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Oh, Thank God!, or, The Man Who Mistook God for a Hat

Mark McMinn

Can we see God's face in our daily lives?

Professor of Psychology / Director of Faith Integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology, George Fox University
August 25, 2014

This is part four of a six-part series by Mark McMinn on positive psychology and Christian faith and practice.

Many years ago I learned about prosopagnosia (aka face-blindness) when reading Oliver Sacks’s book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks, a neurologist, wrote the essay after one his patients tried to pick up his wife’s head at the end of his medical appointment, thinking it was his hat. Even after years of marriage, he was unable to see and know his wife’s face.

Sometimes I have prosopagnosia when it comes to seeing God.

Even after years of studying and experiencing God, I sometimes fail to see God’s face of love, mercy, and justice amidst daily life. I may pray some rote prayer before a meal, and then eat without regard for the sustaining grace present in every bite, then go on with my daily routines.

Some days I drive down an Oregon highway without even noticing the towering beauty of Douglas Fir trees and the stunning mountain view to the east. When I do this, I miss a chance to see God.

Gratitude as Reset Button for the Church

In my last post, I suggested that church might provide a reset button, allowing us to return to a place of gratitude week after week. Church can be a place where our vision is sharpened so that we can again see God in our day-to-day living. One of my dissertation students, Jens Uhder, is studying gratitude in the context of two local churches. This is part of a larger program, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, where we are trying to promote dialog between science and faith.

Jens will be working with two pastors and other church leaders to develop a set of gratitude exercises for churchgoers. In one sense, this may seem an easy task. Much is being written about gratitude these days, and it naturally fits with a life of faith. But these are to be collaborative projects, full partnerships between faith and science, so it will be important to adapt the gratitude practices being used in scientific studies so that they fit naturally into the life of these church communities.

5 Christian Gratitude Exercises

Here are some initial ideas for how gratitude exercises might look in a faith context. All of these are likely to be adapted after we have more conversation with the pastors involved, but Jens and I would also love to hear from you. How would you tweak these exercises to make them as meaningful and faith-filled as possible?

1. Say Grace Before Meals

Those studying gratitude often advocate “saying grace” before meals. For those who are not religious, it is easy to find secular alternatives. In a Christian context, the saying of grace can be unapologetically theocentric. But how might one go about saying grace in a way that promotes gratitude for and awareness of God’s providence?

One idea is to have a “mix up your mealtime prayer” campaign in a local church. Evangelicals who use ad lib prayers before meals and mainline Christians who use a standard prayer at mealtime may both find themselves in a similar place of saying habitual words that merely bounce off the ears rather than penetrate the soul.

Maybe it’s time to try something new.

For those who have fallen prey to habits for mealtime prayers, or those who have given up praying before meals, write a new prayer to express thanks before meals or find prayers that others use and find meaningful. Try something different and see if it might deepen the experience of saying grace.

Behavioral scientists speak of the Premack Principle, which suggests that low-probability behaviors (in this case, gratitude) become more prominent when paired with high-probability behaviors (eating).

I hesitate to think of being grateful as a low probability behavior, though on some busy days it is. But even on those busy days eating remains a high probability behavior for most of us. We eat three times or more. By pairing gratitude with eating, we remember God’s providence.

2. Write Your Own Psalm

A standard gratitude exercise is to write a letter to someone who has influenced you in a positive way. Some take this a step further and suggest you visit the person and read the letter aloud. These are great ideas, and we hope some of our church leaders will suggest this as part of their gratitude campaigns.

Here’s a variant that might promote both gratitude and awareness of God. Try writing grateful prose to God, perhaps in the form of a psalm. Write about God’s faithfulness, goodness, and love and how you have experience it on a daily basis. Like King David in the Old Testament Psalms, it’s okay to express some questions and spiritual struggles also, but begin and end the psalm with affirmations of God’s goodness. And if you’re feeling bold, try reading it aloud when you are done.

3. Take a Prayer Stroll

Take a leisurely walk and notice the sights, smells, and sounds of your community. Notice the aroma of fresh pizza being baked, the brightness of the sunshine or freshness of the rain, the exuberance of children. Again, this is a standard gratitude activity, but try adding a prayer component to the stroll.

Speak with God as you saunter along. Tell God what you notice, what you love about this good life. Thank God for the beautiful gifts to be experienced every day, and for joining you on your stroll.

4. Pause for a Daily Examen

A common Jesuit practice is the Daily Examen, a prayerful pause to reflect on God’s presence throughout the day. The examen involves being aware of God’s presence, remembering the day with gratitude, paying attention to your own experiences and feelings, choosing one part of your day for prayerful reflection, and looking ahead to tomorrow.

A secular version of this is used in gratitude practices. Here are the questions suggested in the Four Questions exercise:

What touched me today?

Who or what inspired me today?

What made me smile today?

What’s the best thing that happened today?

Do these look familiar? They are very much like the examen, but without naming God—perhaps without seeing God, sort of like prosopagnosia.

While I find value in the Four Questions exercise, as a Christian I prefer the examen. I love the idea of bringing God into my reflections of the day. Not only does the examen allow us to reflect gratefully on life, it also sharpens our vision of God’s presence in daily affairs.

5. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Gratitude journaling has been used in many scientific studies of gratitude. In a classic study by Emmons and McCullough—the one I mentioned in my last post—the gratitude journal involved following these simple directions:

“There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.”

Following this simple exercise has yielded remarkable benefits in scientific studies, ranging from increased hopefulness and optimism to more exercise and fewer visits to the doctor. Gratitude journaling promotes health and wellness.

Might gratitude journaling also promote a heightened awareness of God’s presence in our daily lives? Writing about gratitude calls us to notice, and when we notice the good gifts of life won’t it also call us to remember the source of these gifts, to attend closely to God’s prompting, to rest in God’s providence and grace?

Using Gratitude to Sharpen Our Awareness of God

There is no doubt, scientifically speaking, that gratitude is a good thing. I’m eager to see how Jens’s study turns out, because I suspect gratitude will also sharpen our awareness of God so that we will be less likely to mistake God for a hat, or good luck, or a higher score on a psychological well-being scale.

Want More on Gratitude?

Click here to watch Robert Emmons discuss the science and practice of saying “thanks!”