The Virtue of Gratitude
Gratitude is called a moral virtue because it is the proper and just response to a gift freely given, what is due to the person who so favors us (hence placed under the cardinal virtue justice). We have a capacity for receiving goods from others and giving thanks is how we exercise that capacity well, expressing our gratitude through a gracious response to the grace that is shown to us. But gratitude is also an emotion, a capacity to experience a certain feeling that accompanies the receipt of the good. We not only give thanks, we feel grateful. As an emotion-virtue, gratitude disposes us morally to act right and emotionally to feel right, to do good as regards others and to do well as regards our mental condition.
Gratitude promotes feelings of well-being because it is a perception of good. It is a perception in terms of a benefit, a beneficiary, and a benefactor, what [Robert C.] Roberts calls the three interlocking B’s (bene is Latin for “good” or “well”) that make up the framework of gratitude.
Gratitude becomes spiritual, a spiritual virtue and a spiritual emotion, when we are moved in our response by a God-centered view of the three: gift, recipient, and giver. This is the view we gain in AA. The AA understanding is that we are sober by the grace of God. Our gratitude is a response to grace, freely given.
We grow in this gratitude as we come to see not only our sobriety but every proper good we have as gifts from a loving God, and ourselves as blessed. We grow still further as we come to see the blessings of our fellows and of the natural order from the same perspective. Gratitude is our just and our loving and distinctly human response to God’s providence, for we are his creatures and his children, equally made in his image and equally dependent on his grace.
We know from our experience when we drank that gratitude, even of the garden variety that leaves God out of the picture, was one emotion that seldom arose spontaneously in us. Gratitude was not in our repertoire, as some might say. More likely, we still had the capacity, but it was greatly impaired. We took whatever good we had for granted, feeling entitled to or giving ourselves credit for it. Rather than look for the good and give thanks, our tendency was to look for the bad and complain and reject. Dissatisfaction was our default mode, creating a psychological climate in us that was hostile to gratitude and fed our power-driven obsession with changing everything. This naturally made for unsettled lives and unstable emotions.
This begins to change when we come to AA . . . [as we saw with the grateful cabbie]. But if our practice is to be spiritual and if it is to result in emotional sobriety, gratitude needs to be firmly grounded in an understanding of God as ultimately the giver of all good gifts and us as his favored and blessed recipients.
If we consciously practice it as such, time and again, through such disciplines as prayer, meditation, and service and in matters big and small, gratitude will over the long term become embedded in us as a habitual, settled part of our character. We will be morally and emotionally disposed to gratitude, looking for a reason to give thanks even in the most difficult of circumstances. In Step 11 we will then come to the knowledge that giving thanks “in all things”9 is God’s will for us. Saying that “I am a grateful alcoholic” will then reflect the truth about who we have become in our person, having understood deeply and intimately that God in his grace can turn any evil, any pain we have suffered or inflicted, to good purpose.
– From PTP, "Emotion-Virtues," pp. 55–57 (click on link for full excerpt).
[Image: Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Calvary Episcopal Church pastor, who as head of NYC Oxford Group where Rowland H. and Ebby T. got sober transmitted basics of AA program to Bill W.]
“I try hard to hold fast to the truth that a full and thankful heart cannot entertain great conceits. When brimming with gratitude, one’s heartbeat must surely result in outgoing love, the finest emotion we can ever know.” – Bill W., in ABSI
“To this end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.” – Big Book
“When by devoted service to family, friends, business, or community we attract widespread affection and are sometimes singled out for posts of greater responsibility and trust, we try to be humbly grateful and exert ourselves the more in a spirit of love and service.” – 12&12
“What do you have that you did not receive?” – 1 Corinthians 4:7
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart
"Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen
“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us . . . Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” – Thomas Merton
“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” – Thornton Wilder
“We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” – Neal A. Maxwell
"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." – Epictetus
"Joy is the simplest form of gratitude." – Karl Barth
“There but for the grace of God go I.” – John Bradford
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much
as he deserves." – Henry Ward Beecher
"In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich." – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
"The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated."
– William James
“He that hastens to repay is animated with a sense, not of gratitude, but of indebtedness . . . he . . . is an unwilling debtor, and an unwilling debtor is ungrateful.” – Seneca
“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” – G.K. Chesterton
“Because gratitude is the key to happiness, anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude: The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.” – Dennis Prager
“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind. I should not be ungrateful to those teachers.”
– Kahlil Gibran
“The greatest challenge is not slavery but freedom; not poverty but affluence; not danger but security; not homelessness but home. The paradox is that when we have most to thank G-d for, that is when we are in greatest danger of not thanking—nor even thinking of—G-d at all.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“A person that is spirit-filled is always and in all things giving thanks.”
– Tim Keller
“Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors.” – Richelle E. Goodrich
“Grateful eyes seek for the beauty in all things.” – Anonymous
"Gratitude helps us to see what is there, instead of what isn't."
“The Struggle ends when gratitude begins.” – Neale Donald Walsch
“It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.” – Anonymous
“The most beautiful way to start and end the day is with a grateful heart.” – Anonymous
“My love of God and others became the motivation factor in my life, with no thought of return. I realize now that giving freely is God’s way of expressing Himself through me.” – AA’s Daily Reflections
“Contentment comes from accepting gratefully the good that comes to us, and not from raging at life because it is not better.” – One Day at A Time in Al-Anon
“Seek diligently for something to be glad and thankful about. You will acquire in time the habit of being constantly grateful to God for all His blessings.”
– Twenty-Four Hours a Day
“Gratitude becomes spiritual, a spiritual virtue and a spiritual emotion, when we are moved in our response by a God-centered view of the three: gift, recipient, and giver." – PTP
“Saying that 'I am a grateful alcoholic' will then reflect the truth about who we have become in our person, having understood deeply and intimately that God in his grace can turn any evil, any pain we have suffered or inflicted, to good purpose." – PTP
For more PTP passages on gratitude, click excerpts and see book pp. 26, 29, 55–58.
See also "I'm Grateful to Be Sober, But . . ." in "Reflections." For more BB and 12&12
passages, click on www.164andmore.com and search grateful, thanks, and gift. See
also entries in As Bill Sees It.
- "Privileged People," in As Bill Sees It, p.133
- Reflection for March 25 and May 21 in AA's Daily Reflections
- “Gratitude,” chapter in Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, by Robert C. Roberts
- “Being Thankful: The Virtue of Gratitude,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel
- Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the novel and the 2005 BBC Masterpiece Theater film version (the character of Esther Summerson, played by Anna Maxwell Martin)
For other posts on the virtues and the disciplines, please click on Practice These.