefactor; thankfulness. Gratitude is an agreeable emotion, consisting in or accompanied with good will to a benefactor, and a disposition to make a suitable return of benefits or services, or when no return can be made, with a desire to see the benefactor prosperous and happy. Gratitude is a virtue of the highest excellence, as it implies a feeling and generous heart, and a proper sense of duty.
Sadly, the definition found in the descendant dictionary, that of Merriam-Webster, merely defines gratitude as:
Being appreciative of benefits received.
The latter definition, being pretty watered down, falls short of thoroughly indicating how one might fully express gratitude.
The Roman statesman Cicero agreed with Webster’s definition of gratitude being a "virtue of the highest excellence" when he once said that "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."
Count Your Many Blessings
I feel that one requirement for gratitude is a recognition of one’s blessings. The second verse of our hymn "Count Your Many Blessings" reads as follows:
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.
Living where we do, each of us shares a bounty of blessings that puts us in the minority when compared to our brothers and sisters throughout the world. So to truly be grateful for what we have, I believe it to be important to understand how fortunate we are, compared to those who have not.
Confucius opined likewise when he said:
I was complaining that I had no shoes till I met a man who had no feet.
Some examples will serve to illustrate how grateful we should be, even for the most basic things in life:
- Water: 1/6 of the world’s population (1.1 billion) has inadequate access to water, and 1/3 of the world’s population (2.6 billion) lack basic sanitation. Access to piped water into the household averages about 85% for the wealthiest 20% of the population, compared with 25% for the poorest 20%.
(2006 United Nations Human Development Report, pp.6, 7, 35)
- Food: Approximately 12% (790 million) of people in the world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of whom reside in Asia and the Pacific. (World Resources Institute Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems, February 2001)
- Liberty: Hundreds of millions of people have died under oppressive fascist and communist regimes in recent decades. Currently, more 1/6 of the world (1.4 billion) lives under communist rule. Many others live in countries ruled by military dictatorships or religious regimes. (CIA World Factbook)
- Home: An estimated 3.5 million people living in developed countries are homeless. This is roughly equivalent to the population of Utah and Idaho combined. And while it’s hard to come close to determining, some estimate there are over one billion homeless persons in third world countries, which is roughly 1/6 of the world’s population. A quick trip to Africa leads one to see how realistic this number is. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness#Statistics_for_developed_countries, http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050828/OPINION04/108280032/-1/opinion)
- Family: More than 36 million children under 15 are orphaned in Sub-Saharan Africa today. That’s equivalent to the entire population of California. Every 14 seconds, a child is orphaned as a result of AIDS. It is feared that there may be more than 80 million orphans in India and Asia.
- Employment: One estimate states that 30% of people throughout the world are unemployed. This average is lower due to the low rates found in developed countries, whereas many developing nations, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, have an unemployment rate of 75% or higher.
- Gospel: There are currently around 13 million members of the Church, with an estimated activity rate of 35%. That means there are around 4.5 million active members. In a world with an estimated current population of 6.6 billion, we who have and follow the gospel account for less than 1/14 of 1 percent of the world’s population. (http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpop.html, http://www.sltrib.com/ci_2890645)
Clearly, we who are sitting here today have much to be grateful for. Being in such a blessed minority does not make us better than those who have not. The Lord instructs us in D&C 82:3 that "unto whom much is given much is required". Gratitude for these blessings is one of many things required of us.
The Sin of Ingratitude
The Lord’s warnings are clear regarding the sin of ingratitude. In D&C 59:21 we read:
And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.
Likewise, President Joseph F. Smith once wrote:
I believe that one of the greatest sins of which the inhabitants of the earth are guilty today is the sin of ingratitude, the want of acknowledgment, on their part, of God and his right to govern and control. We see a man raised up with extraordinary gifts, or with great intelligence, and he is instrumental in developing some great principle. He and the world ascribe this great genius and wisdom to himself. He attributes his success to his own energies, labor and mental capacity. He does not acknowledge the hand of God in anything connected with his success, but ignores him altogether and takes the honor to himself; this will apply to almost all the world. In all great modern discoveries in science, in the arts, in mechanics, and in all the material advancement of our age, the world says, ‘We have done it.’ The individual says, ‘I have done it,’ and he gives no honor and credit to God. Now, I read in the revelations through Joseph Smith, the prophet, that because of this, God is not pleased with the inhabitants of the earth but is angry with them because they will not acknowledge his hand in all things. (Joseph F. Smith Gospel Doctrine, pp. 270-71)
Nearly two decades ago, our current prophet commented on this disease of the soul:
Our society is afflicted by a spirit of thoughtless arrogance unbecoming those who have been so magnificently blessed. How grateful we should be for the bounties we enjoy. Absence of gratitude is the mark of the narrow, uneducated mind. It bespeaks a lack of knowledge and the ignorance of self-sufficiency. It expresses itself in ugly egotism and frequently in wanton mischief. We have seen our beaches, our parks, our forests littered with ugly refuse by those who evidently have no appreciation for their beauty. I have driven through thousands of acres of blackened land scourged by a fire evidently set by a careless smoker whose only concern had been the selfish pleasure gained from a cigarette.
