Thanks-giving is a choice. We often believe we are appropriately thankful, but when we take time to evaluate our choices in the not-so-pleasant situations, we come face to face with our true state of gratefulness.
A little heart-check: are you more likely to utter “Thank you, God, for my job” or gripe about your boss? I’m retired now and work for our church’s Christian school, so that’s an easy one for me. Let’s try this one: “Thank you for what you’ve provided for me, God; You’ve always made a way!” versus “Boy, the cost of everything keeps going up, doesn’t it???”
I think you get the picture. Thankfulness is an antidote to numerous negative thoughts and emotions: anger, loneliness, depression, jealousy, selfishness, and other ills as well. It’s cheaper than therapy, and in fact may be used by therapists at times (I think they call it “re-framing”). The kicker is, you’ve got to do it. It’s not automatic. You have to hit the brakes on the negative thoughts and reign your mind in to start thinking of what’s positive in your life. Not simple or always easy — and it goes beyond just the “power of positive thinking”– but virtually anyone can do it.
Lifestyle of looking up, leaning in
Our pastor preached a message a little while back on the “attitude of gratitude”. Isn’t it amazing how those words already rhyme so we’ll remember them? It can sound almost trite to repeat, but the phonetics help keep the concept handy in a sort of survival kit for our spirits. Like the list of wrongs you can right with apple cider vinegar, the things you’re unable to keep in your heart when an attitude of gratitude is cultivated continues to grow the more you think about it.
- list three things you’re thankful for about your wife (don’t leave out seemingly mundane things like finding clean socks in your drawer and knowing there will be toothpaste in the cabinet when you need it). Now, hold those thoughts and picture yourself yelling at her for burning the toast. Feels kind of icky, doesn’t it?
- as your eyes water at the sight of a fellow church member’s new ride, start thinking of all the times your just-about-to-be-qualified-as-a-classic has been there for you when you needed a way to go, and tell God “thank you” for allowing you to have what you have and tell him “thank you” for blessing your brother. I promise your eyes will clear up and there will be more peace in your heart. And you may even have the urge to shine up that old car!
- as a single mom, you find yourself drifting dangerously into the realm of “how can I raise these kids alone with that so-called husband out of the picture and supporting us to the negative degrees of 10 (as in not any) — I’ve got to find somebody.” Start to list things that God has done for you since you’ve had those kids — times he’s sent a neighbor by to offer help, or that rebate check from an over-payment on a doctor bill that came unexpectedly, but just in time, or when a trusted adult at church took up time with your son to show him how young men were supposed to conduct themselves. Feel like you can hold on a little longer, until God brings who He has in mind, if that’s His plan? I thought so. Works every time.
Not just for “churchy” folks
In my years of working in the mental health field I’ve observed the efficiency of teaching someone, even with intellectual disabilities, a positive behavior to replace a negative one, and then reinforcing the positive one more often, so the negative one would eventually go away. The trick was selecting a behavior that simply couldn’t be done while the negative one was in progress. It is an “incompatible behavior” — for example, you can’t be late and on time at the same time, or use your hands for manipulating a puzzle while using them for some behavior that has unwanted social or even health consequences.
Put simply, being thankful is an incompatible behavior with most negative thoughts.
Where’s that in the Bible?
Yep, it’s in there. In fact, it’s the attitude God commands for our approaching Him: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise, be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4). This is one of many places where thanksgiving is not only encouraged, but commanded.
Think of how you feel when you hand your kid a gift you worked hard to provide, and have them either trash it or heedlessly turn around and ask for something else. We’re made in God’s image, so amplify our feelings exponentially and the God “in whose hand thy breath is” (Daniel 5:23) feels much more the same way. And above all, this kind of thankfulness does much more than just make you feel better. Drawing near to God, who made us and everything there is, is the answer for weathering, and calming, the storm.
What all can’t you do while being thankful?
It’s hard to complain about the rain while being thankful a farmer somewhere was able to grow the wheat that made that wonderful sandwich you’re savoring. It’s even hard to complain about what you had to pay the doctor, and the surgery clinic, and the pharmacy, while being thankful it was just the tonsils you’re having to contend with (if you need a dose of thankfulness there, research a specialty children’s hospital, and read the stories of children they treat).
As our pastor mentioned once, a certain POW in a Vietnam prison camp found it difficult to complain about the pain he suffered from the inhumanity being practiced against him, when he realized that his feeling pain meant he was still alive and able to fight back within his spirit: he had not given up as he’d seen others do. Corrie ten Boom’s sister challenged her to thank God for the fleas in their concentration camp barracks, as recorded by Corrie in The Hiding Place. Though Corrie resisted the idea, she forced herself to say, Thank you for the fleas,” only to realize days later that their clandestine Bible studies had not been disturbed by guards in this barracks as in others. Why? You guessed it: the fleas! The guards wouldn’t even come near them because the fleas were so bad.
The bottom line?
No one thing is going to answer everyone’s problem, and many are the folks who suffer worse things than I can imagine. But though none is free to choose their circumstances, all are free to choose their response. In so doing, we may be also securing the insight and response of Almighty God, who resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
What about you? Have you found an “attitude of gratitude” to be a source of strength in your life? Are you otherwise good at doing two things at one time? I’d love to hear your story. Please leave a comment, if you’d like to share.