The revival at Asbury University began on February 8, 2023, when several students lingered to pray together after an ordinary weekly chapel service. By lunchtime, students were texting one another to say that something special was happening in the chapel, and by evening they were setting up sleeping bags in the pews to spend the night. They confessed sins, interceded for one another, cried tears of joy, sang worship songs, and basked in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some spoke in tongues and prophesied. Others claim to have been miraculously healed of depression and anxiety. Despite occasional overt charismatic phenomena, all proceeded with an unassuming orderliness. The “outpouring,” as some are calling it, continued unabated for over two weeks, drawing national media attention, sparking spiritual movements on other college campuses, and attracting more than 50,000 people to the small town of Wilmore, Kentucky.
The Asbury revival is remarkable on many counts: Its “lo-fi” register in an age of megachurch pyrotechnics, its resistance to partisan capture, its Gen Z genesis. As the drama winds down, my thoughts turn to the significance of such events in the overall shape of the Christian life. How can the students whose lives were transformed by the Asbury revival translate their ardor into lifelong faithfulness?
“It may be the most extraordinary act of collective Godliness and hospitable goodwill I have ever witnessed in my life,” wrote Asbury President Kevin Brown. “I am forever grateful. I am forever changed.” I too am grateful for the outpouring at Asbury. As a child of a potent revivalist movement myself, I also have questions. What does it mean to be “forever grateful” to God? Can revivals be the source of such gratitude? As every church camp attendee knows, the mountaintop experience fades. Forever is a long time.
Theists affirm that God has bestowed incomparably more undeserved kindness on them than has any other benefactor, and yet few of us feel gratitude to God with the proper frequency, intensity, and durability. Many of us fail to be appropriately grateful to God because we aren’t paying attention, or if we are, we fear that gratitude to God for one gift may let him off the hook for all the other times he let us down. But even when we are attentive and non-resentful, it is still difficult to live in a posture of consistent gratitude to God.
The solution to the puzzle, I think, involves God’s strangeness. God is a strange giver who gives strange gifts in strange ways.
Consider a stereotypical gratitude scenario. Your beloved returns home with a gift for you, a beautiful sweater in your favorite color. It’s not your birthday or Christmas; it’s apropos of nothing but delight in you. Naturally, you feel grateful.
Now change the details. Suppose that what you’re given is not a sweater but a book about how to deal with anger problems. Or suppose you’re given a set of fine wireless earphones but your beloved says, “I hope you won’t mind if I use these for my commute; you won’t need them during the day, after all.” These tweaks are enough to put gratitude into question, and even if you could still be grateful, the spontaneity, intensity, and durability would be compromised.
What does this have to do with gratitude to God? Think about the features that trigger the natural gratitude response. We experience gratitude most naturally and intensely when a giver (1) unpredictably and (2) at cost to him- or herself (3) transfers to our full possession (4) a benefit that pleases us.
God’s benevolence stretches this description to the breaking point. First, unlike other benefactors, God is unwaveringly benevolent. Given that God is omnibenevolent by definition, how can we be surprised when God is kind to us? Second, God is omnipotent, so in what sense can it really cost God to benefit us? Unlike other benefactors, God is not limited by time, energy, money, or knowledge. Third, God never transfers benefits into our possession. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). God may miraculously grant the pregnancy that ends tragically in miscarriage. He always maintains a claim over the gift given. And fourth, much that God gives is not pleasing to us. God gives us trials and tribulations to grow our faith, but no one delights in those. God gives us the gift of his Holy Spirit, but that is often the last thing we want since it demands that we surrender control over our own lives.
This may seem exaggerated. Doesn’t God give us blessings like nice weather on the day of the big game, a secure job, a beautiful family, and good health? Doesn’t God give us miracles and revivals? Yes, but counting blessings like these is not the heart of forever gratitude to God.
When we think gratitude to God will closely mirror our interpersonal gratitude, we end up focusing on daily blessings and religious experiences, which risks turning God into a cosmic vending machine. Of course, we are to thank God for our daily bread, but if our gratitude is mainly of the count-your-blessings variety, we are sure, like Job’s wife, to end up cursing God.
No mountaintop experience can cement a life of gratitude. That takes work—and relies on grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Gratitude arises not from the inherent capacities of the human heart but only from the Word of God. Gratitude must therefore be learned and practiced.”
Growth in gratitude to God is reflected not by having ever more spontaneous feelings of gratitude to God when life goes well, but rather by having an ever greater ability to live non-resentfully even when it does not. Show me someone who can receive the terminal diagnosis with sadness but without a trace of bitterness and I will show you someone who has learned to be forever grateful to God.
As a college professor, I was especially struck by how many Asbury students narrated their experience of the revival in terms of a supernatural liberation from depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and other mental maladies. Struck because this is, indeed, the defining “sickness” of Gen Z, and struck as well by the grim knowledge that for many of these students, the darkness may return. My prayer is that they would find their way into Christian communities that form them for lifelong gratitude, even as the bright light of the revival dims. Such communities know that forever gratitude is the fruit of daily practices: the rehearsal of God’s goodness in the liturgy, regular Eucharist and prayers of thanksgiving, and a commitment to the works of mercy.
There is a reason that the Psalmist so relentlessly enjoins us to offer thanksgiving to God: It does not always come naturally. Forever gratitude may commence on the mountaintop, but it is sustained in the valley, where God sanctifies our desires through faithful practice so that we can gladly receive strange gifts from a strange God.
Kent Dunnington is professor of philosophy at Biola University.
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Image by John Hain licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.