Thanksgiving 2020 is upon us and apparently there will be no departure from all things COVID. Like everything else in this strange season, we find ourselves swimming in warnings, CDC recommendations, and a myriad of questions: to mask or not to mask; to travel or not to travel; to gather or not to gather, etc. This virus is the nightmare that we seem unable to awake from, and its effects are inescapable. Not to pile on, but other suffering continues irrespective of corona. There are cancer diagnoses, my neighbor’s son was just in a horrific car accident, friends’ relatives have died, a dear high schooler is struggling with depression, and fun plans that were made as a way to bring family together have been disrupted by last minute positive tests. Relief, at times, seems out of reach.
Even the optimist among us, may struggle to conjure up feelings of gratitude given what we have been through this year. If the positive thinker is going to have a hard time, then is there any hope for the rest of us? After all, we are the people of God that have been called to be light in this dark world, and a significant part of our “lightness” is fueled by being filled with gratitude. When it seems like the darkness is winning, where do we begin to think about thankfulness?
The more I read the more I am convinced that it is at least about the two key ideas of perspective and practice.
Ryder Carroll, a New York-based designer and author, recently wrote an article entitled, How to Become Grateful. Although written from a secular viewpoint (and I have no idea where Mr. Carroll is spiritually) this article provides a great example about perspective. He writes”:
“A few years ago, I was on vacation with a group of people. One of us was burdened with the unfortunate talent of finding a fault in any given situation. On a sunny day, she would bemoan tomorrow’s cloudy forecast. When we made good time there, she would worry about the way back.
On one of our last nights, we treated ourselves to a table at a fancy torchlit dinner at a restaurant tucked into a rainforest. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of over-the-top experiences. It was a muggy night, so we ordered drinks to cool us down while we waited for our food. Soon a waiter emerged, balancing a black lacquer tray. Perched on this tray, was a long-stemmed glass of golden wine so crisp you could see the pearls of condensation forming.
It was the first drink to arrive at our parched table. All eyes followed the glass until it was elegantly placed in front of Miss Misery. Rather than enjoying this tiny cosmic win, a wide frown spread across her face.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reconcile her expression with the scene. It was a chilled, clean, heavy pour of an expensive vintage. The rest of our table had noticed her scowl and – judging from their expressions – were as perplexed as I was. I couldn’t help myself but ask: “What’s wrong?” She looked at me indignantly, waving her hand at the glass as if it had just insulted her. “Well look at it! There’s too much wine in the glass, it get warm!”
There are those who see the glass as half full. There are those who see the glass as half empty. Then there are those – like her – who see a full glass and experience it as being empty.
Now it would be easy to dismiss her as privileged and spoiled. Sure. It would be hard for me to invent a better example of first world problems. So why did I choose this story? Because she’s attractive, rich, and healthy, and loved. She has all the requirements people believe are necessary to have a happy life, yet here she was, surrounded by it all, miserable.
No matter how wealthy, healthy, loved, beautiful, or lucky you are, or may become, it won’t matter unless you’re a grateful person. The problem is most of us are not.
We’ve all experienced gratitude in some form or another. We’re grateful for the favorable test results. We’re grateful for walking away from a car accident. We’re grateful to someone who does us a favor. There is however a difference between experiencing gratitude and being a grateful person.”
While some elements here may seem trivial, this story does a wonderful job of showing how the nature of our being eventually permeates everything. I love and am convicted by the distinction between experiencing gratitude versus being a grateful person. It is so important that we do recognize the difference, otherwise we stunt our capacity for thankfulness and for personal growth.
The Christian Perspective
The Christian perspective would say that the wealthy, healthy, loved, and beautiful or for that matter the poor, unhealthy, unloved, and ugly will never become profoundly grateful people on their own. We, as sinful people, are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to invade our hearts and shift our perspective from self-centered to Christ-centered which then allows us to be sincerely other-centered. Even though those in Christ have been washed by His blood, we continue to sin and often enjoy it. Having not yet arrived at our perfected state, how do we combat our self-serving spirit that empties us of gratitude.
Last week I was able to watch live online a discussion between two of the greatest, living evangelicals—Dr. John Lennox and Dr. John Wyatt. Their conversation was entitled, Life in the Shadow of Death, and they focused primarily on how a good God allows suffering like what we are experiencing with COVID. It was clear that both men were moved by the suffering that they have witnessed over the past number of months.
For over an hour, they methodically moved towards an answer and along the way encouraged the listener to redirect their thinking. Not as an avoidance tactic, but rather to gently remind us that we should be thinking about these things differently and asking different questions.
At the heart of this conversation was the perspective that we fallible people are in desperate need of hope and that there is only one true source which is found in the grand story of Jesus. Creation, sin, life of Christ, crucifixion, resurrection, and glory is the sweeping Biblical narrative of Scripture.
