Here’s Why “Gratitude Motivation” Isn’t Biblical—and What’s Better

I’m grateful

It’s the season of Advent. “The Coming.”

I’m preparing for “the coming” of all four of our children, with their spouses, together for Christmas for the first time in 6 years. Maybe “the coming” of a new little niece, our second granddaughter, might be at least part of the reason they’re eager to gather.

While I prepare, I’m enjoying wonderful songs about that First Coming, the birth of our Savior.

to think that the Maker of the Stars once grasped His mother’s finger like this

I still love Lauren Daigle’s “The Light of the World” and Francesca Battistelli’s “You’re Here.”

Look at Your hands, they’re still so small / Someday You’re going to stretch them out and save us all.

Songs like these increase my deep joy and gratitude for our Lord Jesus, our Savior.

He was willing to descend to earth and accomplish our great salvation for us. He freed His people from sin and death, calling us to Himself.

I sometimes stand stunned with gratitude at the outpouring of His grace.

But this gratitude is not my motivator to serve Him

Swimming upstream from a common teaching, I know.

But if you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that I tend to push against teachings that feel to me like they’re leaning toward guilt manipulators to work in the strength of the flesh.

It goes like this:

    1. “You are so bad.” (guilt, shame)
    2. “But look what He’s done for you! How is it that you’re so ungrateful?” (guilt, shame)
    3. “Be more grateful!” (try harder, push yourself)
    4. “You can prove your gratefulness by doing more for Him.” (try harder, push yourself, guilt, shame)

The cycle then continues, sadly, since the next steps are:

    1. “The Christian life is so hard! Where is the joy He promised?” (exhaustion, despair)
    2. “I’m a terrible Christian. I’m so bad.” (guilt, shame)

And around we go again. Several of my blog posts address this disastrous cycle.

Why does this feel so much like manipulation?

Because, frankly, that’s what it is.

And it can create a very heavy burden.

And the Bible never talks about gratitude being our motivator to do good works for the Lord.

So what is our motivator?

Is gratitude what motivates the Branches?

So let’s say the Gratitude Motivator walks up to the Branches of the Vine.

Gratitude Motivator: What flourishing branches!

Branches of the Vine: Thank you so much. It’s because of the Vine. See those strong roots?

GM: You must be so grateful for that Vine.

BotV: I am. I often lift up my branches in awe and wonder.

GM: That sure does motivate you to bring forth some awesome fruit, doesn’t it?

BotV: Huh?

GM: Awesome fruit. Right there, I see it.

BotV: This fruit doesn’t come out because I’m grateful. It comes out because I’m connected to the Vine. The sap of the Vine flows through to me. The life of the Vine lives in me.

GM: But just think about if you were cut off from the Vine. You’d be a dead, dry, shriveled heap. Surely the fact that you’re not in that condition inspires gratitude.

BotV: Well, sure, of course. But my bringing forth of fruit doesn’t happen because I’m inspired with gratitude. It happens because I’m connected to the Vine in a vital way, experiencing the life of the Vine. Why don’t we talk about that.

GM: Huh?

Here’s the truest, deepest, best motivator

About 31 years after that Advent Baby lay in a manger, He stood up at the Feast of Tabernacles and called out, “Whoever comes to me, out of His innermost being will flow rivers of living water!”

Sounds like the kind of productive life honest Gratitude Motivators—and every true Christian—would love to see.

But the very next part of John 7 is vitally important, because it tells us . . .

And this He spoke of the Spirit, who hadn’t come yet.

But now He has.

What’s the “motivator” for that river of living water flowing out of my soul for thirsty souls to drink?

It is none other than the Holy Spirit, Christ in me.

So, when I listen to my Christmas music, or at any time I’m rejoicing in what our Savior has done and is doing and will do, I’ll often get alone, lift my hands, put my head back, shed some tears . . . and my heart will swell with gratitude.

Often when I close my eyes to pray, my first words are Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.

But when I go out to do what God has called me to do, to pray, to write, to encourage people in the Lord, to give the gospel to those who are longing, that thanksgiving is not my energizer.

Oh no.

Here’s our Energizer

I am “motivated,” energized (as the apostle Paul spoke of being energized) by the power of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Christ in me.

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is with His people.

He is the Empowerer for all the work He has called us to do.  

Grunting and striving isn’t going to make this happen.

It is faith, enlivened by a deep knowledge of Him.

It is understanding that flows out of that faith.

