When Abdu’l-Baha traveled to New York in 1912, the concept of gratitude emerged as one of the major themes of his talks and addresses.
In one of those talks, given at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Florian Krug on Park Avenue, he defined three ways of giving thanks—verbal, heartfelt, and active:
Thankfulness is of various kinds. There is a verbal thanksgiving which is confined to a mere utterance of gratitude. This is of no importance because perchance the tongue may give thanks while the heart is unaware of it. Many who offer thanks to God are of this type, their spirits and hearts unconscious of thanksgiving. This is mere usage, just as when we meet, receive a gift and say thank you, speaking the words without significance. One may say thank you a thousand times while the heart remains thankless, ungrateful. Therefore, mere verbal thanksgiving is without effect. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 236.
Real gratitude, he said, comes from the heart:
But real thankfulness is a cordial giving of thanks from the heart. When man in response to the favors of God manifests susceptibilities of conscience, the heart is happy, the spirit is exhilarated. These spiritual susceptibilities are ideal thanksgiving. – Ibid.
But then Abdu’l-Baha continued, by defining a deeper and more profound way of showing actual gratitude:
There is a cordial thanksgiving, too, which expresses itself in the deeds and actions of man when his heart is filled with gratitude. For example, God has conferred upon man the gift of guidance, and in thankfulness for this great gift certain deeds must emanate from him. To express his gratitude for the favors of God man must show forth praiseworthy actions. In response to these bestowals he must render good deeds, be self-sacrificing, loving the servants of God, forfeiting even life for them, showing kindness to all the creatures. He must be severed from the world, attracted … the face radiant, the tongue eloquent, the ear attentive, striving day and night to attain the good pleasure of God. – Ibid., pp. 236-237.
Those “praiseworthy actions”—selflessness, love for others, kindness and self-sacrifice—are the only way to honestly show real gratitude:
Whatsoever he wishes to do must be in harmony with the good pleasure of God. He must observe and see what is the will of God and act accordingly. There can be no doubt that such commendable deeds are thankfulness for the favors of God. – Ibid.
At that point in his talk Abdu’l-Baha gave a wonderful example, using the metaphors of healing from illness and receiving kindness from others:
Consider how grateful anyone becomes when healed from sickness, when treated kindly by another or when a service is rendered by another, even though it may be of the least consequence. If we forget such favors, it is an evidence of ingratitude. Then it will be said a loving-kindness has been done, but we are thankless, not appreciating this love and favor. – Ibid.
All of us owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Creator for our lives, our happiness, our senses, the beauty that surrounds us and the bounty we’ve received in this world:
Physically and spiritually we are submerged in the sea of God’s favor. He has provided our foods, drink and other requirements; His favors encompass us from all directions. The sustenances provided for man are blessings. Sight, hearing and all his faculties are wonderful gifts. These blessings are innumerable; no matter how many are mentioned, they are still endless. Spiritual blessings are likewise endless—spirit, consciousness, thought, memory, perception, ideation and other endowments. By these He has guided us, and we enter His Kingdom. He has opened the doors of all good before our faces. He has vouchsafed eternal glory. He has summoned us to the Kingdom of heaven. He has enriched us by the bestowals of God. Every day he has proclaimed new glad tidings. Every hour fresh bounties descend. – Ibid., p. 237.
These great gifts, the Baha’i teachings say, require us to act in accordance with that greatness, orient our lives toward their Source, and conform our actions, in gratitude, to those teachings:
Consider how all the people are asleep, and ye are awake. They are dead, and ye are alive through the breaths of the Holy Spirit. They are blind while ye are endowed with perceptive sight. They are deprived of the love of God, but in your hearts it exists and is glowing. Consider these bestowals and favors.
Therefore, in thanksgiving for them ye must act in accordance with the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Ye must read … all the holy utterances, and act according to them. This is real thanksgiving, to live in accord with these utterances. This is true thankfulness and the divine bestowal. This is thanksgiving and glorification of God. – Ibid.