Gratitude: Cause or Effect?

Reading a recent Facebook post of a cousin prompted me to ponder the virtue of gratitude.  Is it a cause or an effect?  My cousin was grateful for surviving a narrow escape from death after a frightening encounter with an errant dump truck.  Gratitude was most definitely the result of her near-miss death experience.

Her description of the accident made me recall one of my own near-misses.  When I was thirty-six, I fell asleep at the wheel of my car while driving about 50 miles per hour on a state highway. When my tires veered onto the shoulder, I snapped to attention and found myself staring at a rapidly approaching signpost.  Instinctively I jerked the steering wheel left to avoid colliding with the sign.  My car began to fishtail until it swerved left across the centerline directly in front of an approaching vehicle.  Missing a head-on collision by what seemed like inches, my car plunged down an embankment into a row of trees.  My sudden stop caused a hammer, loose in the back of the car, to come flying forward, inches from my head.  I was stunned, as much from the accident as from realizing I had narrowly escaped serious injury.  Thank God for seatbelts. Thank God He wasn’t finished with me yet.

Last week, my cousin was angry at the truck driver.  Thirty years ago, I had only myself to blame.  Nevertheless, we both were grateful to be alive. 

Near-death experiences have that effect.

I also vividly recall when my 8-year-old son survived a terrifying case of pneumonia after spending a week in the hospital.  And, when my 13-year-old son, while riding his bicycle hit a Ford Mustang head-on, throwing him headfirst into the windshield.  Miraculously, his only injuries were a few scratches and an immediate dislike of Mustangs.  And, when my 17-year-old daughter became unresponsive and fell into a coma.  She lost 17 pounds of fluid that night at the Emergency Room.  When all tests proved negative, the doctor told us that the best we could hope for was that she had an electrolyte imbalance and would wake up in 24 hours once her fluids stabilized.  I don’t mind telling you that tears of gratitude flowed when she woke up 20 hours later.

I imagine most of us think of gratitude in terms of the result of blessings.  Blessings like that of a loving spouse, children, good friends, pay raises, promotions, etc., etc., etc., are the cause.  Gratitude is the effect.

For most of us, gratitude is the enlightening awareness that we have received something good or avoided something bad.  

This makes me wonder if gratitude is itself a virtue?  Can it be a cause rather than just an effect?

As a Christian, I am reminded that we are encouraged to “rejoice in the Lord always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) and “in everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Could it be that developing a thankful spirit as part of one’s character can, in and of itself, bear fruit in unexpected ways?  Was the Roman philosopher Cicero right when he said that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others?  Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions.  The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.

For me, developing a habitual attitude of gratefulness starts with seeing life as a gift from God and in recognizing the daily blessings in the simple things of life: beautiful sunsets, a favorite meal prepared by my spouse, spending time with my grandchildren, a thoughtful note from a friend or an act of kindness from a total stranger, and, of course, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.  An attitude of gratitude seasons our life with joy.  

An attitude of gratitude keeps our focus outward rather than inward.  Gratitude is the fertile soil in which a spirit of generosity can grow.  

Philippians 4:6-7 reminds us that a thankful heart results in “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding…  Gratefulness properly directed (to God) leads to a peace that serves to guard our heart and mind.  

Finally, I have discovered that gratefulness helps to navigate the trials of life.  When my wife of 38 years, 4 months and 26 days died of cancer in 2011, I was overcome with grief.  I found it difficult to pray.  Turning to the God who is “near the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18) I struggled just to say “God help me.  But, six months after her death, I became increasingly aware of how God’s grace released her from her pain and was comforting me in my grief.  Writing in my grief journal, (later published in book form as Walking Through The Valley of Tears), I observed :

My heartache is all about my loss and not her gain.  It still hurts, but there remains a comfort that she is no longer in pain but rather filled with joy. Maybe I am just a little jealous.  I see through a glass darkly what is to come, while she sees it perfectly clear. The thought is overwhelming and humbling.  How can I not praise the Lord for His grace?”

In the months that followed, there was a shift in the attitude of my spirit.  While the reality of my loss still grieved my soul, I began to focus less on what I had lost and more on what I had had.  I gave thanks to God for a 38-year marriage to an amazing woman, for five beautiful children, and for a lifetime of memories to cherish.  I expressed my gratitude daily.  Slowly the clouds began to lift, and the darkness that threatened to overwhelm me began to dissipate.  My grief had become a good grief that somehow allowed me to mourn, in a healthy way, all while leaning on the “God who is near the broken-hearted. 

Gratitude, I have learned, can be the cause, with Peace being the effect.  Interesting to contemplate isn’t it?  My cousin and I can be grateful to have survived near tragic accidents while gratitude to God for His grace can have its own effect.

So, is gratitude a cause or an effect?  

I would gratefully say,  it can be both.  

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