The Burden of Being Ungrateful

cappuccino with sad face in it

When we forget to give thanks for the blessings in our lives, we allow our troubles to define us.

There’s a story my father tells from his childhood about a girl in his fifth grade class who he desperately wanted to impress. The girl had a numbered list of the boys in her class, ranking them based on who she liked the best. My dad wasn’t at the top of the list, but he wanted to be.

He knew it would require something really special to achieve his goal. So one day, he took his pencil box, a prized possession that had been a gift from his mom, and presented it to the girl. To his great delight, she put him in the number one spot … for a week.

The girl’s thankfulness was short-lived. Any gratitude she felt washed away with the next boy’s attempt to gain her affection.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of ungratefulness. The friend who shows zero reaction to a carefully chosen gift. The boss who never notices when you go above and beyond. The family member who constantly asks for more, no matter how much you give.

As bad as it feels to not be appreciated, I think being ungrateful is the bigger burden. Here’s why: When we forget to express gratitude for all of the blessings in our lives—from the air we breathe each day to the smile of a stranger—we become weighed down by our problems, and our troubles begin to define us.

Fuel on the Fire

I doubt many of us would think of ourselves as ungrateful. But ingratitude shows up in our lives in a variety of ways: complaining (or venting), bitterness, jealousy and discontentment. Here’s how it goes for me: Something bad happens—a trial or an injustice—and I gravitate to the following thoughts:

I don’t have it as good as other people.

Why can’t I seem to catch a break?

God blesses others more than me.

These thoughts directly undermine my belief in God’s goodness by reinforcing the following lie: God isn’t taking care of me. Instead of turning my thoughts to the many ways God has shown me His loving-kindness, I focus on my own discomfort and doubt Him. Ungratefulness becomes a burden.

Unfortunately, picking up this burden seems to be human nature. A classic example is seen in the biblical account of the Israelites, God’s chosen people, as they wandered through the desert for 40 years and were finally brought into the Promised Land. Their story is a breathtaking picture of God’s care, protection and provision. But you wouldn’t know it by how the people act. They constantly grumble and complain.

Even after God leads them out of slavery in Egypt and parts the Red Sea, allowing them to walk safely across dry land, they doubt His goodness. Even when He annihilates their enemies and provides for them in the desert, they complain.

I’m not saying they didn’t have legitimate concerns. Scholars believe there could have been over two million people that crossed the Red Sea. That many people depending on God for everything in the middle of the desert was certainly a recipe for anxiety. One example of their ungratefulness is recorded in Exodus 17:3: “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’”

The people so lost sight of what God had done for them, that they accused Moses of trying to kill them. They even expressed a desire to return to Egypt—to slavery!

I’m guessing few of us can relate to Israel’s dramatic plotline. But how often do we lose sight of God’s goodness as we travel through the “downs” of life? The dictionary defines ingratitude as “forgetfulness of, or poor return for, kindness received.”

Forgetfulness. The same Israelite people who carried the burden of ungratefulness were regularly commanded to remember. In order to live in their newfound freedom, they needed to remember what God had done for them. More than that, they were told to give thanks to God.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Both the Old and New Testaments contain dozens of verses on the topic of giving thanks to God. “Give Thanks” may look cute on a sign, but is it a regular part of your life? Not only is thankfulness the antidote to ingratitude, it is also meant to be a key component of the believer’s life and carries many benefits. Here are a few:

Thankfulness relieves anxiety.

Researchers have now named millennials the most anxious generation. In the U.S. alone, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million people (18 percent of the population). While there are many complex factors that contribute to this statistic, the truth is anxiety is real and the Bible talks about it. (Read more about battling anxiety here.)

In Philippians 4:6 Paul writes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Giving thanks combats anxiety. I think I’ve always viewed thanksgiving in this verse as kind of an optional add-on to prayer and supplication. But that thinking is backwards. Thanking God should be a regular occurrence, and is foundational to experiencing peace.

Thankfulness reminds us of God’s character.

Another reason believers are told to give thanks is simply in response to the character of God. Psalm 107:1 says: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” Verses 8 and 9 continue: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”

Reflecting on God’s character should elicit a thankful response. He is good. His love is steadfast. He does wondrous works for us, satisfies our deepest longings, and fills our hungry souls with good things. Even if God was all we had, there is so much to be thankful for! And as we make thanksgiving a regular thing, we come to see God’s character and glory more fully.

Thankfulness redeems the “downs” of life.

Paul doesn’t mince words when he tells Christians, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). At times I’ve struggled to know what that means. Thanking God doesn’t seem like an authentic reaction to tragedy or suffering. But I think this verse is exhorting us to give thanks in the midst of all circumstances. I may not be grateful for something bad that has happened, but I can still find something to be thankful for, such as God’s love, comfort and faithfulness.

Laying Down the Burden

Recently I was surprised when a friend, who I know is going through many personal trials, said, “There are always bright moments and things to be grateful for amidst the chaos.” Her words are true and are a picture of how thanksgiving transforms our troubles into joy.

When I was single, I often found it difficult to focus on the things I was thankful for. I was very aware of unfulfilled desires and the specific struggles of being on my own. But even though things have changed over the last decade and I’m now married with children, I still tend to get bogged down in my problems — they’re just different problems. I forget God’s kindness to me on a regular basis.

God is deserving of my thanks. He deserves more than a holiday, more than a cute sign, more than a week at the top of my list. As I take the time to recognize the countless joys He is affording me—such as a delicious meal, a good book, or a beautiful sunset—my focus shifts from the things I lack to the things I already possess, including God himself. And as I reflect on all that He’s done for me, I am able to lay down the burden of ungratefulness and be truly thankful.

Copyright 2018 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.