We often distinguish between law and Gospel but rarely distinguish between law and gratitude. Perhaps that is because, at first blush, the two seem unrelated. Law seems to describe some rule of behavior, while gratitude seems to describe a human feeling or emotion. Sometimes we hear it stated that law is about rules, but gratitude is about relationships. And we’re told that relationships, not doctrine, are what count in the Christian life. We even have seen the emergence of what is called “relational theology,” which usually walks hand-in-glove with its partner, “situational ethics.” The tie that binds the two together is relativism. Relational theology is based on a relativistic view of theological truth.
We tend to forget that theology is not an abstract science that has no bearing on human living. On the contrary, it defines the very essence of how the Christian life is to be understood and lived out. I once was discussing theology with a Christian businessman who, being bored with theology, said to me, “Give me some news I can use.” He didn’t grasp that I was giving him the most useful information I had at my disposal.
It is important that we remember that gratitude is not just an emotional feeling that is optional to the virtuous life. Gratitude is a command. It is part of God’s law for our lives.
This issue of Tabletalk has explored the sinfulness of ingratitude according to Romans 1. There, ingratitude is viewed as one of the most basic of all human transgressions, as a sin that provokes the wrath of God. Manifestly, ingratitude could not be judged a sin unless it violates the law of God.
We remember the answer to the catechism question “What is sin?”—“Sin is any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God.” Ingratitude reveals a heart empty of thankfulness, which thereby fails to conform to God’s command to be grateful.
Where does God’s law require gratitude? There are manifold references to the divine requirement, but here we shall focus on perhaps the most foundational one—the tenth commandment, which in its short form reads simply, “ ‘You shall not covet’ ” (Ex. 20:17a). Covetousness represents the flip side of gratitude.
It is important to note here that the literary structure of the Decalogue is elliptical. That is, there is information or content implied in the commandments that is not spelled out explicitly. That means that whatever the Decalogue forbids, by implication it commands the opposite. We know this definitively by virtue of Jesus’ teaching on the Law. For instance, when the Decalogue forbids killing, it elliptically is enjoining us to be concerned for the life of our neighbor. When it forbids stealing, it is telling us we must respect our neighbors’ private property.
In like manner, what the Law enjoins elliptically prohibits the opposite. For instance, when the Law says we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, it is clear that we are not to forget the Sabbath day. When it calls us to honor our parents, it clearly means that we are not to dishonor them.
Similarly, when God’s Law forbids coveting, it implies that we are not to so desire what belongs to our neighbor that we actually steal it, vandalize it, or begrudge it to him by envy or jealousy.
The Law against coveting blankets a multitude of sins. This commandment defines how we are to relate to others. If we are concerned about relationships, then we need to understand that covetousness, envy, and jealousy are deadly sins because they drip with the venom that destroys relationships.
I know a man whom I have honored publicly time and again. For some reason, he finds it difficult to pass up the opportunity to trash me publicly. I once asked another man who has suffered similar attacks upon his person, “Why does that fellow attack you so much?” He replied, “The only reason I can think of is jealousy.” Jealousy is the soil that yields the fruit of broken relationships.
But coveting is not merely a barrier to good human relationships. At root, it is a serious sin against God. It is the sin of ingratitude. If I am truly grateful to God for the things I have, there can be absolutely no room in my heart for coveting anyone else’s property, status, or anything. But the minute I covet what belongs to someone else, I show discontent with the gifts I have received from the hand of Providence. Gratitude to God precludes coveting anything of my neighbor.
A grateful heart is a heart so full of joy toward God, the giver of every good and perfect gift, the fountain of all blessing, that it has no room in its chambers for jealousy, envy, or covetousness.
In Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel on the Sicilian code of silence, Omerta, one of the Mafia dons plans his retirement, “knowing that gratitude is the least lasting of virtues, and that gifts must always be replenished.” Our gratitude toward God tends to be like this. Our gratitude is only as strong as the memory of our latest blessing. Yet if God were to cease His benefits to us today, replenishing none of His gifts, we would have no just reason to do anything but shout for joy for the rest of our days for the benefits we have already received at His hand.