God is not a killjoy but the source of all joy who has an eternally cascading waterfall of pleasures at his right hand (Ps. 16:11). He is the fountain of everything good, beautiful, and true (cf. Jas. 1:17), and he “richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17 CSB). This means even when God issues a prohibitive “no”—as all good fathers must do from time to time—it is because God has something more glorious in store for those whom he loves.
G.K. Chesterton once said that “[Pagans] could make an alternative to Christmas,” but “they could not . . . make a substitute for Thanksgiving Day. For half of them are pessimists who say they have nothing to be thankful for; and the other half are atheists who have nobody to thank.”1 Hence sentimental secularists have no difficulty producing “holiday songs” (despite their disbelief in holy-days). Meanwhile, many of the same folks struggle mightily to actually give thanks on a day set aside for just such a purpose. This is because gratitude is essentially Christian, and there are two reasons for this.
Gratitude Assumes a Creator to Thank
The logic of giving thanks implicitly requires someone to whom we are thankful. To say the same thing another way, gratitude entails being thankful to someone and not merely grateful for something.2 Yet thanking the immediate persons in front of you won’t do: for no one is the sole product of his own making. And if you trace the line of persons to whom we should be grateful back far enough, you will bump into the Creator.
Honest agnostics have acknowledged as much. Consider, for example, the reflections of noted philosopher Karl Popper: “When I look at what I call the gift of life, I feel a gratitude which is in tune with some religious ideas of God. . . . I don’t know whether God exists or not . . . [but] I would be glad if God were to exist, to be able to concentrate my feeling of gratitude on some sort of person to whom one would be grateful.”3
The Christian knows that such an inclination makes sense in a creature made by God. It is the unconscious echo of eternity set in the heart of man (Eccl. 3:11). It is man’s disposition to give thanks without knowing the name of the One who is deserving of grateful praise. Even when they do not name him, therefore, the grateful person tacitly assumes the existence of the Creator.
Gratitude Requires the Reality of Grace
The second reason that gratitude has an essentially Christian character is found in what makes gratitude gratitude (and not some other virtue, such as humility or kindness). In technical terms, gratitude is the acknowledgment that a welcome benefactor has conferred on you a desirable gift with benevolent volition.4 In other words, an essential ingredient necessary for experiencing and expressing gratitude is the recognition that we have done nothing to deserve a gift that was freely given—and that requires the kind of grace that only the Christian God bestows.
In fact, a number of studies show that if a benefit is expected, the recipient tends not to respond with much gratitude, if any.5 In other words, the more entitled or “deserving” a person feels, the less grateful he will be.