Count Your Blessings: New Testament Studies and Positive Psychology

With it being the Thanksgiving season, gratitude is sure to be a topic of multiple articles and sacrament talks. “Count Your Blessings” may be chosen as a sacrament hymn in order to match the “spirit of the season.” President Gordon B. Hinckley made “be grateful” the first on his list of “Six B’s” for the youth.[1] While First Counselor of the First Presidency, he described gratitude as “a divine principle.” “Where there is appreciation,” he wrote, “there is courtesy, there is concern for the rights and property of others. Without appreciation, there is arrogance and evil. Where there is gratitude, there is humility, as opposed to pride.”[2] The term “divine principle” is abused and overused in both LDS conversation and publications. In this case, however, the description is apt. Gratitude goes to the very core of the LDS gospel. As the late Truman G. Madsen noted, Joseph Smith “once remarked that if you will thank the Lord with all your heart every night for all the blessings of that day you will eventually find yourself exalted in the kingdom of God. This is a powerful statement on the spiritual necessity of gratitude.”[3] Gratitude is meant to define our relationship with God and each other, thus laying the groundwork for Zion. This is because gratitude is essential to the Mormon concept of grace.[4]

Grace (Greek charis) in New Testament times was not a uniquely religious term, but one of secular usage also. In the Greco-Roman world, reciprocity was a key component to society and operated by means of client-patron systems. When one was unable to access a particular need, individuals who did have access were petitioned. David DeSilva of Ashland University provides this overview:

If the patron granted the petition, the petitioner would become the client of the patron and a potentially long-term relationship would begin. This relationship would be marked by the mutual exchange of desired goods and services, the patron being available for assistance in the future, the client doing everything in his or her power to enhance the fame and honor of the patron…[such as] remaining loyal to the patron and providing services whenever the opportunity arose.[5]


While God is never directly called the patron of the Christian church, the language of New Testament writers (Paul in particular) carries “a strong patronal tone.”[6] It is worth noting that the patron and the client did not hold an equal status due to the former’s ability to provide necessary resources that the latter was incapable of acquiring on his own. “It was this state of dependence…that formed one’s identity as a client. In exchange for receiving these needed goods from the patron, the client was expected to give back to the patron.” Since he was unable to provide his own necessities, “a client could hardly give something from himself, and therefore could only give of himself to the patron.”[7] The concept of giving of ourselves resonates with the words delivered by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in a 2000 General Conference address:

[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.[8]

Given this context we can discern that grace in antiquity was not only the initial gift of the giver, but also included the response of the receiver. DeSilva confirms, “Grace thus has very specific meaning for authors and readers of the New Testament, meanings derived primarily from the use of the word in the context of the giving of benefits and the requiting of favors.” This

suggests implicitly what many moralists from the Greek and Roman cultures stated explicitly: Grace must be met with grace; favor must always give birth to favor; gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this for the ancients was the picture of three goddesses, the three “Graces,” dancing hand in hand in a circle…From [many] ancient witnesses, we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace…Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.[9]

The reciprocal nature of grace fits quite comfortably into LDS scripture:

For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. (D&C 93:20; emphasis mine)

And may God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works. (Helaman 12:24; emphasis mine)

Gratitude is an emotion and attitude toward God, mankind, and life as a whole. It is a deep sense of appreciation for the very experience of life and those in it; an outlook bred out of genuine humility and awe. Those who are grateful report higher levels of optimism, life satisfaction, and overall well-being.[10] As experimental research has demonstrated, gratitude also motivates prosocial behavior. Some researchers have even suggested that gratitude is an evolutionary adaptation for reciprocal altruism and upstream reciprocity, and thus “may have been instrumental in the evolution of humans’ prodigious tendencies to cooperate with nonkin.”[11] This does not mean “mindless tit-for-tat behavior (e.g., you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours). Instead, grateful people appear creative as they formulate actions that promote the well-being of other people, including, but not limited, to the original benefactor…Although grateful individuals most typically act prosocially simply to express their gratitude, over time the actions inspired by gratitude build and strengthen social bonds and friendships.”[12] Religious/spiritual people tend to experience gratitude more often, leading to increased frequency and intensity of the feeling.[13] If we “confess…[God’s] hand in all things” (D&C 59:21), then the recognition that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17) ultimately provides the foundation for a Zion society. As Terryl Givens recently pointed out, one of the central doctrines of Mormonism is not merely the embodiment of God, but His passibility.[14] It is within this framework that we understand God’s choice in loving us as an invitation to enter into the beautiful dance of grace. This dance is not meant solely as a God-to-man relationship, but a person-to-person one as well. This occurs through the establishment of Zion, brought on by the “infinite, godly compassion and suffering” experienced by the likes of Enoch.[15] Acts of kindness met with expressions of gratitude help create a climate in which positive emotions are fostered, influencing and reinforcing moral behavior throughout the organization or community.[16] Gratitude is therefore essential to the success of Zion and key to our at-one-ment with God and each other.

As you recover from the overeating and family stress of the holidays, demonstrate your gratitude for your many blessings by being a blessing to others.

 

[1] Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Prophet’s Counsel and Prayer for Youth,” New Era (Jan. 2001): http://www.lds.org/new-era/2001/01/a-prophets-counsel-and-prayer-for-youth?lang=eng

[2] Hinckley, “’With All Thy Getting Get Understanding’,” Ensign (Aug. 1988): http://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/08/with-all-thy-getting-get-understanding?lang=eng

[3] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1989), 104.

[4] Blake Ostler has written previously on the subject of grace both in Mormonism and Christianity at large. See his “The Concept of Grace in Christian Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23:3 (1990): 13-43 and “The Development of the Mormon Concept of Grace,” Dialogue 24:1 (1991): 57-84.

[5] David A. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97. For an informative layout of the patronage system, see Jerome H. Neyrey, “God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27:4 (2005): 465-492.

[6] Mark A. Jennings, “Patronage and Rebuke in Paul’s Persuasion in 2 Corinthians 8-9,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 6 (2009): 113.

[7] Ibid.: 114.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign (November 2000): http://www.lds.org/ensign/2000/11/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng

[9] DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 105-106.

[10] Robert A. Emmons, Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84:2 (2003): 377-389.

[11] Michael E. McCullough, Marcia B. Kimeldorf, Adam D. Cohen, “An Adaptation for Altruism? The Social Causes, Social Effects, and Social Evolution of Gratitude,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:4 (2008): 284.

[12] Barbara L. Frederickson, “Gratitude, Like Other Positive Emotions, Broadens and Builds,” The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Robert A. Emmons, Michael E. McCullough (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 150-151.

[13] Michael E. McCullough, Robert A. Emmons, Jo-Ann Tsang, “Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86:2 (2004): 295-309.

[14] Terryl Givens, “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint,” Arrington Annual Lecture 18 (2012). This is explored more fully in Terryl & Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Ensign Peak, 2012).

[15] Ibid.: 10-11.

[16] Frederickson, 2004, 156-159.


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