A friend of mine shared that as a child she was quite grumpy when she would wake up. Her mother would require that she say five positive things before she could eat her breakfast. So, through gritted teeth, she would say, “your hair looks nice,” “my oatmeal looks delicious,” “it’s a beautiful day, “ etc. until they were both laughing or she was at least beginning to see the sunny side of life.
Gratitude is one of the outcomes of a deepening relationship with God. As we come to know God more intimately, we recognize the magnitude of the gift of this relationship and wonder how is it that the God of the universe is willing to walk with me? An increasing sense of our unworthiness comes to the forefront—an increasing sense of reality. The church mothers and fathers spoke of this sense of unworthiness—not as a manner of self-hate, but as recognition of the vast difference between the divine and humanity. The awareness of this disparity and the realization of God’s gift of relationship naturally elicit a grateful heart and life.
Thomas Merton speaks of gratitude in his book Thoughts on Solitude and Silence.
There is no neutrality between gratitude and ingratitude. Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything. Those who do not love, hate. In the spiritual life there is no such thing as an indifference to love or hate. That is why tepidity (which seems to be indifferent) is so detestable. It is hate disguised as love. Tepidity, in which the soul is neither “hot or cold”— neither frankly loves nor frankly hates —is a state in which one rejects God and rejects the will of God while maintaining an exterior pretense of loving Him in order to keep out of trouble and save one’s supposed self-respect. It is the condition that is soon arrived at by those who are habitually ungrateful for the graces of God. A man who truly responds to the goodness of God, and acknowledges all that he has received, cannot possibly be a half-hearted Christian. True gratitude and hypocrisy cannot exist together. They are totally incompatible. Gratitude of itself makes us sincere— or if it does not, then it is not true gratitude.
Gratitude, though, is more than a mental exercise, more than a formula of words. We cannot be satisfied to make a mental note of things which God has done for us and then perfunctorily thank Him for favors received. To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us— and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference. (pp. 32-33)
What does it look like to live a life of gratitude? I am a cup-is-half-full person but that is not the same thing. Gratitude is not a positive attitude, it is an awareness—a lens through which the world is viewed and the ability to live in the present. In contrast, it is easy to live in the past or in the future. When I live in the past, I second guess my decisions, rehash, regret, and worry about the impact of my actions or focus on what others have done to me. When I live in the future, I am anxious and spend my energy trying to envision what I cannot see. Jim Elliott had a saying “Wherever you are, be all there.” He was reminding us to be present. When I am present, I am fully available to those I am with and aware of what is happening right now. We’ve all had the experience of talking with someone who is not really there. Or we have realized we are not really hearing what someone is saying to us because our mind is elsewhere. When we are truly present, the present speaking to us knows that they are the most important thing to us in that moment. This is a skill I teach as I train marriage and family therapists. I teach them an exercise called “speaker/listener.” The speaker talks for a time and then the listener repeats back what they said to the satisfaction of the speaker. Then the roles change and the listener becomes the speaker. This teaches people to listen carefully so they can repeat back what the other is saying. We so often are preparing our next comment as the other is speaking rather than being truly present.
Ann Voscamp, author of One Thousand Gifts invites us to live fully in the present. Her journey of gratitude helped her be attuned to what was going on around her. Many have benefited from her practice of noting one thing for which she was grateful each day. Of course there are times when I am better at this than others. A number of years ago, I accepted the position of Chair for a Department of Marriage and Family Therapy. I was convinced that God could use me to bring a spiritual focus to the department, but I enjoyed the role of faculty and saw the administrative aspects of this new role as an annoyance. They took my time and attention away from the students. I went on a weekend silent retreat to reflect and spend time with God as I wrestled with this angst. I was convinced that I was in the place God wanted me, but did not have the best attitude about it. The format of the retreat was such that a speaker presented five times through the weekend with the rest of time being in silence to allow for communion with God. As the retreat began, I discovered that the topic of the weekend was (of all things!) “Gratitude.” We were instructed to think of what we were grateful for as we went to sleep on the first night. The suggestion was that God would work on our heart as we slept and we would awake with those same thoughts of gratitude in the morning.
As I laid down that night, I dutifully listed the things for which I was grateful (although my heart was not in it). Again, I believed that God had placed me in the role to bring a more faith-centered perspective to the department, but I was not all in. So, I thought, “okay, I’ll do this and God will make me grateful by morning.” When I awoke, God certainly had been at work. I had a direct message from God (it certainly did not come from me!)—“Be grateful for the opportunity to be obedient.” I was surprise, but my, that message changed my perspective! I did not necessarily like all the aspects of the role, but that was not the point. God placed me there to be useful to the kingdom. That was an honor for which I could be grateful!
It is no small thing that the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in the earth chooses to walk with me. It boggles the mind. Why would God want to be intimately involved with me each moment? I don’t understand it, but I am indeed grateful. And as I learn to remember this, I am changed. This is not of my doing—as with everything, I rely on the grace of God to change me into the instrument most useful for God. God is faithful and offers me the gift to be available for kingdom work. The only logical response is one of gratitude!
Merton, T. (1956). Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Elliot, J. & E. Elliot. (1978). The Journals of Jim Elliot. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Voscamp, A. (2011). One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where you Are. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.