A friend of mine who eventually lost his wife, and the mother of his four children, to Lou Gehrig’s disease once recalled to me a profound moment with God. While he still cared for her as her body spiraled downward, he had lain on his bed, overcome by loss.
But God seemed to be pointing him toward thanks. Not able to immediately turn to full-on gratitude, my friend simply started small. He thanked God for the ability to breathe; for the bed he wept on; for the air conditioning. From there, his gratitude snowballed, steering him into praise.
My friend’s attitude has revolutionized my approach to my bad days; to my pain.
I’m a teensy bit embarrassed that this has grown in me with bad things that didn’thappen.
Peacefully clinking open our padlocks in the morning, after thieves were caught in the neighborhood: Thanks for a safe night’s sleep.
Water gushing from the faucet over a sinkful of scuzzy dishes when it has been off every alternating day that week: Great to have water today.
When the internet’s functioning coincides with the afternoon I have free to write: Whew. Look at this! Thank Yooooouuuu for internet!
See, I’m realizing I need God to shape me into the kind of person who notices the good little details; as Jeremy Smith delightfully phrases it—who “mentions the pancakes.” (Author Kristen Welch cites UC Berkley sociologist Christine Carter, who has determined that gratitude and happiness are so closely associated they are hard to distinguish from each other.) I guess I want to see objects in my home as roadsigns of sorts. Imagine the potential for gratitude inspired by a toothbrush; from unlocking a seatbelt as you climb from a car; by a spontaneous hug; by a tranquil Sunday afternoon.
This is different to me from just “positive thinking”—which, honestly, seems inflated by a whole lotta nothin’ sometimes. Positive thinking puts all its eggs in the basket that good things are bound to happen: This is gonna be great. Or, Don’t worry, honey, we’ll all come back safe. Or, If I work hard enough, I’ll achieve my dreams.Positive thinking is a fat, black magic marker gliding over what does happen sometimes: We fail. We get hurt. Sick. Abused. Alienated. Used. Snubbed. (Sometimes, to distinguish between the two, I imagine spouting some of these positive thinking principles to my refugee students. Would it be helpful, truthful, and compassionate to say, “You can be whatever you want to be”? Or, “Nothing bad is going to happen”?)
Gratitude doesn’t insist on positivity. It simply insists that God is good. It trusts profoundly that, as author Timothy Keller elaborates upon in this well-reasoned presentation to the staff of Google, Just because we don’t see a reason for evil and suffering doesn’t mean there’s not a reason for it.
Gratitude and worship–this brand of sustained, true happiness–are so closely braided. They tip my chin upward, away from my own navel; away from everything going just as I hope. (I encountered this especially when my son was recently hit my a motorcycle; when our family was robbed; and in a fatal car accident a year ago.)
And there, when I step out of my own counsel and check out the divine gifts piling up right and left—suddenly, all these other fruits of the Spirit seem to collide at once in my soul: The unflagging, perpetual, low-grade bubbling (and occasional geyser) of joy. A peace I couldn’t articulate if I tried. A faith that sustains and nourishes and bandages as I walk through my most profound valleys. And the gifts keep on goin’—when they’re based on something other than my own near-sighted ideas of justice, good, and peace.
Suddenly, I feel loved rather than cheated. Secure rather than unmoored. Soothed rather than chafed.
This also means that gratitude is not natural for me—or my kids. Like every other virtue, it is a discipline imposed on me, a series of choices intentionally sculpted into a habit. If you’ve attempted Ann Voskamp’s gratitude journaling or her wonderful methods for children (see this timeless post on 15 Happy Ways to Teach Kids to be Grateful), you understand how life-altering and dazzling a grid of gratitude imposed on life is. How it alters the fabric of a home to see the goodness of God everywhere. Voskamp writes, We work on seeing together.
This blogger writes insightfully,
Ingratitude is often the first sign of a troubled heart. When I stop saying “thank you” I know that sin has overcome me. And it seems this is what Paul is getting at in Romans. He says:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21 ESV)
The more I navigate the swells of my life, the more I have determined that gratitude is a lifeline–in my glassiest seas and most drenching hurricanes.