Gratitude during the difficult

Last Summer I started a long-overdue 3-month sabbatical. A new discipline I wanted to incorporate into my morning routine during that time was the discipline of gratitude. As my sabbatical started to draw to an end, my wife and I were devistated by the lost our 17 month old nephew, I failed a major project at work, and what seemed to be only moments later, the world was thrust into a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week we said goodbye to my cousin after a short devastating battle with cancer, way before his time. We can’t travel, visit family, work has all but dried up, and finding things to be grateful for seems like pulling oil from a stone. How do we recognise and foster a heart of gratitude during the difficult seasons?

Gratitude as a daily ritual is growing as a pop culture phenomenon. Scientific research has even shone positive effects of gratitude on our physical and mental healthsleep, and overall wellbeing

As a follower of Jesus, this shouldn’t have been a new revelation, because nearly 2000 years ago Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica closed his letter with…   

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

One of the imperatives of Christian life, “Rejoice and give thanks always” is a theme we see over and over in the Bible.  But always? Gratitude is easy when we win, but when is the last time you heard an athlete say “I would just like to thank God for this devastating and embarrassing loss tonight…”  or someone in the spotlight says “I want to thank my Saviour and Lord for losing this award I have worked my whole life for…”  How do we express gratitude amid pain, loss or missed expectations? When we experience the loss of a job just when the world is tossed into chaos, or the death of loved ones,  the experience of a health crisis, like many other experiences often the last emotion we are feeling is gratitude. We can often slip into being overly critical, cynical, even depressed.

What Paul was teaching is to give thanks IN all circumstances, not thanks FOR all circumstances. True, God uses all circumstances for our good, (Hey Christians, please don’t say that to anyone that is in pain!! it doesn’t help) but the reality is, the pain and tragedy of life can be overwhelming. Cultivating a heart of gratitude, therefore, is not simply looking at the bright side, and it’s not acknowledging that “things could be worse.” It is a refocusing and reorienting of our minds.

Gratitude is an expression of joy, and joy based on circumstance will fail. Therefore, joy must be rooted in a foundation much deeper than our personal and current circumstances. This is distinct from the emotions of happiness and sadness.

The answer to having joy in the midst of our pain and suffering isn’t new circumstances, but God Himself.

The bible says Jesus came, not only to suffer for us, but also to suffer with us. Isaiah describes Jesus as being:

“Despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (53:3).

Jesus, God in the flesh, not only understands our pain but sympathises with our pain and loss. Joy that rests soundly on the assuredness that God will ultimately redeem every horrible situation, in this life or the next, releases us from the shackles of current realities.

I’m not talking about living life like a crazy person that sings “zippity do da” in a hurricane. It’s not leaving reality, but living in our current reality with a knowledge that, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

This promise allows us to “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Cultivating a heart of gratitude is deeper than a #feelingblessed social media post. It’s a commitment to begin your day with a reflection of gratitude, and let each day be a treasure hunt of undiscovered blessing that is reflected in prayer and meditation to the God who deserves our gratitude.  

Start reaping the rewards of a gracious heart that even science now affirms.  Today I am thankful for you, for reading this far. Lord knows you deserve it.