Where there is appreciation, there is courtesy, there is concern for the rights and property of others. Without appreciation, there is arrogance and evil.
Where there is gratitude, there is humility, as opposed to pride.
Cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving for the blessing of life and for the marvelous gifts and privileges each of us enjoy. The Lord has said that the meek shall inherit the earth. (See Matt. 5:5.) I cannot escape the interpretation that meekness implies a spirit of gratitude as opposed to an attitude of self-sufficiency, an acknowledgment of a greater power beyond oneself, a recognition of God, and an acceptance of his commandments. This is the beginning of wisdom. Walk with gratitude before him who is the giver of life and every good gift. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “With All Thy Getting Get Understanding,” Ensign, Aug. 1988)
As has been explained in these quotes, the sin of ingratitude separates us from the Lord. As an example to illustrate, think of a child whose parents provide him with all sorts of temporal comforts. If that child felt entitled to such blessings, he obviously would not have any gratitude for what his parents have done for him. The child then demands more as his desires increase, and a resentment grows when his parents refuse his requests. This ingratitude pushes a wedge between himself and his parents.
Do we ever demand things of God? Do we feel resentment when we "ask", and think that we don’t "receive"? Do we spend our time wishing we had more of something, or something better, or different?
Gratitude Brings Us to Christ
The definitions of gratitude given earlier fail to specify who the main object of our expressions of gratitude should be. Noah Webster’s definition did mention a benefactor three times, and he being a devout Christian, I have little doubt that he had our God in mind. But the gospel library definition elucidates who the object of our gratitude must be:
Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and thankfulness for blessings or benefits we have received. As we cultivate a grateful attitude, we are more likely to be happy and spiritually strong. We should regularly express our gratitude to God for the blessings He gives us and to others for the kind acts they do for us.
As King Benjamin taught, "all that [we] have" comes from God, and thus it is to Him that we should chiefly express our gratitude. This definition teaches that a grateful person increases in spirituality. Why is this? How is gratitude connected to spirituality?
Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that:
True worship includes thanksgiving to God—the acknowledging and confessing with joy and gladness of the benefits and mercies which he bestows upon his children. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 788)
Gratitude is not only a key component of worship (after all, it is a main part of our daily prayers), but also a commandment:
And ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with. (D&C 46:32)
Much like every other commandment we receive from God, its object and goal is to bring us closer to God, or in other words, increase our spirituality. Thus, the grateful soul is a Christlike one. The Lord stated likewise:
He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious. (D&C 78:19)
President Joseph F. Smith proclaimed:
“The grateful man sees so much in the world to be thankful for, and with him the good outweighs the evil. Love overpowers jealousy, and light drives darkness out of his life. Pride destroys our gratitude and sets up selfishness in its place. How much happier we are in the presence of a grateful and loving soul, and how careful we should be to cultivate, through the medium of a prayerful life, a thankful attitude toward God and man!” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 263)
Before my trip to Africa, I thought I understood gratitude. It was something I expressed whenever receiving birthday presents or a compliment. But my Zambian brothers and sisters taught me differently.
I saw in them a way of life, a pervasive mentality that allowed them to worship God and sing praises to His name, despite being surrounded by death, disease, and abject poverty. I saw true gratitude, not the feigned version I had used for so long. I saw the happiest people I’ve ever known.
It is their example—a Christlike one—that I seek to follow, for their example taught me, a middle class, educated, and comparatively prosperous young man from the United States, what gratitude truly is, and how it increases our spirituality.
I testify that this noble virtue, that of a truly grateful heart, brings us closer to Christ. Gratitude requires that we act as righteous stewards of our belongings, ever mindful of the many covenants we have made to use it to further God’s work. Gratitude, like faith in Christ, requires action, for without works, gratitude too is dead.
Christ lives, and guides this Church today through His prophet, and for that I am eternally grateful. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.