“If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.” I stopped in my tracks when I read these words, spoken by Jesus while defending the lavishly intimate actions of an impure woman. I’ve been thinking about gratitude lately and have noticed it’s easier for me to bemoan what I lack than to express gratitude for what I have. Despite my efforts to be more thankful, my gratitude meter often still needs a realignment.

How exactly do we go about cultivating a more grateful heart?

Jesus seemed to think gratitude was linked to forgiveness. In this account from Luke 7, Jesus’ meal at a religious leader’s home was interrupted by the unexpected appearance of the town harlot. While the dinner host was outraged by her show of affection—washing Jesus’ dusty feet with her tears, drying them with her loosened hair, and anointing them with expensive, sensuous perfume, Jesus was moved by compassion. His conclusion was swift—she was grateful because her many sins were forgiven.

For the next several days I pondered this passage. Could it be that my sense of gratitude actually wanes in direct proportion to my felt sense of having been forgiven? Could cultivating a more grateful heart depend more on the forgiveness I seek than on the thankfulness journal I try to keep?

If the most sure-fire way to experience a more grateful heart is to seek forgiveness, then why don’t we practice confession more often? Even after decades of following Christ, I have to admit that confession still makes me uneasy. Sometimes I imagine confession through the lens of my childhood memories, where fear of the consequences accompanied me whenever I confessed to my parents my part in some wrongdoing. Or perhaps I’m convinced this is the one sin God won’t forgive and he’ll reject me forever. Or possibly, I’m afraid of seeing my sinfulness for what it is, knowing I won’t be able to forgive myself.

I don’t confess because I don’t really want to face my deepest sins and uncover their root causes.

Seeking forgiveness to cultivate a more grateful heart

Seeking true forgiveness isn’t easy. Confession requires vulnerability. True confession before a holy God requires the willingness to have our deepest secret places examined by a bright searchlight. Only the Light of the World can at once mine for the hidden sins we work so hard to cover up and offer us complete forgiveness. Confession to God isn’t like confessing to another person. God never holds our confessed sin against us, but rather, puts it as far out of his memory as the east is from the west.

Given my propensity to hide from my sinful heart rather than readily enter into a time of self-examination, I often need a little help knowing where to begin my confession. I find these words from The Book of Common Prayer to be enormously helpful:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Prayed slowly and with intention, phrase by phrase and word by word, the Lord gently brings to my mind those things I have done or left undone that block my access to his loving, merciful heart. Without confession I can’t experience the fresh wind of his mercy or the bold freedom of forgiveness. Standing in forgiveness awakens in me a heart of gratitude so my delight is to do his will and walk in his ways, to the glory of his name.