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The Transforming Power of Gratitude Is Not a Magic Trick in the Ancient Text, Prayer of Thanksgiving

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Girl with arms up in the sunshine

Gratitude has a way of bringing peace – whether it’s for the little ones getting tucked into bed at night, or for my own troubled heart following a day of discouraging world news. Diana Butler Bass’s book, Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks, confirms my conviction that being thankful really does “transform your relationship with God, the world, and your own soul.”

Judging from the daily news, I’d say our world is ready for that kind of transformation. It feels like there are forces working against us – with climate change, political tensions, and families coping with mental illness, addictions, and gender questions. But if gratitude has the power to transform the world, along with our souls, it’s worth taking a closer look.

I’m intrigued with examples of transformation I’ve seen from the writers of the Bible and extracanonical texts.

According to the Gospel of Luke (17:14-19), there was a man who saw this healing power transform both his body and social relations.  He and nine others had been completely shut off from their families and community, because of their leprosy. When they called out to Jesus for help, he sent them to the priests who could verify their freedom from the disease and restore their relationship back into the community again. Only this one man came back, shouting his praises to God and dropped to his knees in profound gratitude to Jesus for his healing. Jesus was surprised that only one “returned to give glory to God,” and he told him to get up and go because his faith had healed him.

At least one way to interpret this story is that this man’s gratitude, or praise, had the power to transform his body back to health and to restore his place in society.

In the Gospel of John (6:1-15), Jesus is said to have fed thousands of people from a base of just a few loaves, after giving thanks to God. This is another transformation story related to gratitude. I can’t help but think of how often people get angry and blame each other when they’re faced with lack. But in this case, the lack of sufficient food was turned to abundance after Jesus gave thanks and praised God.

I think if we really understood how gratitude conveys such power, we might be more inclined to approach our daily difficulties with that humble willingness to be grateful.

Some of the texts beyond the Bible, perhaps written around the same time or shortly after the gospels were compiled, may shed more light on the why gratitude elicits such transforming power. The ancient text known as The Prayer of Thanksgiving, so popular in antiquity, was preserved in multiple languages and in connection with several other sacred texts. It serves as the epilogue for the Discourse on the Eight and Ninth from the Nag Hammadi Library, for instance.

A few phrases express gratitude for what God has enabled this community to know:

We thank you;…
We are happy, enlightened by your knowledge.
We are happy. You have taught us about yourself.
We are happy. While we were in the body, you have made us divine through your knowledge. …

Womb of every creature, we have known you. …
One favor we ask: we wish to be sustained in knowledge.
One protection we desire: that we not stumble in this life… . (transl. Marvin Meyer)

This gratitude is about the appreciation of things not seen with the eyes or touched with the hands, but known in the heart and mind. The beatitude, “Happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8, TLB) hints at a similar source for happiness in knowing the things of God before we see them with our senses.

When Jesus spoke to the ten lepers, he told them to go visit the priests for confirmation of their transformed lives before they could see the change with their senses. When he provided abundant food for a huge gathering of people, he gave thanks before the few loaves were transformed to a great many.

The Prayer of Thanksgiving conveys happiness in the knowledge of God and a desire to maintain that knowledge. This kind of gratitude may sound peculiar in the religious context that teaches God as the unknowable. But knowing something of the goodness of God even “while we were in the body,” implies that we can reap the benefits of gratitude before we know all there is to know – or become too spiritual for our bodies.

Made in the image and likeness of God, we might know something of the divine authority invested in us. This is the knowledge that keeps us from reacting to the voices of negativity. We’re not victims of circumstances (such as the lack of food), or others’ weaknesses (such as society excluding us), because we know the goodness of God in our hearts and minds. This God, who is the “womb of every creature,” can prevent us from “stumbl[ing] in this life.”

The power that stems from gratitude is not a work of magic, but a spiritual awareness of the good God is providing. This is the awareness I see when I tuck the children in bed and ask them what they’re grateful for. As they start to admit the good they might have forgotten, their fears and follies dissolve, and they settle down in peace. My own foes and frustrations seem bigger than those of the children, but I know it’s the same knowledge of good coming from the “womb of every creature” that gives me peace as well.