These past months, we have explored growing in our faith through thankfulness to God (and in a smaller way, to others). We learned to be thankful for the good, or what will turn to ultimate good in our lives. Thanksgiving can be found in acts of worship, and in thinking far outside our circumstances. Thankfulness is an expression, or fruit of having a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone (Eze. 36:26-27). We also began to explore seeing through the eyes of thankfulness. Sometimes the word gratitude is shown as an expression of thankfulness. I mentioned gratitude eight times in December’s article due to the intimate connection between thankfulness and gratitude.
In January, I discovered there was so much more to thankfulness and gratitude. I was impressed that this area of our faith walk deserves a pause to think deeply about thankfulness. Thankfulness is part of our healing and re-storying our lives through the eyes of faith. Many Psalm writers did this in ancient Israel, including King David. Thankfulness can be combined with soaking prayer so that our act of thankfulness goes even deeper into our soul. This means that through the Holy Spirit, thankfulness is a key that God can use to transform us. Thanks is also part of the very prayer we use to come to initial faith in Jesus Christ (often called the ‘sinner’s prayer’ but simplified in the Alpha movement as “sorry-thank you-please”). Thankfulness needs to be a daily part of our walk – it helps us keep our eyes on Jesus, especially if you are experiencing difficult times or you’re in transition from one stage of life and ministry to another stage. Let’s explore thankfulness and gratitude further.
Is there a difference between thankfulness and gratitude? Or are they aspects of the same thing? I researched the two words, and often the two concepts are interchangeable. However, I had a sense that gratitude is deeper than thanks. Gratitude is an internal emotion of deep thankfulness. The act of giving thanks is an outward action term; it’s a desire to offer your thanks for something that’s been given to you; or something that you already have. Personal coach Linda Ryan believes that “being grateful is appreciating something that you have not yet received, but [you] have faith it’s coming.” She looks at it like this: “I am thankful for my wonderful family and friends; I am grateful for all the great people I am going to meet. Being in a state of gratitude keeps us mentally and emotionally connected to our goals.” http://www.coachlindaryan.com/2011/11/dont-just-be-thankful-be-grateful/
So being grateful also makes us more confident and less restless in life’s “in-between” times; it gives us focus. Michael Austin Witty (Looking for the Faith-Gratitude Connection) takes this further when he says: “Before a miracle happens, thankfulness is faith. Afterwards it is gratitude.” This statement implies that thankfulness and gratitude are a process that we can grow in, which makes good sense to me. However, I believe you can experience gratitude when you receive God’s love right now, not just in the future. Say God is radically touching your heart, by healing a deep emotional wound. Right now, the Holy Spirit fills you with love and forgiveness. Your entire being feels light, loved and full of hope. So then, what’s the primary emotion you will feel if not gratitude? Say God uses you in a very special way that you did not expect! He brings a hurting person to you and you are given an encouraging word, compassion and a gift of healing right when they need it most. He has had you ‘stop for the one.’ So you are grateful that you got to be a part of that special moment – God is here with us right now!
God doesn’t just work in the past and the future. Too many of us lose the opportunity of receiving what God wants to bless us with today – this happens if we only focus on the future. Here’s an example: I applied to a three-month mission school in southern Africa over five weeks ago. I became more and more anxious on whether or not I’ve been accepted. I kept looking at the ministry site a couple of times a day to know one way or another. While it is normal to be excited at the possibility of ministering in Africa in the coming months, the anxiety drew my eyes away from God. I was beginning to lose focus on what God is doing right now during my time of preparation. I began to grow restless and lose my peace. However, I was gently reminded by a close friend that I need to “live in the now and let God take care of tomorrow.” Does this sound familiar to you, like Matthew 6:33? (Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well) While the biblical concept of seeking God first is about worry and provision, it also deals with trusting God’s sovereignty. Trusting that God is in control and being grateful that he is in charge, opens up a deeper place in our hearts for God. While we wait for answers, Jesus calls us to that secret place where your eyes are only on him. You spend valuable time with him. How can one work in the mission field or any kind of ministry without spending time with God first? It is essential.
So, I can sing along with the writer of the worship song “Give thanks with a grateful heart” – that God has my back. I can trust him to work out what I need and what I will be doing. And while I wait, I’m deeply grateful for being carried like the person Jesus carries in the Footprints poem written by Mary Stevenson. When you are in gratitude, God gives you even more of what you need. This includes better health, peace of mind, less stress, alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. One way to help expedite this process is to go on a negativity fast for at least 21 days (read Dr. Caroline Leaf and/or Steve and Wendy Backland). By the end of that time, you will have trained yourself to no longer be a complainer.
Gratitude is connected to deep faith, and even joy. One blogger says that “faith and thanksgiving are close friends. If you have faith in God, you will be thankful because you know his loving hand is upon you, even though you are in a lion’s den. That will give you a deep sense of joy, and joy is the barometer of the depth of faith you have in God.” [http://christiananswers.net/q-comfort/growing-thanksgiving.html] That gratitude grows in two ways: one, as you are completely dependent on God (as in the Footprints poem) and two, as you actually see answers to prayer happen in your life. When this happens, don’t forget these little victories.
