“The Power of Gratitude”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 24, 2019: Thanksgiving Sunday
Well, my friends, here we are on the final Sunday of November. The cold outside is a stern reminder that we are, in fact, in the midst of winter, and already signs of Christmas can be seen just about everywhere. Next week we start on the beautiful road to Bethlehem, using the four Sundays of December to think more about what it means that Christ is born among us. Next week is also the start of the new church year—that’s right, we count time a little differently in the church, as the new church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. A new year always brings new possibilities, new hopes, new dreams, new commitments. The time ahead of us is exciting and rich and beautiful and I can’t wait to celebrate Advent and Christmas for the eighth year together as pastor and congregation.
But before we turn towards Bethlehem, we stop today to give thanks. Gratitude is, of course, written deeply into our DNA as God’s people. From the prophets to the psalms, through the gospels and into the birth of the early church, gratitude was at the heart of worship, learning, fellowship, and ministry. Gratitude is actually the basis of all the laws in the Old Testament though it might be hard to see it through all the legal red tape. When God was giving The Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, nearly every time God speaks, God says, “I am the Lord you God who brought out of the land of Egypt and out of house of slavery.” Not only did this make it clear to the Israelites that they were serving the God who saved them, this was a reminder to the Israelites that all the laws were a grateful response to God saving them from bondage. In gratitude, the Israelites made covenant with God to follow the law and serve God alone, though they often stumbled along the way. Gratitude to God for all that God has done carries the message of prophets, filled the psalmists’ pen with ink, and gathered together the church after Christ’s ascension.
But did you know that gratitude can actually change the physiology of our minds? Not only is gratitude an essential part of our faith, it can also help to rewire our minds. Joel Wong and Joshua Brown the experts on gratitude. Joel Wong is a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University, where he specializes in positive psychology. Joshua Brown teaches at the same university, and his lectures and research focus on functional neuroimaging, higher cognitive function, and computational neural modeling. In 2016 the two set out to study whether or not gratitude could be beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns. Wong and Brown were motivated for many reasons to take on this study, but they were especially motivated by the grip that managed health care has on our medical system, with it demands for cost-efficiency and brevity from care providers. Mental health care is one of the more difficult fields of medicine to measure by standard testing, so Wong and Brown set out to find other interventions that might be helpful to professionals feeling pinched by insurance providers.
Wong and Brown set out to answer a simple question: Is gratitude beneficial? And, if so, how? Their research focused on 300 college students who were seeking mental health counseling at various universities in the United States. Of the 300, more than two-thirds of the students reported clinically low levels of mental health. Most of the study participants also reported that their mental health was affected by depression and anxiety.
The study participants were separated into three groups. The participants in group one received professional counseling and were instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each day for three weeks. The participants in group two also received professional counseling and were instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences for same amount of time. The study participants in group three received professional counseling like those in groups one and two but they did not have to complete any writing assignments.
After the initial three weeks of the study, Wong and Brown began comparing the groups to one another. Participants in group one—those who wrote letters of gratitude every day for three weeks and received counseling—reported experiencing significantly better mental health. When group one was asked four weeks and 12 weeks after their initial writing exercise ended, they reported experiencing even better mental health. This was tremendously different from what Wong and Brown found in groups two and three—these groups saw little to no change, with some study participants reporting an experience of worse mental health.
That’s good research and it brought to light good results. Simply said, if you want to experience better mental health, begin to weave gratitude into your daily living. Wong and Brown were not quite satisfied, though. The nawing question of why gratitude helps to improve mental health really began to agitate them. Together, they started digging a little deeper and here is what they found.
They first found that gratitude is so powerful because it unshackles us from toxic emotions. It does this by turning our focus from ‘me’ to ‘us.’ Wong and Brown found that the participants writing letters of gratitude not only used more positive words, they also used more ‘we’ words. They interpreted this to mean that better mental health can be produced when we shift from thinking about resentment and envy—inside things—and begin thinking about community and unity—outside things. If you write about how grateful you are to and for others, or about how much other people have blessed your life, it becomes significantly harder to focus on your inner negative emotions and feelings.
Next, they found that gratitude is so powerful because it isn’t something that necessarily has to be shared. Wong and Brown told participants that they weren’t required to send the letters to their intended recipient. In fact, only 23% of participants who wrote letters of gratitude even sent them. But those who didn’t send their letter still enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude. The mere act of writing a letter of gratitude, even if you don’t send it, can help you appreciate and value the people and experiences in your life. For folks who are shy, this is an absolute win.
