A boy who was swimming in a lake one summer day went out too far and found himself in danger of drowning; fortunately, a man saw what was happening, and at the risk of his own life, swam out and rescued him. Afterwards the boy said, “Thank you for saving my life, sir.” The rescuer looked him in the eye and answered, “That’s okay, kid. Just make sure your life was worth saving” (More Sower’s Seeds, Brian Cavanaugh, #80).
People should express their gratitude whenever someone saves them from danger—but many times this doesn’t happen. There was a famous exorcist in Rome, Father Gabriele Amorth, who helped free many people from demonic possession. After his death a few years ago, his assistant was interviewed about Father’s ministry, and remarked, “Only once, in all the years, a person came [back after an exorcism] to say thank you. Probably [the others] were ashamed of their past and did not wish to be seen by those who had witnessed it. I am certain that Father Gabriele would have been pleased to see them again and to hear about their lives, but it was very rare. . . . he felt connected to them through their shared experience, and then there would also be the satisfaction of seeing the results of so much effort” (My Battle Against Satan, Father Gabriele Amorth, p. 141).
Most people, it would seem, are much quicker to cry out for help in their time of need than they are to give thanks for the blessings and assistance they’ve received. Failing to give thanks is a serious moral and spiritual fault. One of the most important signs that we are true followers of Jesus is our willingness to live in a spirit of genuine gratitude.
In ancient times one of the worst fates a person could suffer was to contract the disease of leprosy—for not only could it be very painful, unpleasant, and eventually fatal, but it was also highly contagious. This meant lepers were forced to live apart from everyone else, including their families and loved ones—and this social isolation was psychologically shameful and oppressive. That’s why the foreign military officer Naaman (2 Kings 5:14-17) was so grateful when the prophet Elisha healed him of his leprosy, even to the point of promising to worship only the Lord God of Israel from then on. It was also a foreigner—a Samaritan—who returned to give thanks after he was healed of leprosy by Jesus (Luke 17:11-19). Sadly, none of the other nine healed lepers did this; even in the midst of their rejoicing and their eagerness to return to their families, they could have taken the time to come back to the Lord and express their gratitude. St. Paul (2 Timothy 2:8-13) tells us that if we persevere in following Christ, we will reign with Him—but if we deny Him, He will deny us. One of the ways we might deny or ignore Jesus is by failing to acknowledge the blessings we’ve received from Him. It is very important to avoid such a mistake, for ingratitude and happiness do not go together. Only if we’re grateful for the gifts we receive here on earth will we be ready to receive the gift of everlasting life in Heaven.
During World War II, a sergeant was seriously wounded by enemy fire, and a young army captain ran out into the open to pull him to safety. Tragically, the captain was also hit by several bullets, and he soon afterwards died of his wounds, whereas the sergeant recovered. The captain’s parents learned of their son’s heroism, and when the sergeant eventually returned stateside, they invited him to their home for dinner. When the man arrived, however, he was half-intoxicated, and he acted in a crude or boorish manner the whole time: he wolfed down his food, didn’t say a word about the captain who had saved his life, and left without even thanking the parents for their hospitality. After he departed, the mother burst into tears and exclaimed to her husband, “To think that our son had to die for an ungrateful person like that!” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 211).
Would any of us ever behave in such a rude and contemptible manner? No, at least not knowingly, or with people we care about—but it is possible we might fail to show God proper gratitude; after all, it’s so easy to take things for granted, or to focus on our troubles and inconveniences instead of our blessings and opportunities. If we truly wish to be grateful children of our Heavenly Father, and continue making spiritual progress in coming closer to Him, there are three important things we need to do.
First of all, we must regularly pray and worship God. Indeed, our word Eucharist— referring to the Mass, and Holy Communion—comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means “to give thanks.” It’s not enough to pray only when we need something, and to attend Mass only when we feel like it; we gather here to worship God as a community, and in our prayer we’re meant to praise and adore God, to ask His forgiveness, to intercede on behalf of others, and to express our thanks. Anything less than this just isn’t enough.
Secondly, if we’re truly grateful for the Lord’s blessings, we’ll show it by sharing them with others—specifically, by giving to those in need when the opportunity arises, and by financially supporting the Church. Tithing, or giving away 10% of our income, is an especially powerful way of doing this—and those who practice it end up being blessed by God even more than before. As one bumper sticker said, “If you really love Jesus, tithe—anyone can honk.” God is incredibly generous to us—and trying to imitate His generosity is a very holy and beneficial thing for us to do.
Thirdly, truly grateful people are eager to tell others about the blessings they’ve received—and for us as Christians, this means sharing the Good News. Evangelization is a word that scares many Catholics, but it simply means being willing to talk about our faith in Jesus whenever the opportunity arises. If we’re practicing our faith, we have a well-founded hope of eternal life—and this is not something we’re supposed to keep to ourselves.
Living in a thankful spirit is an absolute necessity if we are to avoid the sin of being ungrateful, and instead be true followers of Jesus Christ. Gratitude takes us closer to Heaven; ingratitude takes us in the other direction. Each day we demonstrate to the world around us, and to God Himself, which choice we’ve made.