The gratitude myth: Affirm goodness but forget the source?

Street Theologian
7 min readDec 23, 2020
Should you say thanks for a sunset or not? Source of image: Country Living

“When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” — Vietnamese Proverb

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It seems to be an important part of just about every self help course or book- be grateful and practice gratitude. Using a simple Google Books Ngram review, we can see the word gratitude was used significantly more in the early 1800s before witnessing a significant decline which seemed to bottom around 1985. Since then we have steadily seen the word gratitude used more and more in books which should come as no surprise to us given its recent prevalence in self help books.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins is known for saying, “When we have an attitude of gratitude we see life as it is; an unbelievable gift. There is no room for fear in a grateful heart.”

Author of the The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss, encourages the use of a “five minute journal” much like a toothbrush for the mind which involves practising gratitude at the beginning and end of each day.

Rhonda Byrne, famous author of The Secret explains, “Be grateful for what you have now. As you begin to think about all the things in your life you are grateful for, you will be amazed at the never ending thoughts that come back to you of more things to be grateful for. You have to make a start, and then the law of attraction will receive those grateful thoughts and give you more just like them.”

Psychologist Robert Emmons writing in the Greater Good Magazine reminds us that the definition of gratitude has two components. First it involves an “affirmation of goodness” while second it relates to “figuring out where that goodness comes from.” The second point is one that is often missed in self help guides which push gratitude with no real indication of to who or what you should be grateful. Emmons adds an interesting point that gratitude involves acknowledging something good “didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride.” This means gratitude is effectively about looking outside of and beyond ourselves. In a sense, this would seem to go against the way Rhonda Byrne portrays gratitude as a tool to bring yourself more success, hence, maintaining an inward looking focus.

The question then arises if gratitude is truly about being thankful and looking beyond ourselves, who are we thankful to?

There are a couple of ways people approach this. Some are grateful to the universe or some sort of spiritual energy, others are “grateful” for blind chance “designing” favourable outcomes in their lives, others are thankful to their ancestors while others are thankful to God. Of course, gratitude can contain many layers, a human who some would argue has been created by God could be generous towards you meaning you can be grateful for both the human and God’s goodness. However, the purpose of this article is to look at what should be the ultimate source of our gratitude as a whole.

From an atheistic standpoint it would make absolutely no sense to be grateful to the universe in the sense that it is some sort of spiritual energy for under a materialistic/ naturalistic worldview there is nothing except the physical world. It is nonsensical to speak of the universe as a spiritual energy. Thus, if you consider yourself an atheist who talks about spirituality, you are at best delusional if atheism is true.

Psychology Today author Alfie Kohn perceptively recognises this issue, “Conversely, if you don’t believe sunsets were deliberately created for their beauty, it would make no sense to respond with gratitude. Pleasure, sure. But not gratitude. Which leaves us to ponder why so many secular folks — particularly those who like to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and enthuse at length about meditation and mindfulness — have accepted a fundamentally religious idea like living a life of gratitude.”

However, I am also aware many spiritual people would not consider themselves atheists. Instead, they believe the universe is primarily a spiritual reality and the physical world is not all there is. Byrne echoes this view, “The truth is that the universe has been answering you all of your life, but you cannot receive the answers unless you are awake.” Thus the universe should be the object of your gratitude for it provides everything you have.

Nevertheless, there are some serious issues and dangers with this view. First, the universe as spoken of by Byrne is primarily spiritual energy, not a personal force. This is further illustrated by the fact Byrne likes to speak of energy vibrations to and from the universe. It makes no sense to be grateful to an impersonal force. An impersonal force has no deliberate intent, no gifts to purposefully give and no personal mind to react to anything you send it. How could an impersonal being bring about personal human beings with deliberate intent and will who are obsessed with purpose? It makes no sense. Do you thank sunlight for coming through the window or heat for warming up your dinner?

Second, if we speak of energy in the scientific sense it simply follows scientific laws, so why aren’t we thankful to laws instead? Nevertheless, even if thankful to laws we still come to the issue of laws of nature being impersonal.

Third, we know from modern cosmology that the universe had a beginning, we also know that everything which has a beginning has a cause. You might say we aren’t grateful to the universe but for it. The question then arises, where did the universe come from? You are grateful for it coming from whom or what? It clearly didn’t cause itself or exist forever so how did it spring into being? If it sprang into being from another force why is the universe itself the ultimate source of your gratitude?

Given the “Big Bang” or similar marked beginning of time and space as we know it, the cause of the universe must be independent of time and space as we know it, which starts to sound a lot like the Christian form of God. We must then ask is this cause a personal cause (with an intention) or an impersonal cause. It makes no sense for a scientific law to bring about the universe as time and space began to exist at this point. Our other options are then abstract objects (like the number 7) which do not exist in causal relationships or a personal Creator. In the words of William Lane Craig, “we may therefore infer that a personal Creator of the universe exists, who is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful.” This, dare I say, brings us very close to the Christian definition of God.

Thus, it would make a lot more sense to be grateful to a personal cause, such as God Himself. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

Did you decide where you were born? Did you decide to have a finely tuned eye, brain or heart which exist in a planet finely tuned for life? Did you choose your parents or hospital of birth? Did you decide to grow up in a country were you weren’t starved to death or killed in war during your early years?

When considering gratitude I encourage you to look beyond yourself but not beyond yourself to impersonal forces such as chance (obviously it’s an accident that you even remember to thank chance!) or a universe which has no mind or intent but to God.

When it comes to gifts and gratitude, Christianity has a very different stance to all major worldviews. The great gift of salvation does not come from your own doing, from good vibrations sent to and from the universe or from chance. Salvation is a gift and from gifts come a sound basis for gratitude as you look outside of and beyond yourself.

Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” — James 1:17

For a more detailed discussion on Christianity I encourage you to read the following articles:

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty