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Learning to say 'thank you' in all of life's circumstances, even in difficult times

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul makes a connection between gratitude and spiritual health:

"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images. …" (Romans 1:21-23, emphasis added)

Spiritual decay begins when God is no longer recognized as the gift giver. Ceasing to give thanks initiates the long downward spiral away from God. The same relationship exists between gratitude and spiritual health. To say it another way: Show me a grateful person, and I'll show you someone growing spiritually.

Thanksgiving in the crucible

The first followers of Jesus took it as a given that discipleship is worked out in the furnace of suffering. As Peter wrote, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus promised a crucible, not a coddling (see John 15:18, 19, 20).

This difficult context for the life of discipleship is not obvious to all of us, because a tension exists in our minds between gratitude and suffering. Scripture, however, reminds us that gratitude best finds its meaning in the face of suffering. Thanksgiving must hold hands with lament. The hard work in the crucible is to find grace. And finding grace — tenaciously hunting it down — is the work of thanks giving.

Just look at the Psalms, the Bible's prayer book. Over half of the psalms are poems of lament, which give voice to the reality that human life is normatively marked by the presence of suffering. For example:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God" (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5)

In light of who God is — "my salvation and my God" — the Psalmist calls himself to hope amid turmoil, to rejoice amid tears, and to give thanks amid lament. Even when it doesn't make sense.

The only way to keep sane in the midst of tragedy is to give thanks, to lean into gratitude. Thanksgiving makes lament real because it anchors tragedy, brokenness, illness, pain and suffering in the person of God. Without God, thanksgiving is impossible because it has no object, no recipient. In the same way, without God, lament can never find resolution, because it won't have a wise and benevolent receiver.

Practice thanks giving

The regular practice of giving thanks puts lament in perspective, limiting it, and not allowing tragedy to have the last word. We can train ourselves to see grace everywhere — to hunt it down — and thus "give thanks in all circumstances." Here are some habits for cultivating gratitude:

Keep a running "thank you" list, and review it regularly

This is one of the easiest ways to implement and train yourself in gratitude: Every morning (or evening), write out at least one thing you are grateful for. At family meals, rehearse aloud even the smallest graces of God: warm food, shelter, sleep, chocolate, good music, friends. Finding things to be grateful for in the mundane is the training ground of gratitude.

Say "thank you" to others regularly

Write thank you cards. Speak words of affirmation. As you practice saying "thank you" to those around you, you will find yourself regularly on the hunt for grace in the lives of others. Not only that, but you will teach others to say "thank you" when they may never otherwise have done so.

Say "thank you" more than "you're welcome"

When we practice generosity, it's easy to see ourselves in the role of the benefactors: giving out of our abundance. But what if, even in our acts of generosity, we had eyes to see grace coming towards us rather than going out from us? The kindest and most gracious people I know say "thank you" much more than "you're welcome."

Say "thank you" for difficult things

"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). God is constantly trying to train us to see his hand in all things, and we are at risk of missing his work when we limit the ways in which he can act. That flat tire you had when you were already running late for work? Say "thank you." The conflict at work that keeps you up at night? Say "thank you."

On the heels of a national "Thanksgiving" holiday, may we learn to say "thank you" in all circumstances. Perhaps as we hunt for grace, we will find it in some of the most unexpected places.

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