You can hardly find a planner these days that doesn’t direct you to write down three things you’re grateful for every day. Does a gratitude list actually make anyone more productive?

I’ve written before that gratitude makes us more productive, but it’s not universally true.

Your gratitude list only makes a difference if it’s true gratitude.

The dictionary definition of both gratitude and thanks confirms it: Thanksgiving must be directed to a person. If it’s not addressed to someone, it isn’t thanks.

The universe does not receive thanks and takes no notice. There is no karma or other impersonal spiritual force recognizing and rewarding your positive vibes.

Will a daily gratitude list make you happier and help you get more done? Not unless it's a list of true thanks, not shallow feel-good thoughts.

Thanksgiving is valuable, inspiring, and required only because there is a God who deserves and demands our gratitude.

Ingratitude is disobedience. Gratitude is obedience to our Creator. He also does not accept vague or general positive vibes, but personal prayers that acknowledge Him as our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.

When we make gratitude lists for ourselves, we are not actually being grateful.

Unless we are directly and intentionally offering thanks to the One who is responsible for what we appreciate, it’s not gratitude and it’s worthless waste of time. Yet, when offered as praise to God, it pleases Him and we, in turn, rejoice the offering and its acceptance.

Moreover, most of the time when we make gratitude lists, we end up simply listing things we like – another clue that it isn’t true thanksgiving. We’re only focusing on ourselves and what we like when our gratitude lists are so shortsighted and shallow. It’s not helpful. It’s not gratitude at all.

Gratitude is the most potent motivator of love and good works, but gratitude isn’t listing things you like.

Gratitude is thanking God for His care and provision in the hard things, in real life, in all circumstances.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Giving thanks is God’s will for us. It is important. It is something we should be doing every day. But not all that is currently called gratitude truly is gratitude.

True gratitude isn’t a list of things on your planner.

True gratitude is prayer.

The Heidelberg catechism, teaching Protestant orthodoxy since 1563, says that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.”

Thankfulness, according to even the dictionary, is something given to a person. God is a person, to whom we respond in thanksgiving through prayer.

We can write prayers and we can pray while we write lists, but making a gratitude list alone is not being thankful.

It is only when we offer it up in grateful prayer to our good and gracious Lord that it becomes thanksgiving.

A real gratitude list is good works.

The Heidelberg also teaches that the whole reason we do any good work at all is as a grateful response for our salvation: “Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, to be his image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits and that he may be praised through us.”

Gratitude is not merely a feeling.

Gratitude works itself out in our lives. It is demonstrated by action. Gratitude motivates and brings about action.

We will know we are truly thankful as we love and obey our Lord more and more.

This week in our member-only mentor session, I explained this as “Gratitude Is Personal.” I’ve made an excerpt of the replay available for you here:

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  1. Thank you for always speaking to my heart! I needed to hear this. I forget to give God gratitude for the hard things too.

  2. I must say, this is an interesting concept to me. I am a conservative nondenominational Christian. But I was actually moved to begin to create gratitude list by reading Ann Voskamp’s book 1000 gifts. But I tend to see the world through a photographic lens, so I am moved to awe of our Creator through little details that many people would not notice. I will absolutely agree that it has to do with what is inspiring you to gratitude, or if the gratitude is just a duty. But when I feel fruitful, frustrated and short tempered, it helps me to stop myself for a second, and notice little details as small as my babies beautiful blue eyes, the freckles on my daughters nose, the spunky blonde hair of my son. All of whom at the time may be misbehaving and driving me nuts. I call it telling myself the truth. Telling myself the reality of all that God has given me, in spite of what my human eyes and ears want to tell me. To focus on the good and beautiful of everything he’s given me, and then I am able to thank him for even the unpleasant parts of life, and the work that they are doing in my heart to bring me closer to Jesus, and help me to see my need for him and learn to depend on him more fully.

    1. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. Ann’s gratitude list was a prayer list, so it certainly was true gratitude. And, as you pointed out, it led her to give thanks for things beyond the happy nice things: another evidence of the fact that it was true gratitude, leading her to glorify God more.

      I intended to address the phenomena of secular “gratitude,” which can’t be, because it’s not offered to anyone in particular. There is no acknowledgement of God in it, and is really merely a list of things they like.

  3. Yes, the secularized planner version of fake virtue is just that. On the other hand, from the Russian Orthodox, if not the Puritan, faith tradition — “We know where God is. We do not know where He is not.” I’d suggest that planner prompts to natural gratitude can be a beginning. Why not just call them that instead of saying they’ll get you nowhere? Oh, right, because Purtianism dismisses all that is naturally good.

    1. Even according to the dictionary, gratitude is directed to a person. If the thoughts or list of what we appreciate aren’t thanks TO someone, they are just positive thoughts and not actually thankfulness, by definition.

  4. I started writing a gratitude list in my daybook a couple of years ago when I was recovering from pneumonia, which laid me lower than I had ever been in my life (it took a full year to feel like myself again)(a demoralizing experience to say the least). It helped me gain perspective and remember that there was goodness and beauty in life, in spite of my frail constitution and overly-stressed and distressed mind, body, & spirit. By the process of gaining perspective, I was better able to be thankful. I know that you are arguing that gratitude lists are not an end in and of themselves; but I would argue that it can be used as a potent tool in the process of thankfulness.

    I am moved by the quote in the comment above: “We know where God is. We do not know where He is not.” That is a powerful idea.

    1. Putting current circumstance in perspective is always helpful, especially when we have the Holy Spirit to direct our hearts to true gratitude to the God who is with His people even in – often especially in – hard times.

  5. I call it my “praise and prayer” list. I list 3 things I’m thankful to God for and 3 things I want to bring to Him in prayer. Note that doesnt mean I only thank Him for 3 things or only prayer about 3 things during the day, but that is how I begin my mornings before moving into a deeper scripture meditation and prayer time. It is simple but I find it always starts my heart at the right place in the day.

    Interesting thought about gratitude being directed to a person. It makes sense to be as that’s how I’ve always done it but I may have to edit a few blog posts to reflect that!

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