St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:4, «I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus.» The note in our Orthodox Study Bible that corresponds to this passage reads, «Nothing is so acceptable to God as our thankfulness for His grace, both to us and to others.» This explanatory note is profound and is so important to our well-being because having a thankful heart is ultimately what leads us to love as God loves.
As we begin to understand the depth of God’s love it transforms us for the better. Here is God who has created the universe – something out of nothing – and gives life within that universe to include us. We exist at the pleasure of His thought. He forces nothing upon us yet gives us everything possible for a life of joy and pleasure. We have complete freedom to do, say, or think whatever we want. He wills that we have this freedom even if we freely choose to reject Him. His will for us is that we simply love Him and others. He knows that loving Him and others is the key to inner peace and living a life of real joy free from worries and anxieties. To attain this, He asks but one sacrifice from us which is to «take up our cross and follow Him» so that «we may lose our life to save it.» This command to follow Him and constantly deny our sinful inclinations so that we may experience life the way He intended is what leads us to joy and peace. Further, He makes this possible through His own sacrifice. Despite the fact that He is our creator, He sacrificed Himself for us to repair our rejection of Him. He suffered crucifixion and death on the cross to give us the means, without infringing upon our freedom of choice, to overcome sin and direct our lives back to Him.
If we really think about this it is astounding. God’s love and selflessness are beyond what we can fully comprehend. I believe the closest we come to understanding this is as parents. Loving our children is about as selfless as we get. Most of us would do anything to protect our children even if it means sacrificing our lives to save them from danger. But even with this great love it is so easy to lose patience, yell inappropriately, and at times be unkind to them despite our best intentions. To reflect Christ’s perfect and patient love at all times and fully engage in the present moment and focus on the well-being of others is beyond the capability of our human nature, even toward our children, due to sin. But we can move toward this state through spiritual growth in our Lord and growing more and more Christ-like over time.
A sign that we are growing in Christ’s love is an increasing appreciation and thankfulness in our hearts for all that we have been given by God, despite any trials we may be facing. When we have moments when we really feel this in our hearts, we are shifting our thought and focus from ourselves to something outside of ourselves – God. This shift in thought is the beginning of our spiritual growth and that is why nothing is more acceptable to God as our thankfulness for His grace. He knows that when we are thankful we are open to understanding and receiving His love and reflecting it to others. His love of course is always present but having a thankful heart enables us to perceive this reality in greater and greater measure.
We perceive the reality of God’s love through our thankful hearts because of what the heart really is. In the Biblical context, the heart is not the organ that pumps inside our chest. It is the core of our being, our essence as a person. Our English word heart does a poor job of capturing what the authors of the New Testament meant when they wrote about the heart. The ancient Greek word the Holy Fathers used was the nous (pronounced «noose.») Nous is a term in Greek for which we don’t really have a word for in English. Heart is as close as we come to what the Holy Fathers meant when they used this term. It refers to the innermost part of our being, our essence, that which permits our spiritual perception. The nous is our link to God that has become obscured due to sin. Everything we do in our life that is for God helps restore the nous, which is our true self as God meant us to be.
As Orthodox Christians, we turn our nous, or hearts, back to God weekly in the ultimate act of thankfulness – the Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word that means thanksgiving. The act of living prayerfully during the week and preparing for Holy Communion is the ultimate expression of thankfulness. Through the Eucharist, we also become the loving community of Christ. As St. John of Damascus tells us, «It is called communion, and it truly is, because through it we have communion with Christ and share in His flesh and His divinity; also, through it we have communion and are also united with one another. For we partake of one bread, we all become one body of Christ and one blood, and members of one another, considered to be one body of Christ.»
Most importantly to God, as we feel more and more of His love through our thankful hearts as expressed in our daily lives and partaking of Holy Communion, we naturally reflect it in our treatment of others. It usually manifests itself in areas for us that have previously been difficult, such as being less judgmental in our thoughts, being more patient with others, and giving more money to charity to name a few. And this is what He really wants for us. He, the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – exists in an ever present community of love. He created us to be both a reflection of and participants in this loving community. That is why He tells us through Scripture that the greatest commandment is to love Him and others. And it all begins with a thankful heart.
Michael Haldas is a writer working as a self-employed consultant in the health care industry. He also has written and published short fiction and a novel. He currently teaches Religious Education to 10th-12th graders the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, Maryland, and works with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Religious Education Department writing educational materials. He lives with his wife and daughter in Germantown, MD.