This is part four of a talk I gave at the Bethany Presbyterian Church women’s retreat in April. The retreat was called “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” and we focused on living a contemplative life in the midst of a connected culture.
Gratitude isn’t easy. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not easy, especially at first, especially in an advertising saturated culture like ours. We’re habituated to be discontented—and I use that word very intentionally; we have been taught almost from birth to be in the habit of wanting what we don’t have; this is what advertising is. We’re habituated to be discontented and ungrateful.
But God calls us to give thanks:
O give thanks to the Lord… (1 Chronicles 16.34)
Give thanks to his holy name! (Psalm 97.12)
Give thanks to the Lord of hosts… (Jeremiah 33.11)
Give thanks always and in everything. (Ephesians 5:20)
Give thanks to the Father… (Colossians 1:12)
Give thanks in all circumstances… (1 Thessalonians 5.18)
I could go on. There are a lot more biblical injunctions to give thanks.
So, okay, that’s all well and good. But if we’re habituated from birth to be ungrateful in this culture, how do we do all this thanks giving that God calls us to?
I’m so glad you asked!
1. Start a gratitude journal
Your gratitude journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Ann Voskamp started hers on the back of a junk mail envelope, I think. I started mine in my regular journal, interspersed with my other thoughts and ramblings. You could post a piece of paper on your refrigerator at home or your cubicle wall at work and add three or four items to it each day.
It will probably help to do it with someone else. If you don’t know anyone else who wants to do this, talk to me. I’ll encourage you and hold you accountable, because I know firsthand that it’s well-worth the effort.
2. Limit your media consumption
It’s not just that media is saturated with advertisements, which make us discontented and ungrateful. It’s that the content itself, whether of a TV show, a blog, or a magazine, all too often inflames our desire for something we don’t have.
I live in an 800-square-foot house with my husband, four children, two cats, and a mouse (or three). I simply cannot look at home decorating magazines. All those glossy photos of gorgeous and perfectly decorated giant (or even simply “modest”) homes make me feel like I’m missing out, like I’ve somehow been gypped out of something good, like life isn’t fair, dang it!
For the same reason, I can no longer read gardening mags. Most of the time, I love that my yard is a bit of a jungle; it means I don’t care if my kids trample on it or dig a giant hole in the dandelion-infested lawn. But when I read gardening magazines, I start to look at my yard with discontented eyes, start to wish it were beautiful and lush and covered in roses and heliotrope. This is not helpful.
Media content often creates an illusion of the good life and fans the flame of our desire for that life. In so doing it robs us of the ability to see that we middle-class Westerners already have the good life.
It is hard to be grateful when we are constantly being reminded of how much we don’t have—and being told we need and/or desperately want what we don’t have.
If you want to embrace the practice of gratitude in a life-transforming way, you’ll need to think about your media consumption and what messages you’re receiving from it—and then ditch the media that are making you discontented with the life you have.
3. Create gratitude triggers
When you do the same thing over and over, it creates a neural pathway in your brain, so that eventually, every time you see or do the trigger, it, well, triggers the response automatically.
So let’s say you want to make getting out of the car a gratitude trigger, you would simply pray (out loud, if you can), “Thank you, Lord, for bringing me safely here.” Every time you get out of the car.
You’ll forget more often than not at first. That’s okay. Keep doing it when you remember and eventually you’ll find you’re already thanking God before you’re even aware you’re doing so. This is when we get to that exciting place of being able to give thanks always, to praise without ceasing!
Gratitude is not a panacea…
Life is still hard. Difficult things still happen. But gratitude enables us to see God’s grace in the midst of the hardship and difficulty.
When my life feels hard (and believe me, it feels hard on a daily basis), when I start to spiral into a place of self-pity or a state of being overwhelmed, when my kids do something that makes me see crazy red, those are triggers for me to start the gratitude litany up in my mind again.
In these circumstances, my thanks get primitive and even a bit snarky, and I say them through gritted teeth:
Thank You for air to breathe. Thank You for shutting my mouth before I said something I’d regret. Thank You that I didn’t hit my son even though I wanted to.
But if I stick with the thank-you prayers, eventually I’ll start to mean them, and my self-pity or frustration or anger will start to ebb away, and I’ll be able to deal with the situation at hand in a rational manner.
As I focus on the gifts God has given me, the difficulties of my life return to their proper perspective.
…It is an icon.
The gifts are great, and I am grateful for them, but in all this talk of gifts, we must never forget the Giver, who is, in Himself, the ultimate Gift. Giving thanks works to make us stronger and happier partly because we are looking at the glass filled to overflowing.
But the deeper reason it works is because it puts us in touch with God. A gift requires a Giver. Gratitude for the gift should never stop at the gift: the gift is but an icon through which we see the loving heart of God for us.
And it is this which draws us to the heart of God—and isn’t that the goal of our contemplation? To gaze on God with love?
I want to reach a place where I can say with confidence that having God, I have everything. I’m not there yet. I love my life and the people in my life and the various accoutrements of my life, and I still cling to them in many ways. But gratitude keeps me looking beyond the gifts to the Giver.
Someday, I’m going to have to let go of all of the things and people I hold dear and even of my life itself. I confess this scares me.
And this is part of why I persevere in gratitude: because I believe that one day, if I am faithful and trusting, I will know more deeply than I do now—will know in every sinew and nerve and tissue, will know in the innermost recesses of my soul—that God is the ultimate Gift, the only Gift that really matters, the big-G Gift that all the other little-g gifts of my life point to.
In the meantime, I will keep looking for those little-g gifts and giving thanks.