Thankful and Grateful

I find we often use the words “thankful” and “grateful” interchangeably, but are they really the same? Do they express the same understanding? You may say I am simply playing with the semantics. And that may be, but I encourage you to give these two words some thought and consideration.

Webster defines “being grateful” as being “appreciative of benefits received.” Whereas “being thankful” is defined as being “conscious of benefits received.” While it may seem to be a small distinction, we should take a moment to reflect on that difference.

Gratefulness can be the result of many small, positive actions that come together to shape a mindset of appreciation. Some examples may be:

  • After hearing about a sick friend, you may reflect on your life and feel grateful for your health.
  • If you go to a third world country, surely you will feel gratitude for your access to clean water and fresh foods.
  • If you have a tough day at work, you might stop to be grateful that you have a job, unlike the many who are unemployed.

Thankfulness, on the other hand, is a conscious act you engage in after you receive some sort of benefit. For example:

  • You are thankful when someone brings you a meal when you are ill or grieving
  • You are thankful when someone gives you a Christmas or birthday present
  • You are thankful when someone compliments you or honors you in some way

As Christians, we show our gratitude in our living and in our giving of our ourselves, our resources, our very lives. By expressing gratitude, we are affirming the good we have and recognizing the source of that goodness.

When we search for definitions of grateful and thankful from the spiritual side of things, we discover that–spiritually speaking–we start living a life of gratitude the minute we become fully aware of goodness and are able to appreciate that goodness as something beyond ourselves.

Meanwhile, thankfulness is the moment we think of who the giver iswhat the gift is, and who receives the gift. We then recognize ourselves as the recipient and offer our thanks to the giver.

By these definitions, one might say that the expression of gratitude is the continuous flow of being thankful.

Action Step: Take a deep breath in and feel gratitude for the clean air that surrounds you. Feel the life in your body and acknowledge the miracle you are experiencing by simply being alive. Turn your mind to an appreciation of the things you are seeing, smelling, and feeling right now and I think you will find yourself slipping into a grateful mindset without even trying.

Henri Nouwen, renowned spiritual thinker and Catholic priest, once said, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work.

Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God for which we are grateful.”

This week, I invite you to give thanks for all that you have received. I also invite you to find gratitude deep within for every moment and every part of the life God has given you.


Deborah Rexrode, PhD
POJ Associate for Stewardship

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