Book Review: ‘Radical Gratitude’

Jason Forbes

Jason Forbes

Disability Advocate

Radical Gratitude.
Mary Jo Leddy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.

Thankfulness is a key aspect for the Christian life. The Bible says that everything created by God is good and should be received with thanksgiving (Eph 5:20; Col 3:17; 1 Thess 5:18; 1 Tim 4:4). Yet, being thankful is something we can struggle with as Christians. So, it’s a subject that deserves further contemplation.

“Radical Gratitude” by Mary Jo Leddy is one of the relatively few books that I’ve been able to find on the subject of thankfulness. This is, perhaps, an indication of the extent to which this subject is neglected! The position that Leddy writes from may pose a challenge to conservative evangelical readers. She is a Catholic author writing from a multi-faith perspective. So, her understanding of special grace (God’s self-revelation through the person and work of Jesus) may not be as the conservative evangelical may expect. But from the point of general grace, she has much to contribute. Radical gratitude is defined as “when we stop taking life for granted. It arises in the astonishment at the miracle of creation and of our own creation.”

Leddy begins by giving a critique of what she calls the culture of money. Such a culture cultivates perpetual dissatisfaction and a desire for more. This cultivation is achieved through relentless advertisements and a commercialised existence. Even when we become aware of the effects of our commercialised culture, this can lead to further dissatisfaction with our culture and ourselves leaving us with an even greater yearning for more. By yearning for more we can miss the goodness we have. Even if that yearning is for justice, that yearning can easily replicate the patterns of our culture that we are dissatisfied with, by craving more justice.

Radical gratitude begins by not taking things for granted. Leddy provides a beautiful picture of morning birds greeting each new day with song, as though they are giving thanks for the day once again. This is contrast to how we often wake, taking each new day for granted. Leddy states that taking things for granted is made possible because of our dissatisfaction. Yet, our dissatisfaction can easily be ended when we stop taking things for granted. Lenny gives examples of how reflecting on our beginnings and being can cultivate gratitude. A striking example is the story of a woman with cerebral palsy who was badly burned. The comment was made that it might have been better if she hadn’t been born. Yet, she was thankful just for the experience of laying in clean bed sheets.

Radical Gratitude

“…when we stop taking life for granted. It arises in the astonishment at the miracle of creation and of our own creation.”


To combat dissatisfaction, Leddy suggests radical gratitude begins with recognising that we have been given enough, that the gift of life is enough, that we are enough to make a difference, and that we are good enough. Those with a conservative theological perspective may struggle with the last point, especially when the Bible is clear about the absence of goodness (Ps. 14:1–3; 53:1–3; Mark 10:18 [Luke 18:19]; Rom 3:10–12). However, it needs to be remembered that it is God’s desire to that none perish (2 Pet 3:9). While our bodies are wasting away, we are being continually renewed (2 Cor 4:16).

So, while there is ground for questioning Leddy’s assertion of goodness, there is a sense that we are not required to conform to a standard before we can enjoy God’s blessing. In this respect, it is possible to combat dissatisfaction by recognising God’s blessings that are now available to us. To this extent, Leddy contemplates an economy of grace where there is enough, and we don’t need to become someone else in order to be loved. This is embedded in the fact that God loves us for nothing. When we understand this, we can start to appreciate the reality of God’s love. When we begin to understand how much we’ve been given, then our gratitude shows itself in generosity. 

In this, Leddy recognises Jesus as the ultimate example of radical gratitude. Leddy asserts that because Jesus was born of God, he was able to freely give. While this may be true, it doesn’t seem to adequately capture his divine nature and his role in sustaining his people as God. Later, Leddy states, “In his [Jesus’] teaching he presented a vision of what it would mean to live happily”, and, “Jesus had come to make the world a place in which it was a little easier to be grateful.” Leddy also states, “The power of his love broke through the cycle of captivity that held them all chained to their social roles.” While this may be true, the alternative that Jesus offers is so much more than merely release from dissatisfaction.

From here, Leddy turns her attention to occupation. She observes that we often feel part of a machine from which we are trying to escape. This sense of powerlessness corrupts us. This powerlessness can be perpetuated within churches by encouraging people to accept their circumstances “because it is God’s will”. If we are persuaded that nothing we do will create change it will perpetuate dissatisfaction. Such frustration can lead to violence. Such action does not concern itself with the administration of justice, as much as it may be claimed, but the acquisition of innocence. For organisations, this leads to the development of bureaucracy. A bureaucracy excuses people from responsibility so they can maintain their innocence. Bureaucracy is a structure to maintain moral innocence for those in the organisation. Bureaucracy ensures that no one is responsible for anything.

Power is then seen as a limited resource that is unevenly distributed and one’s share is obtained through competition. However, if we recognise that our origin is in God (that is, we were created for God) and are in relationship with God, then we share in the creative power of God. As such, we have the power to begin something new. In this, Leddy seems to understand the transformation of Jesus’ disciples between his ascension and Pentecost being of sociological origins rather than divine origins.

“When we begin to understand how much we’ve been given, then our gratitude shows itself in generosity.”

Leddy then observes a problem that many people face in western culture is that our lives are episodic. We move from one activity to the next without any comprehensive meaning. Truth also is defined by the moment as politicians are not consistent in their promises. Living with such fragmented lives also bind us to a sense of dissatisfaction. This seems to be driven by the belief in progress where if people work hard enough things will improve. But this assumes a dissatisfaction with the past and present. This can even effect church life as the right program or strategy are sought after. When we no longer believe things will get better, we believe that we’ll be able to get more.

Leddy perceives that this lack of cohesion leads to societal breakdown. The common perception now is that self-actualisation will result in the common good. The tendency now is to form identities around what we are against, not what we are for. This is part of the culture of more. Instead, Leddy recognises the need to find our identity in God. This provides a basis for gratitude.

Leddy then turns her attention to how we can be more grateful. She suggests gratitude can be achieved by acting gratefully and developing habits. This involves beginning to act gratefully before we are ready, practicing being grateful for our origins in God, gathering with like-minded people, living more simply (not out of guilt), imitate good examples, think with your heart and your mind, understanding the culture, being connected to tradition, and knowing what you are for.

Leddy has provided an insightful critique of western culture, the dangers of the victim culture, and has demonstrated how our capacity to be grateful is impeded. However, the reasons for being grateful, and its benefits, could have been given greater clarity and explored further. The treatment of the work and person of Jesus from a conservative evangelical perspective with Jesus being not much more than an example to follow may pose a challenge to conservative evangelical readers. Nonetheless, Leddy has made a helpful contribution to begin this seriously vital subject. My search for books on thankfulness continues.

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