Embracing Gratitude

It’s the week of Thanksgiving as I write these words. People are heading out on vacation to visit family and friends. Office work is winding down, ovens are heating up, and recipes are being dusted off. Some are boarding flights the day before Thanksgiving (one of the busiest travel days of the year). Others are expecting family to arrive any moment. As everyone gathers around the table to give thanks, hearts will be warmed with the blessings we enjoy.

But then something strange happens.

Before the day ends, we start ramping up for an early start to Black Friday. The deal-buster shopping day after Thanksgiving (which often begins Thanksgiving night), Black Friday is where people hunt for the best deals on the latest gifts and gadgets. Although I usually stay home on Black Friday, I have nothing against those brave shoppers who venture into the fray. But I do find it bizarre. Each year we see the casualties of the craziness. Some people have even been trampled to death as shoppers fight to get their hands on the best bargain.

It’s a modern-day version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The same people who were so nice at the Thanksgiving table have transformed into beastly shopping bullies. Kind of ironic, don’t you think? A holiday of gratitude is followed by a hectic day of greed. How quickly we forget.

Gratitude has also been replaced by complaints. We complain about everything from people to politics, homework to office work, and date nights to late nights. Heck, we even complain when the doctor that saved our lives doesn’t check us out of the hospital quick enough. The act of complaining has become so commonplace and yet doesn’t eliminate our problems, it only extends them.

We forget gratitude quickest when traveling down the streets of pain and suffering. The apostle Paul certainly understood this when he was under house arrest, chained to a Roman soldier, writing his letter to the church in Philippi. He was suffering, facing the threat of death, and he understood that his words to the Philippians might be his last. Paul doesn’t open his letter with a gripe session, although he certainly could have. He could have griped about the length of his stay (likely imprisoned for two years). He could have complained about the uncomfortable quarters, being chained to a Roman guard, or the lack of decent food and a comfortable pillow. But he didn’t. Easy Street wasn’t even on his radar. Instead, Paul opened his letter with these unlikely words of gratitude:

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart. You share with me the special favor of God, both in my imprisonment and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News. God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:2–8, NLT; emphasis added)

Notice the words Paul used to describe his mindset: thanks, joy, special place, favor, and love. Those sound like the words you’d hear on Easy Street, not while chained to a Roman soldier. Even though Paul’s body was imprisoned, his mind was not. He faced his hardships by giving thanks for the good in the midst of the bad. That mindset served Paul well as he pursued a life that counts.

Good vs. Bad

Giving thanks is not how most of us respond to adversity, but Paul’s perspective wasn’t shaped by adversity; it was shaped by eternity. He was able to see beyond the physical hardship and discovered the good.

“Good” is open for interpretation.

Most of us translate “good” to mean easy and “hard” to mean bad. If something makes life easier for us, we chalk it up as an acceptable definition of “good.” But if something feels hard, we immediately throw it in the “bad” column. The problem is, we assume God takes the same approach.

He doesn’t.

God’s “good” is often tied to our growth, and the things that make us grow the most are rarely easy. The question is, can you, like Paul, be thankful during the hard times, recognizing these are the situations and seasons that lead to the greatest growth.

Something that helped me recognize the good, when things are hard, was a challenge I received a few years ago. I was a part of a coaching cohort with a group of pastors, and during one of our meetings our coach challenged us to keep a “Gratitude Journal” for thirty days. I thought, “No big deal, this will be easy enough.” Each night, before going to bed, I would open my iPad and write down two things I was thankful for that day. When I started the journal, I focused on the big things.

“God, I’m grateful for salvation in Jesus Christ.”

“God, I’m thankful for my wife Karen and our daughter Ashley and her husband Dylan.” 

But something unexpected happened over the course of that month. I suddenly became cognizant of the small things that I was thankful for as well. One night I wrote down how I was thankful for an unexpected dinner that Karen and I had with some friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. Another time, I was thankful for rest, and another time I was thankful for Italian food. The longer I journaled, the more I began to express gratitude for the simple things in life. And because it was a daily practice, it forced me to find something good, even when the day was hard.

A few months later I gave this same challenge to our church: “What would happen if you took the next thirty days to write down two things you are thankful for in a gratitude journal? How would your perspective, and your life, change?”

Nearly a year later, I was having a conversation with a lady in our congregation when she suddenly said, “Oh, I can write that in my gratitude journal.”