Third—and this won’t sound great to any of us who like instant results—Wong and Brown found that gratitude has a slow-burn effect on mental health. If you remember what I just said, the study participants in group one reported experiencing better mental health as soon as the study was over. But when they were asked four and twelve weeks later, the results were even better. This, in the end, changed the whole course of Wong and Brown’s study. What began as a study into the effect gratitude can have on mental health ended up being a study on the importance of practicing gratitude for good mental health. Like sports, like a musical instrument, like Christian discipleship, the results of gratitude really begin to show over time, with regular and faithful practice. Imagine, then, the impact gratitude can have on our lives if we practice it every day.
Now the final part of Wong and Brown’s study of gratitude is where it gets really interesting. Working with study participants from the initial groups one and two, Wong and Brown put the participants through an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity—first at the beginning of the study and then again at the end. By the end of the study, the amount of activity seen in the medial prefrontal cortex of the participants in group one was not only increased but it was showing in different patterns than usual. The medial prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain associated with learning and decision making and the basic cardiovascular functions of the body. Increased and different activity in this part of the brain as a result of practicing gratitude suggests that gratitude changes the way our brains function when we are making choices and even when we are breathing in and out! Wong and Brown were stunned later even to find that the participants who wrote letters of gratitude showed greater activity across the entire brain when they were put through the fMRI scanner.
At this point you might be wondering why this matters, especially since we are sitting in a church and not in a research laboratory. Well, I believe we have a wonderful conversation going on today between since and faith. This research is about how we can positively rewire our brains, and about how to live better lives. In the words we have heard today from The Sermon on The Mount, Jesus is offering us wisdom on the same topic. Our minds, he points out, are naturally and instinctually weighed down with worry and anxiety and grief and pain and who knows what else. The effect is that we turn in on ourselves, locked away in a prison of self-centeredness where we cannot even stop to literally smell the roses. In that prison it’s all about me, my needs, my wants, my resentment and envy and hate. However, the Kingdom that Jesus teaches has very little to do with you and me individually and everything to do with ‘us.’ The Kingdom, Jesus tells us over and over, is about mercy and justice and peace and reconciliation. None of these things can happen if we’re only concerned with ourselves. So what does Jesus suggest in order to break free? What does Jesus suggest in order for us to become more faithful followers of his way? Gratitude. Simple, honest gratitude. If God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we can be confident and grateful that God is providing and always will provide for us.
It starts small. I’m grateful to be alive today—are you grateful to be alive today (you can say amen!)?
I’m grateful that God woke me up this morning with the breath of life and will guide each of my footsteps until my head hits the pillow tonight—are you grateful for that?
I’m grateful that because of the work of so many people, this building we are in is safe, warm, clean, and filled with powerful and important memories. Are you grateful for that?
I’m grateful for all the men and women, seen and unseen, whose work provides for my safety, the food on my table, the clothes on my back, and the shelter over my head. How about you?
I’m grateful that in a few days I will be able to sit down with my family to count my blessings, and that God has given me a clear and simple calling to share those blessings with everyone I meet. How about you?
I’m grateful that because God is so good and generous I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to be afraid of who I am. I don’t have to be afraid of where I’m going after this life. I don’t have to be afraid of people who look, think, or believe differently than I do. How about you?
I’m grateful to take part in a Christian tradition where my head and my heart are of equal concern to God, where I don’t have to leave my true self at the door, or my questions or needs or doubts, either. How about you?
I’m grateful that I know each and every one of you, and that your faith and your discipleship and your generosity and goodness inspires me every day to be the person God created me to be. Are you grateful for this community of faith?
I’m grateful for those who stand on another shore, whose life and faith keeps us encouraged and energized to work for God until we meet again. Amen?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today the science and our faith are saying the same thing: gratitude must be a part of our lives. But let’s not make it just a season or a day or something we do over one meal a year. Let’s make gratitude a practice, one that we work at each and every day we are alive. The science, and the Gospel, tells us that if we do, we will be changed. And it’ll change the things around us, too. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t even worry about today. Rejoice and give thanks to God. God will take care of the rest. Thanks be to God! Amen.