Habits of the Grateful
By Joyce Wallace
Nineteenth century poet Celia Thaxter wrote, “There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” Those who are grateful brighten a world in need of hope. The grateful create a climate of grace and generosity that warms the chill of bitter souls. But narcissism, arrogance, and envy can lure believers into a culture of entitlement, an atmosphere where unmet expectations spawn confusion and hostility. How does one avoid this trap? Healthy Christians understand biblical gratefulness and discipline themselves to practice the habits of thanksgiving.
Detach the Strings
Biblical gratefulness rejects shallow notions of gratitude. The Bible teaches us to “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Too often, being grateful in all circumstances is confused with being grateful for all circumstances. The difference, though subtle, can profoundly impact our ability to deal with life’s difficulties.
Being thankful for the momentary circumstance requires me to apply some positive spin to the situation. For most of my adult life, I have suffered horrendous pain, fainting spells, or nausea on a monthly basis as a result of endometriosis. Believing I must be grateful for all circumstances, I tried to make sense of my ordeal. In my anguish, I would utter a prayer, “Thank you God for this agony. Were it not for the pain I now feel in my body, I would never be able to bear children.” Years later, I learned the pain was merely a symptom of a disorder that would leave me infertile. The object of my gratefulness then became the source of my bitterness. Disillusioned by God’s failure to reward my courage, I brooded over the words, “be grateful in all circumstances.”
“Where’s the consolation prize for my suffering?” I demanded, “Where’s my happy ending?” Like sun peeking through an oppressive gray sky, God’s Word began to cut through my despair. “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever” (Psa. 106:1). Until He became the Object of my gratefulness, I would continue to flounder in disappointment. I was wrong to be grateful for an earthly future I’d imagined, rather than the true and real presence of God.
Biblical gratefulness says, “Thank you for holding my hand through this pain.” God wants us to give thanks in the midst of our suffering, not for some invented reward to which we feel entitled, but for who He is now. Grief and suffering sharpen our focus on the Lord and deepen our relationship with Him. The grateful have learned to stop holding out their hands expecting compensation for their trials. Rather, they wrap their arms around the One who wants to hold them, love them, and comfort them today. Though the world rages around them, the grateful enjoy the warmth of His fellowship, with no expectation other than the enduring compassion of our Lord.
Redirect Your Focus
Biblical gratefulness thanks God for the future He promises, rather than demanding a future we’ve envisioned. Pain, grief, and disappointment are guaranteed to those who breathe. Yet from our scars, God builds character. Paul writes, “. . . but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). God uses trials to cleanse and transform us so we can face even greater challenges. Paul continues, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18-19). The blood, tears, and betrayals of this life will vanish like a sand castle challenging the mighty ocean when our eyes finally gaze upon our Savior. On that day, sorrow will have no hold on us. The grateful anticipate the glorious future God promises.
So when my son comes home from school, sinking into depression because he’s not smart, athletic, or popular enough, how do I express gratitude as I’m shedding a mother’s tears? I start by thanking God for simple truths. “Father, thank you for the deep love I feel for my son. Yet, you love him even more than I’m able. I rejoice that you created him with purpose. I’m grateful for the helplessness that brings me to my knees. I know there’s no better place a mother can be.”
Next, I thank God for the future He promises. “I thank You Lord a day is coming when you will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 7:17). I celebrate your faithfulness when I remember ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all’ (2 Cor. 4:17). Thank you, Father, for holding each day in your hand.”
When Biblical gratefulness infuses our daily routine, we gain strength for life’s inevitable blows. The grateful are intentional about replacing unrighteous reactions with thanksgiving. They are able to swiftly diagnose and treat a touch of bitterness, greed or envy, because such bouts are inconsistent with their normal, healthy responses. As we grow in our understanding of Christ, prayers of thanksgiving should brim from our lips, even in the midst of crisis. To be counted among the grateful, try developing these simple habits.
1. Say thank you.
Many forget this basic manner in the frenzy of life. Do you teach your children to write thank-you notes? Do you thank the server who filled your water glass? These expressions of gratitude root out self-centeredness and remind us to show kindness to others.
2. Pass gratitude on.
Rare is the success that results from a single person’s efforts. Imagine you’re the coordinator for the hospital fundraiser. After a successful event, you’re presented with a thank-you gift. Would you accept the gift, without acknowledging the committee who also sacrificed for the event? Recognizing another’s contribution to your success helps guard against pride.
3. Celebrate God’s bounty (whether it’s yours or not).
Kailey comes home from her friend’s house, “You wouldn’t believe Amanda’s house! They live on the lake and we got to ride on her family boat!” Your gut response is to convince Kailey that Amanda’s house isn’t so great. Squash envy by celebrating with your daughter, “You have a friend with a fantastic home who’s willing to share with you! Isn’t God kind?”
4. Be generous.
When we practice generosity, we increase our ability to empathize with those who sacrifice for us. I’ve known new mothers who, when stretched to their personal limits, dropped everything to call their moms and say thank you. At that moment, these new moms understood the sacrifices made by their own mothers. Gratitude was the natural response. Generosity is the antidote for greed and the feeling of entitlement.
5. Be honest about your sorrows and thank God for who He is.
As a result of disobeying God, Jonah found himself in the belly of a big fish. He talks about being engulfed by water and having seaweed wrapped around his head. Is he thanking God when, as Jonah puts it, “my life was ebbing away?” Yes, but not for the seaweed around his head. Rather, Jonah said, “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD” (Jonah. 2:9). In the midst of his suffering, Jonah thanked God for being One who seeks and saves the lost. Honesty with God transforms shallow, self-serving prayers into intimate, life-changing conversations with the Father.
6. Read the Psalms.
God’s Word leads us to the One who should be the object of our gratefulness. The Psalms remind us of God’s character and the many reasons we have to rejoice and give thanks. A deeper understanding of God protects us from expecting that which God never promised, but gives us hope for a future greater than we can imagine.