Giving thanks is not how most of us respond to adversity, but Paul’s perspective wasn’t shaped by adversity; it was shaped by eternity.

That struck me.

Gratitude journal?

She was still writing two things she was grateful for each day in her journal. The next week, I asked her to tell me more about her gratitude journey over that year.

 She looked at me and said, “Each day, after I spend some time praying and reading Scripture, I open my journal and write down two things I’m grateful for that day.”

“How has that impacted your life?” I asked.

“There’s so much pain and difficulty in the world,” she said, “that it helps me focus on the good.”

There it was — perspective. Deliberately choosing to give thanks for the good, despite how dark the day might look. This simple practice had changed her life.

My wife, Karen took up the gratitude journal challenge as well, but she put a twist to it. She said, “I’m going to write down two things I’m thankful for — one is something I can see, and one is something I cannot see.” I found her comment curious, so I asked her to explain. “I want to thank God for something that has already happened (something I can see with my eyes). But I also want to thank God for something that hasn’t happened yet, but that I’m praying and believing God will do (something I can’t see yet).”

For Karen, giving thanks had become an act of gratitude and an act of faith. I believe that God finds delight in that perspective. And if you think that gratitude is overrated, consider the science behind it.

Research has shown that people who keep a gratitude journal feel more optimistic, feel better about their lives, exercise more, and have fewer visits to the doctor. And in a study of adults who reported clinically low levels of mental health (and who were seeking mental health counseling), those who also wrote one letter of gratitude per week for three weeks, experienced significantly better mental health four weeks, and again twelve weeks, after their writing exercise ended.

Three Types of Thanks

Why is gratitude such an important mindset if you’re going to stop chasing easy and start pursuing a life that counts? Without an attitude of gratitude, you’ll complain each moment life gets hard. Your thinking will turn south, and your negative perspective will cast a shadow over the possibilities that exist beyond Easy Street. Proverbs 4:23 give us a clear warning: “Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life” (NCV). Without a perspective that’s soaked in a spirit of thankfulness, complaining thoughts will drive your life back to Easy Street. 

So, what does thankfulness look like in our day-to-day lives? As I’ve reflected on the importance of gratitude, I’ve come to discover three forms (or maybe even three levels) of thankfulness as it relates specifically to adversity. Each one is more difficult than the previous, and honestly, from a human point of view, they seem progressively irrational.

1. End-thanks. This type of thanks usually occurs after something — whether good or bad — has happened. Paul practiced end-thanks when he expressed gratitude for the Philippians’ partnership with the Gospel (Philippians 1:3–5). But end-thanks also shows up after tests and trials. For example, we might express end-thanks when we say, “Thank God I don’t have to take that class again!” or “Thank God that sickness is behind me!” Simply put, end-thanks happens when we’re out of the woods or out of the storm. It’s how we give God thanks for helping us, healing us, or meeting us in our darkest hour.

2. In-thanks. The second type of thanks occurs during tests and trials. Paul captured this form of thankfulness in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 when he said, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (emphasis added). Notice, Paul wasn’t selective about his thankfulness. He gave thanks in all circumstances. In-thanks doesn’t make sense in our pain. It requires courage and a willingness to see our circumstances from an entirely different perspective.

3. For-thanks. The final type of thanks feels the most irrational and unrealistic. This form of thanksgiving can take weeks, months, even years before it is realized, and there’s no shame if you find yourself struggling with what I’m about to share with you. For-thanks occurs when we choose to thank God for the trial because of the gifts we received in it.

I’m not saying that God is the source of your pain. I’m not saying that God is the cause of your suffering, or that He takes joy in seeing you weep, because He isn’t, and He doesn’t.

Pain isn’t a gift from God, but within the pain He offers us a gift. It’s up to us whether we’ll accept His gift or not.

There are many causes of pain, but God isn’t one of them. Satan, bad decisions, people with evil intentions, and unfair circumstances outside of anyone’s control are the cause of pain. But God is good, and God is the cause of every good gift (James 1:17). What we often forget is that God is so good, that He doesn’t waste pain, regardless of its cause. Instead, God meets us in the middle of our pain and offers us a gift.