Thanks and gratitude can and do change your perspective in the best way. A “treasure chest of thanks” or a “gratitude jar” can help you remember and itemize each day’s blessings. When I was part of Kootenay Christian Fellowship in Nelson BC, I set up a prayer jar in the back of the church so I could collect prayer requests for the email prayer team. Had I stayed in Nelson, I would have added a gratitude jar of answered prayers and other blessings. You can also have a gratitude jar in your own home! Some churches have times where they share testimonies with the leaders (and congregation). This time is like an audible gratitude jar! What is a testimony? Some dictionaries call a testimony: a legal proof, a divine decree or a recounting of a religious experience. Others, such as Merrium-Webster, add “an open sign,” an open acknowledgement, an evidence and a “firsthand authentication of a fact.” These are real blessings that have come our way. Remember them and be grateful, since the God who gave them won’t stop in blessing you.
Let’s look at the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospel of Matthew. Before the miracle that stretched the bread and fish, Jesus gave thanks. That thanks opened the door to God’s miracle of provision. Something similar happened to Iris Global’s Heidi Baker when she was in a difficult situation. They had just been kicked out of an orphanage and had limited resources. A friend from the US Embassy decided to bless Heidi’s family with a pot of chili and rice. The food was enough for Heidi’s family of four, but after a prayer of thanks over the food, the meal stretched to feed everyone present. This wasn’t just a case of adding a little more rice to the mix, but a literal miracle. Heidi said, “We began serving and right from the start, I gave everyone a full bowl. I barely understood at the time what a wonderful thing was happening. But all our children ate, the staff ate, my friend ate, and even our family of four ate. Everyone had enough.” (Rolland and Heidi Baker, There is Always Enough, pg. 52) Heidi even says near the closing of the Iris movie Compelled by Love, that she is so grateful for what God is doing each day. That gratitude grows daily.
Gratitude like this becomes an everyday lifestyle and a discipline. Earlier I had mentioned doing on a negativity fast. One action Steve and Wendy Backland had tried with their congregation was to give some people a ‘no-complaint wristband.’ You can also look in your gratitude jar and read some of the entries if you are feeling down that day. Gratitude can be developed as a discipline by choice. Henri Nouwen wrote that “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” (Henri Nouwen as quoted in Robert Jonas, Henri Nouwen.) Henri Nouwen also noted that “The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: “Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace. (Henri Nouwen, The return of the Prodigal Son, pg.85)
Gratitude is also like a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The named fruit of the Spirit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5: 22-23). It is a by-product of deeply abiding in the grace of God and relationship with him. Henri Nouwen also talks about the fruitfulness of grace. He says, Gratitude flows from the recognition that all that is, is a divine gift born of love and freely given to us so that we may offer thanks and share it with others. The more we touch the intimate love of God which creates, sustains, and guides us, the more we recognise the multitude of fruits that come forth from that love (Robert Jonas, pg 68). Without a spirit of gratitude, life flattens out and becomes dull and boring. But when we continue to be surprised by new manifestations of life and continue to praise and thank God and our neighbour, routine and boredom cannot take hold. Then all of life becomes a reason for saying thanks. Thus, fruitfulness and gratitude can never be separated. (Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns. P.70-71)
Gratitude brings us to the cup of thanksgiving!
In the New Testament, thanksgiving is the very essence of the Church’s life. In liturgical churches, the word eucharist actually means thanksgiving! “The very centre of the Church’s liturgical worship of God is when, in remembrance of all His saving acts in Christ, the faithful “lift up their hearts” and “give thanks unto the Lord.” (Orthodox church in America)
Pastor Jim Reimer from Nelson, BC shared the connection of gratitude and the Cup of Thanksgiving (1 Cor 10:16 NIV) while I was still part of his congregation. He noted that there is a deep connection between Eucharist (or in some churches, Communion or the Lord’s Supper) and thankfulness. As we receive the wine and bread, we are thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice. We remember what he did for us. But even more, we are grateful for his presence in our lives, and what he continues to do. He brings us to more and more freedom. He does not leave us the way we came to faith, but causes us to grow.
Gratitude becomes the drink in which we grow in love. Gratitude keeps us connected and wanting to connect to Jesus in a deeper way. And in a sense, everyone has a cup to drink. 1 Thess. 5:18 encourages us to give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. So instead of our cup being half empty or half full, OUR cup, the cup of thanksgiving, runs over (Psalm 23:5). The paradox is that Jesus’s experienced his cup of pain, suffering, treason and death (1 Cor. 10:16), but through Christ, it is our deliverance. Jesus becomes our cup of thanksgiving. For this, and him, I am deeply grateful.
Next time, we will continue to explore gratitude, and what we can do when life just isn’t going our way. Meanwhile, drink deep of the Cup of Thanksgiving.
Blessings, Laurie-Ann Copple