Does gratitude ever feel like a panacea or unachievable? Are we giving thankfulness too much credit? Is there a dark side of gratitude we fail to see?
The benefits of gratitude abound. It increases our faith and resilience. Thankfulness leads to stronger relationships and health. Grateful people experience greater joy and handle life’s problems more easily.
Biologically we can observe how gratefulness rewires our brain releasing chemicals that make us feel better and allow blood to flow more easily which frees us to think more creatively and clearly. And when we choose to think gratefully every day, the reticular activator reinforces those things we choose to think about.
So physical, spiritual, and relational benefits abound. But there is a dark side of gratitude we don’t like to think about.
7 shadows on the dark side of gratitude
#1: Being thankful doesn’t fix everything
Gratitude cannot cure every ailment. We’ve heard stories about cancer patients who learn to give thanks or laugh and see their cancer go away. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Boham tells how gratitude saved her life as she learned to give thanks daily for small things.
But being thankful will not make the memories of abuse disappear. Gratitude doesn’t undo years of substance abuse. It can help us deal with these things more positively and resiliently, but it doesn’t erase the consequences of sin.
Only God can do that.
#2: The dark side doesn’t want you to be thankful
Satan hates it when believers express thanks. While we don’t see his side of the story, he must’ve been steaming when Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise and thanks while imprisoned in Acts 16. You know he hated Jesus’ response to his temptations in the wilderness.
Satan doesn’t want you to be thankful because that’s evidence of deep change in your life. But Satan loves to twist and distort all that is good, so he’s created several harmful forms of gratitude.
#3: Gratitude can cause us to ignore dark memories
Most of us have dark memories we wish would go away. For some of us, those memories don’t resurface until adulthood. While it’s not always helpful, normally there is great benefit in having honest conversations about these memories with trained counselors or skilled spiritual leaders.
An extreme focus on gratitude can cause us to ignore these memories. In these cases, thankfulness becomes a drug to numb us from having to face difficult circumstances in our lives.
#4: Forced or inauthentic gratitude can be destructive
Sile Walsh, a counselor and executive coach, notes that forced gratitude can “compound feelings of failure and hopelessness.” Gratitude will likely feel forced when you first start learning the skill, but we all know what it’s like to receive the inauthentic thank you card.
I remember attending a going-away party for a pastor. Nobody wanted to be there, including the pastor. Everyone was going through the motions. The words of thanks were inauthentic and it seemed empty and meaningless. In fact, it turned out later that many things were being covered up by the appearance of thankfulness. It was destructive.
In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis claims that demons prefer “a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now.” If we appear grateful for cultural reasons, but actually feel discontentment, we give in to Satan’s scheme to distort gratitude.
#5: Expressing gratitude can reinforce social hierarchy
Researchers Inna Ksenofontov and Julia C Becker discovered that gratitude can become a weapon in the hands of the powerful. They observe, “Within intergroup contexts, thankful responses from low-power to high-power group members could solidify the power hierarchy.” This is yet another twisted way that gratitude warps our lives.
We can’t control how others weaponize gratitude, but if we’re in positions of power we should certainly be careful to not demand gratitude as a way to subordinate others.
#6: Gratitude could blind you to the dark side of people
When a leader invests heavily in your success, you feel a debt of gratitude to that person. The larger the transformation, the more likely you’ll be blinded to the mentor’s dark side. The good news it that It’s possible to remain thankful for someone and remain objective about their life decisions.
#7: Gratitude still defeats the dark side
Even though Satan works to distort all things good, like thankfulness, we have endless reasons to remain grateful. Paul taught us to be thankful in all circumstances. If we need a reason to be thankful, start with the Gospel.
Where do you see yourself tending toward inauthentic gratitude? How might you combat that? Who could you talk to about this? Perhaps make it a conversation for your Thankful Trio?
Lord, I’m grateful that love conquers all evil. Thank you for defeating Satan and all of his schemes to distort what you made and turn it into a weapon against me and your church. Protect me from fake gratitude and teach me to be genuinely grateful. I’m truly thankful that you saved me from every sin I’ve ever committed or ever will commit. Wash away all traces of shame. Fill me with joy, love, and eternal thankfulness. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.