Radical Gratitude: Recalibrating Your Heart in an Age of Entitlement
When I first came across Peter Maiden’s Radical Gratitude, I must confess that I cringed inside. Based on the subtitle, I expected to find it filled with the usual complaints about how awful and entitled today’s younger generation is. Instead, I found a deeply personal, honest, and challenging account of gratitude born out of the author’s own experience of a lifetime walking with God. Radical Gratitude is a call for believers to reject the idea that God owes them and instead to rejoice in how much God has given them. By rooting the virtue of gratitude deeply in the key doctrines of the Christian faith, Maiden presents a fine example of practical theology. He has crafted this book as a discipleship tool; each chapter ends with a psalm and questions or exercises to engage not only the mind, but the will and emotions as well.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of Radical Gratitude is the lack of a clear structure or progression from one chapter to the next. For the sake of this review, I would suggest that the chapters seem to fall in three main sections. Chapters 1–3 comprise the conceptual foundation for the book. Chapters 4–6 concern the development of gratitude. Finally, chapters 7–11 look at the benefits of gratitude in relation to specific topics.
Maiden’s interest in the dynamic between gratitude and entitlement began when, in the midst of a family crisis, he found himself praying, “I am your servant and I have sacrificed for you. You owe me. . . You can’t just let this happen!” (xviii–xix). This prayer revealed a fundamental flaw in his way of thinking—a flaw shared by many in modern society where we have been trained to believe that we have a right to various privileges, services, and goods. In the first chapter, he explores this entitled attitude and its dangers for Christians, specifically, “that we think we love Jesus when we’re actually using him” (8). The next two chapters offer an alternative perspective. First, we who are in Christ must realize that we have been incredibly and richly blessed by God. Whatever struggles life holds, we are the recipients of amazing grace. This is given not because we are entitled to it, but for Jesus’ sake. This leads to the second point: we are deeply indebted to God. Whether the blessings of salvation or the blessings of earthly life, we have not earned it, and we do not deserve it. If we imagine that we have done it ourselves, we will not be grateful. But if we truly grasp justification by grace, we will have ample cause for gratitude. Maiden will return to these fundamental truths throughout the book.
In light of God’s grace, gratitude should be a natural response. But as Maiden turns his attention to cultivating gratitude, he notes that we are far more prone to ingratitude and grumbling. “We have been struggling with ingratitude from the very beginning of time. A lack of thankfulness lay at the root of our original rebellion against God” (36). Given our inclination towards complaint rather than thanksgiving, gratitude must be a choice and a habit that we intentionally develop. We do this by reminding ourselves of the steadfast truths of God and practicing praise. Gratitude is not something we learn once and then master. Rather, Maiden encourages his readers to develop what he calls “rhythms of remembering” (58): times scheduled throughout our days, weeks and seasons where we pause to remind ourselves of the goodness of God and to give thanks.
The final section of Radical Gratitude is largely topical, meaning there is little continuity between the chapters except in their continued emphasis on the character of God and his permanent blessings in Christ. Maiden deals with the relationship between gratitude and success followed by several chapters looking at the various roles that gratitude plays in times of stress and failure. He looks at the sovereignty of God as both a reason for gratitude and a source of rest and hope in difficult times. He speaks about gratitude in relation to contentment and as a weapon in spiritual warfare. Particularly important is Maiden’s short treatment of gratitude in the context of lament. Christian teaching on thankfulness can often leave listeners with the impression that they ought to be perpetually happy and at peace, regardless of their circumstances. Maiden, however, is not a fan of fake smiles. He reminds his readers that pain and struggle are a real part of the believer’s experience and that we can and should honestly bring our grief and fear to God. As we cultivate gratitude in these seasons, we do it as an act of faith and hope—not denying reality, but lifting our eyes to a broader perspective.
The concluding chapter rounds off Radical Gratitude in a deeply poignant manner. Maiden did not write this book from a comfortable retirement after his many years of ministry with Operation Mobilization and Keswick Ministries. It may have begun that way, but in the midst of writing, Maiden received an arresting medical diagnosis: aggressive, terminal cancer. The final chapter is the testimony of a man who is once again learning to practice gratitude in pain. Yet he concludes that he nonetheless has ample cause for thanksgiving because, at the end of it all, he is still held by the amazing grace of God in Christ.
Because the message of Radical Gratitude is grounded in the transcultural truths of the goodness of God and his gift of salvation, the book is relevant to all Christians. In one way or another, we all struggle with an entitlement mentality, the often-subconscious belief that God owes us for our worship. With that being said, Maiden's research is particularly aimed at a Western audience. The situations he tackles and the stories he shares reflect his experience as an Englishman and may not be immediately accessible to those from drastically different backgrounds. But while certain details may not be universal, the reflective exercises in the Psalms at the end of each chapter cross all cultural borders and times. Maiden uses these to further illuminate and apply the lessons in the accompanying chapter; to not do these simple meditations will cause the reader largely to miss Maiden’s primary goal.
Maiden’s strength is his ability to bind together theology and application so naturally. There is a temptation, when writing a book about virtue, to establish a theological foundation for the topic and then to bury it under a wall of commands and techniques. Maiden does not do this. He writes as a fellow-student in the school of grace, and what he has learned is that there are no techniques or programs. Gratitude arises out of an ever-deepening relationship with God. Therefore, every chapter draws the reader back to the true cause of gratitude and calls for a faithful response to the truth.
If I could change one thing, it would be to provide a specific definition of gratitude. At various times, gratitude seems to be treated as contentment, worship, trust, and submission. While a case can be made that it contains or touches on each of these things, the exact nature of the relationship is often unclear. As a result, Maiden’s flow of thought can sometimes seem disjointed, particularly in cases where there is little differentiation between gratitude and the result it produces. This is also a problem with regard to ingratitude; in Maiden’s discussion of Satan’s fall in particular, I would have appreciated an explanation of the link between ingratitude and pride. A clear definition from the beginning would have given the book a sharper focus, which in turn may have aided in the lack of a definite structure.
Maiden’s book is not about “radical gratitude” because what he is proposing is so extreme that it will turn everything you know about gratitude upside-down. Rather it is, more than anything, a call to return to the source of our gratitude and to dig down deep. Maiden invites his readers to join him in remembering the amazing blessings we have in and through Christ—blessings we have as a gift, not a right—and to be grateful. This is the sort of gratitude that will change our lives.