It is in Christ’s story that we find our meaning and therefore our hope. This is the perspective that lets us affirm John Lennox’s comment, “God is greater than the evil going on around us…We are tracing rainbows through the rain.” Christ is a beautiful picture of suffering being redeemed even if we cannot answer why this means. This is true for our suffering whether it comes from COVID or some other kind of hardship.
Just because we cannot explain it or account for every detail does not indicate that somehow we have slipped into Plan B because our Heavenly Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, has suddenly allowed His purposes to be thwarted.
Dr. Lennox’s initial comment that kicked off their discussion was that most of us live as if we are not going to die, but COVID makes us look at death and this makes us recognize our own mortality. When we are faced with our own mortality how do we handle this? Often fear takes over because we forget who we are in Christ. God did not send His son to die that awful death on the cross so that His plans could be frustrated. We must never forget that God’s plans will be accomplished.
Intellectually, we may be able to tell ourselves this but so often fear, a fragile identity in Christ, and a lack of intentional living clog our hearts so that we more readily relate to emptiness than a fullness where thankfulness spills out all over everything. What is the remedy?
The Practice of Gratitude
One of the sweet things about God’s grand design is that He desires for us to be active participants. While the Lord does not need me to usher in His Kingdom, He calls forth fallen individuals to redeem that which is broken including ourselves. Now do not misunderstand what is being said here, I am not saying we have the power to redeem ourselves. However, it is true that by God’s grace and design He does long for me to live a life of holiness and because that can’t happen naturally I have to expend energy towards excising sin out of my life. And when I am not a grateful person, then this means I need to cultivate gratitude by practicing it.
Even though I would not agree with everything Carroll puts forth in his article he has tapped into something that I think is helpful when he says:
“The difference between a grateful and an ungrateful person isn’t attitude, or character, or kindness. It’s awareness. Whether it’s due to indifference or obliviousness, the ungrateful simply aren’t aware of the good…Fortunately, awareness is a skill that can be developed through training. You train your ability to be grateful through – you guessed it – a gratitude practice.
The goal of a gratitude practice isn’t to make you a happier person; it’s to help you become a more perceptive one. Stopping to notice both the ‘little things’ and things we take for granted, means we must stop our automatic thinking. This is unnatural for most of us, and it takes practice. To reap the promise of gratitude, we have to take the time and put in that work.”
Carroll goes on to explain his recommendations for practicing gratitude while building our awareness skills and suggests keeping a regular journal, without repetition, of things for which we are grateful. When asked what we are thankful for, there are generally a handful of items/people that we can quickly list. After this it can become more difficult. When constrained by not repetitious, gradually our vision and our mindset begin to shift. With effort we begin to see other thanksgiving-worthy things in our lives and soon to follow will be sight without effort. Thus, begins the transformational process of becoming a grateful person and not just someone who experiences gratitude. Carroll’s philosophy also includes challenges to reflect more and to take the time to express gratefulness.
As Christians, we know that this cannot occur apart from God’s grace. In our practice of gratitude, we should always be praying that the Lord would give us eyes to see. God’s design is filled with beautiful mysteries, and one of those is how He effectually uses gratitude for affectual purposes in our souls. This holiday weekend glorious feasts will be prepared and often the method of marinating to enrich flavor will be employed. This is what the practice of gratitude does to our hearts—it enriches our lives by filling us with hope, strengthening our fortitude to withstand hardships, knowing our suffering is not without purpose, and humbling our egos to trust God beyond what we can explain.
It is worth mentioning that practicing gratitude or even becoming a grateful person does not somehow immunize us from pain and suffering. Rather it will determine how we navigate harsh seasons and how well we come out of these valleys. There are some hardships that carry with it pain that is never ending, but the suffering does not have to linger. This is the transformative power of a grateful spirit melting away the calluses and hard-heartedness that often accompanies difficulty.
The timeliness of this post is because of Thanksgiving, but its significance is derived from much bigger things at stake. COVID has created circumstances that make us all vulnerable, and with vulnerabilities rest assured Satan is on the prowl and desires to have you and me. We must stand firm even if we don’t feel like it and know that the gates of Hell will not prevail. The Lord has risen, and hearts filled with gratitude will allow His light to shine and give us the strength to live by the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just imagine…Lord, what would it look like to do everything in your name—to approach every situation with gratitude for what has been and faith in what will be? (365 Days of Prayer for Women)
Crosland Stuart, of Crosland & Company, LLC, works with The Collaborative on marketing, recruiting, and content creation. Additionally, she also works in the areas of foundation consulting, communications, and is a literary agent.