Why we should be grateful: What the Catechism teaches about what God has done for us.

In the third of my series of posts on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I shall look at the topic of gratitude.

In contemporary British society, as in the Western world as a whole, there is division over what constitutes morally acceptable behaviour. However, there is general agreement that people ought to be grateful.

When people have something good done for them by other people, whether family members, friends, work colleagues, or those in the front line of the fight against Covid-19, the morally correct response is seen to be to feel grateful, and to express our gratitude in an appropriate fashion.

Conversely, those who do not feel grateful and fail to express gratitude are felt to be morally deficient. We can see this from the way in which the term ‘ungrateful’ is used. It is never a compliment to say that someone is ungrateful. It is always a criticism of the person concerned.

What is strange about our society, however, is that while it is felt to be a failure not to feel and express gratitude towards our fellow human beings, it is generally not felt to be a problem if people fail to feel and express gratitude towards God. The reason that this is strange is because in actual fact it is God who has done, and continues to do, the most for us, and therefore he is the one to whom we should be most grateful.

The reason why this is the case becomes clear if we unpack what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the basic tenets of the Christian faith as these are summarised in the Apostles Creed. What the Catechism says runs as follows:

‘Catechist. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.

Answer. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy Catholick Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

Answer. First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world.

Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.

Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.’

If we look at the question and answer at the end of this quotation we see that there are three basic theological truth that we learn about God from the Apostles Creed – that God made us, that God has redeemed us, and that God sanctifies us.

Why these three truths mean that we should be grateful to God is helpfully explained by the German Reformer Martin Luther in his exposition of the Creed in his Small Catechism of 1529.

According to Luther, the truth that  God made us means:

‘…  that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger and preserves me from all evil. All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God has redeemed us means:

‘… that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God sanctifies us means:

‘ …. that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and all who believe in Christ, this is most certainly true.’ [1]

These words of Luther remind us of why we should be grateful to God above all. Our fellow human beings, however kind and beneficial they are to us, can  only give us a limited amount of temporal and spiritual assistance as we make our way through life. By contrast, as Luther makes clear, God gives us literally everything we need to flourish temporally and spiritually, both in this world and the next. Even those things we receive from other people are ultimately gifts from God. Our parents give us the gift of life, but that life comes from God, farmers provide us with food, but it is God who causes the crops to grow, the Church conveys grace to us through word and sacrament, but the source of that grace is God, and so on.  

What all this means is that we, and all other human beings, should be grateful to God and thank him for all that he has done and does, for us. So, next time we are in a discussion about the importance of gratitude and people start to bewail the fact that people are not grateful enough, we should chip in and remind them that the biggest deficit of gratitude in our society lies in a failure to be duly grateful to God.

‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.’ (Psalm 136:1)

[1] The quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism are from taken from M Luther Small Catechism, in M A Knoll (ed), Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), p 68.