If you don’t understand, instead of striving harder, ask Him for understanding. Ask Him for faith.

This is a life lived by faith.

It’s not the static faith that believed once for salvation years ago.

It is the active faith that continues to be connected to the Vine by believing in Him today, continuing to look to Him for that outpouring of living water every day, and moment by moment.

Yes, it’s good to give thanks! After all, we have so much to be grateful for.

And we can add one more thing:

We can be grateful that we don’t have to depend on gratitude as our motivator to live the Christian life.

We have something far better.

He has come!

To fill us with His life.

Merry Christmas to you.

And Blessed Advent.


If any parts of this post feel eerily familiar, it might be because an earlier version of it was posted Christmastime 2017. Merry Christmas!


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1 year ago

YES!! The vine illustration nails it- thank you so much. I realized my former pastor was living as an orphan, depending upon the flesh for obedience, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the root of the problem. His continual call for gratitude for our justification was a biblical one ….. that’s likely what threw everybody off so they couldn’t see it. Satan’s lies are going to be *subtle*. Oh my.

I finally realized what I was *not* hearing. I was not hearing about Jesus, the Spirit, love, delight, indwelling, *life*…..

1 year ago

Thank you, Rebecca. This is such truth. I was so tired of living in, and out of, (spiritual) guilt that it moved me to almost completely refuse any guilt at all. Of course, that feels unchristian-like. But once you step out of that matrix you can see the manipulation and lies, and it allows you to live out of the spirit—which is the freedom that Christ talks about. The context of gratitude motivation is enlightening. Letting go of that motivation (or any motivation??) allows for any work or result in our lives to be wholly from the spirit, his presence and abundance. What freedom is found in that! Thank you!

Catherine Eyers
Catherine Eyers
1 year ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Yes please. I’d like your thoughts on quenching the Holy Spirit.
I also think this post so accurate. I couldn’t quite see the problem, but now its clear. I’m grateful and peaceful. Thanks.

1 year ago

Thank you for articulating something I’ve recognized but couldn’t put into words.

Tammy Arlen
Tammy Arlen
1 year ago

So good, Rebecca! Thank you for expressing this so clearly! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

1 year ago

It felt good to read this today. I think I’d say it was a relief! I have struggled for a long time with the concept of gratitude, especially when it related to God. I can’t imagine feeling more grateful for all that God is and what he does. All attempts I make to express gratitude feel cheap. If I try to break it down into things, I know I can’t name all the things. Ultimately, I feel like expressing my gratitude is an attempt to appease someone else’s need to pass judgment.

I can do nothing without God’s empowerment to do it. It’s not a matter of motivation, it’s a matter of following the Holy Spirit as I hear and understand.

You’ve expressed it beautifully.

Thank you!

Bev Sterk
Bev Sterk
1 year ago

thank you AGAIN Rebecca! very helpful and confirming!

I have been working on helping people (in the reformed tradition) understand that our response of praise, worship and obedience to God is not primarily out of gratitude, but primarily because of Who He is, because He is worthy! That as we mature in our faith, it will become more and more about Who He is, and that includes Christ in us, the hope of glory => His Holy Spirit in us! I’m not saying gratitude/thankfulness isn’t biblical, b/c there are a number of verses that encourage thankfulness, but it is more than that… and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit is a HUGE focus that has been historically significantly neglected in the reformed tradition…

I believe the “disastrous cycle” has been partially perpetuated/enabled by the Heidelberg catechism and its’ 3 parts of sin, salvation, service.. or guilt, grace, gratitude… or man’s misery/fall, man’s deliverance/redemption, man’s gratitude/obedience… these are truths of scripture, but there are also truths and principles that have been left out and caused a distortion of the doctrines by hyper focusing on gratitude at the expense of other truths and principles…

Rebecca, can you share the links to your other posts on the “disastrous cycle” of guilt, etc? much appreciated!

1 year ago
Reply to  Bev Sterk

Oh wow.. I never thought of the Heidelberg catechism that way.. of course, it has not been the ‘main food’ for my spiritual life ever. (neither has any other catechism been although I’m familiar with them)

I will have to take a look in that book and see how it could be used that way.

1 year ago

I cried reading this. Thank you.

Jo Ann
Jo Ann
1 year ago

Haven’t ever heard of this cycle. It does sound disastorus. Paul says sommewhere give thanks always and I understand it as a way to aknowledge the greatest of the Lord. It lifts our spirits and makes it easier for us to carry on with whatever the Spieit calls us to do.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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