The apostle Paul gives us a personal example. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul expressed for-thanks when he described his “thorn in the flesh” (or his handicap). He wrote:

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first, I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, “My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.” Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, MSG, emphasis added)

Notice the phrases Paul used to describe his trial: “gift of a handicap,” “I was glad to let it happen,” “appreciating the gift,” and “with good cheer.” Paul’s attitude doesn’t sound like a rational response to pain and hardship. In another passage, Paul said, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.” Paul’s perspective allowed him to see his hardships correctly and give thanks for his tests and trials — even though they didn’t come from God — because it was the very place where he received God’s good gifts of grace and strength.

Pain isn’t a gift from God, but within the pain He offers us a gift. It’s up to us whether we’ll accept His gift or not. For-thanks help us recognize the gift. Let me give you a personal example.

Heart Failure

In 2014, I faced a hardship that introduced me to gratitude in a measure I had never known before. On March 16, my heart’s mitral valve unexpectedly ruptured just nine days after my annual heart check-up. My lungs filled with fluid and I simultaneously experienced heart and pulmonary failure. I was sedated, intubated, and transported by helicopter to the heart center at Harris Hospital near downtown Fort Worth. The doctors performed open heart surgery, installed a mechanical valve, and I spent eight days in the hospital before returning home for a six-week recovery.

Less than three months after my surgery, my understanding of thankfulness had completely changed. I was filled with deep gratitude to my wife, daughter, family, friends, pastors, doctors, and nurses who supported me beyond imagination. And, of course, I was thankful to the Lord for sparing my life and helping me recover.

However, gratitude also showed up in a strangely different, unexpected way during this journey. Yes, I encountered end-thanks when the entire ordeal was finally over. And I experienced in-thanks as so many friends and family extended God’s love in the most tangible ways. They prayed for me, brought meals to our family, and stepped up to help carry the load during my absence. But I’ll never forget reading Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 and sensing the Lord say to me, “Can you thank me for your heart failure?”

That stopped me in my tracks.

Most importantly, gratitude will fortify your heart when you feel discouraged, and it will help you mine for hidden gifts when the path forward becomes difficult.

“God, what on earth do you mean, thank you for my heart failure?”

It just doesn’t sound right, much less feel right. I’m not looking to sign-up for heart failure or pulmonary failure again, and I certainly wouldn’t want to put my family through those critical moments of uncertainty again. Besides, God didn’t cause the heart failure. Why would I thank Him for it?

That’s when it suddenly hit me.

When thanking God for the trial, I was actually thanking Him for the gifts I experienced in the trial — gifts that included greater trust, bigger perspective, answers to prayer, personal and spiritual growth, and a deeper connection to my family and friends. It was all a matter of perspective. I could either focus on the trial or I could focus on the gift within the trial, it was my choice. 

Again, for-thanks sounds irrational and illogical. In no way am I making light of your pain, abuse, brokenness, hardship, or persecution. God did not cause my heart failure, and He did not cause the horrific events that still leave you feeling violated, betrayed, forgotten, and victimized. But when pain strikes, God doesn’t run for cover. He offers gifts to help us get through what we’re going through. Like Paul, those gifts may be God’s grace and strength in new measures and new ways. Or it might be a friend, a loved one, or a kind neighbor. It could be as simple as a co-worker’s words of encouragement, or it could be as thorough as a counselor’s wisdom to help you navigate the chaos. Whatever God’s gifts look like, I promise He’s faithful to give them to you during your most difficult seasons.

Thanks in the Thick of It

Without an attitude of gratitude, you’ll complain about everything the moment it gets hard. It takes no effort whatsoever to complain about our problems or to dream about the false promises of Easy Street. That’s why a mindset of gratitude is so imperative. If you’re going to pursue a life that counts today — and for eternity  —giving thanks in the thick of hardship equips you with the perspective that will keep you in the game.

What’s your plan to embrace the mindset of thankfulness as you prepare to leave the safety of Easy Street? Why not start with a gratitude journal? It will help you put end-thanks, in-thanks, and for-thanks into practice. It will turn thanksgiving into an act of gratitude and an act of faith. Most importantly, it will fortify your heart when you feel discouraged, and it will help you mine for hidden gifts when the path forward becomes difficult.

_____
This article is taken from Stephen Blandino’s forthcoming book,
Stop Chasing Easy: Pursuing a Life That Counts Today … and For Eternity, releasing February 15, 2022. You can pre-order today at
www.stopchasingeasy.comand receive access to free bonus material.

 

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