Cultivating Gratitude…in desert places

Gratitude. Gratefulness. Thankfulness.

In the last number of years authors, teachers, and speakers alike have leaned into the emotional and spiritual benefits of “thankfulness.” One of my ongoing devotionals remains Ann Voskamp’s, One Thousand Gifts. Her writing is a poetic experience of God’s grace, river flows of thankfulness for his mercy, care and protection. She sees the hand of God in the beautiful vessels and in the fiery ash. Her words search for hidden treasures of thankfulness in moments of elation and in the depths of grief.

There is a disparity surrounding words like thankfulness, gratefulness and blessing. An expression of thankfulness is found easily in moments of joy but elusive when experiencing suffering. Sitting in the cool of the evening watching the sun set, sipping an iced tea with my kids close by and the dog curled up in my lap, I easily find an grateful attitude in my heart. Looking around my home, my family, phrases of thanks role from my tongue in gratefulness for my many blessings. Not so, during times of struggle. Does thankfulness and gratefulness fall from my lips then?

What about the mother, during that same evening who is looking out of a window at the same sunset, but in a different location. Standing in a room at Royal Columbian Hospital, her heart is crushed with a burden of grief because laying in the hospital room bed  is her 18 year old son. He is comatose on a ventilator from the horrific head on collision and not expected to recover. The collision has, also, stolen the life of her husband of 30 years and their 16 year old daughter.

Or the young woman who received the news that her fiance was broadsided by a pick-up truck as he walked along the road with three of his friends heading back to their resort hotel. His recovery from the brain injury is uncertain, their future together was altered in a fluttering heartbeat, one inhale of disaster that altered life forever.

Are we only able to be thankful, grateful and blessed when life around us is neat, tidy, safe, comfortable, profitable, and easy? Is blessing based on feeling, the emotional intelligence found in a moment? Can I only say I am grateful or thankful or that God has blessed me when I feel it? This would imply that it all depends on how I feel, moment by moment. I know myself well enough not to trust entirely the fleeting gush of feelings or put my hope in these elusive, changing moments when looking for the answers.

I have had teaching that we should be thankful for our many blessings. I will be real here…my lip kinda curls when I hear this overused and misused string of words. It annoys me. If expressing gratefulness or thankfulness for “blessing” is based on my “feelings” in the moment, I am going to move up one mountain top experience and quickly fall down into a very darkened valley. From…”I am so blessed” to “this is really hard” depending on what is happening in the moment.

This morning I read in “Sparkling Gems” the title of a devotional: The Devil Has a Plan for Your Life!” His plan is to steal, kill and destroy. Jesus came to give us life and that work on the cross is finished. This is why I can be grateful, experience blessing and express thankfulness. The stealing work of the enemy who prowls around can rob me of that focus.

Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

We are blessed because of our position in Christ not because of our possessions on earth. The marker of blessings is not evidenced by what we own, where we get to holiday, or how stable our relationships are today, nor is blessing measured by how I feel. I cannot equate a “good” feeling with being blessed and the opposing feeling as “in need” of blessing. The Beatitudes in Matthew express this upside down kingdom principle because there we read phrases like: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v.3-6, 10).  

I am blessed in mourning, in persecution, in meekness and humility. There is great emotional highs when “wonderful” things happen, but spiritual “joy” is a fruit of the spirit not a feeling. And earthly, fleshly searches for contentment will not satisfy any lasting deep longing.

If I do express thankfulness for my “many” blessings…my home, our ability to travel, my friends and family, I must find that same attitude of thankfulness when life is ugly and not easy. My blessings from the Lord are not rooted in what I have or how I feel. When I can access more from the reservoir of the fruit of the Spirit, that kinda of joyful thankfulness has deep roots and is not tossed around…having it one moment and losing it the next dependent on what is going on around me. When life gets hard, this is the place that I can mourn, experience pain, and grieve…from a place of hope…that God is still God and the Father’s love is limitless…for me and for those I love.

In fact, Paul charges us to encourage it all rubbish…”But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ- the righteousness that comes from God is by faith. Even in deep sadness, I can be thankful for this…that I have gained Christ. This is my starting point, from this place, not my experience or the things I can’t understand. I need to know that I know that I am in right alignment in the garden that God, the Father, has placed me in.

Sometimes gratitude comes through changing my mind…not my circumstances.