Last time we discovered that it is possible to eliminate negativity and complaining in our lives though a lifestyle of thankfulness and gratitude. In February (2015), I attempted to go on a negativity fast for Lent, and it was for the most part- successful. However, there were challenges. After I declared that this was a fast for God, not only were everyday challenges more of an uphill battle, but there were other difficulties that made some days “screaming days.” Difficulties were exacerbated by: roller-coaster hormones (after all, I am in the menopause stage of my life), financial stretching, an overlapping schedule with different ministries, a lack of sleep, and even more important, I felt like my life was stuck behind a giant pause button. During that time, I had to lean very heavily on the Lord for extra grace. I had to believe (along with the Apostle Paul) that God’s grace “is sufficient for [me], for [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 9).
Cup of Thanksgiving overflows
Some people could see my initial efforts as wimpy. Full-time missioners and missionaries often minister no matter how tired they feel. Many workers in the secular world work very long hours, as I did in the radio broadcasting world. I am not one for encouraging burn-out, for we all need Sabbath times of rest. Yet sometimes we are simply worn out not by work, but by complaining, bitterness and negative attitudes. So when you give thanks in all things (1 Thess. 5:18), your cup is no longer half empty like the pessimist. Your cup is far more full than the optimist’s half-full glass. Looking at the glass isn’t just about perspective, although it does include seeing life through different eyes. The eyes of a thankful Christian are opened to what God is doing in us and around us. This isn’t just a human thing – it’s a supernatural thing. Your eyes become open to the “more.” This is how the cup turns from being half-full to overflowing. The Psalmist says “You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” (Psalm 23:5) The overflowing cup is a symbol of being so full of the Holy Spirit that God’s glory and love easily spill out of you. That’s exactly the time that God works through you, because it is clear that you are more than the “natural you.”
Cup of Suffering and of Joy
Our cup is also a cup of Jesus’ pain and suffering. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16) The Apostle Paul talks about sharing the ‘fellowship’ of Christ’s suffering as part of truly knowing him. (Phil 3:10) How can gratitude and suffering be in the same cup? How can we experience joy in the midst of suffering? How can we encounter God’s glory in the midst of suffering? Are we even willing to suffer alongside Christ? This cup of suffering is what Jesus drank when he died for us (Matt 26:26-27, Mark 14:22-23, Luke 22:17,19). While we don’t have to go through crucifixion as Jesus did, we do go through suffering and times of difficulty. Sometimes we even go through persecution because of our faith in Jesus Christ and ministry for him. Jesus walks alongside us, and he carries us through these difficulties. When we thank him in the midst of difficulties, we acknowledge his presence, and allow him to work in our hearts despite the refining fire of challenges. We aren’t suffering alone. Jesus is with us.
Suffering and Gratitude
Suffering can make us bitter or cause us to grow. If we keep a good attitude of thankfulness, the suffering actually refines us. It takes us through a process which builds in us perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-4). When you keep thankful in such circumstances, it helps keeps your eyes centred on what God is doing in your life. The process actually is circular – we start with thankfulness and end up in gratitude. Thankfulness acknowledges who God is and how he is working in your life, despite the difficulties. Gratitude is the growing state of your heart as God uses the refining process to create good soil. This good soil is the same believing, faithful heart that Jesus refers to in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20).
Recently, my husband and I returned from a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. We spent special time with our dear family-friends in the Iris Virginia church. The visiting worship leader, Jonathan David Pettit, prophesied over me that I was like “spiritual Miracle Grow” (a plant fertilizer). He told me that “because I had not allowed my heart to become bitter, despite the ‘crap’ in my life, he was using me overcoming these experiences as fertile soil.” He would use these experiences to help others overcome their difficulties. He would use me as a cheerleader for other’s dreams, because I had ‘been there.’ In the moments Jonathan shared, I had a profound sense of gratitude for God working out the messes in my life in a way that gives God glory.
How do we develop this heart of gratitude? Perhaps the best way is by disciplining ourselves to stay thankful, no matter what we encounter. Gratitude becomes a growing response we develop, and God deepens his imprint in our lives. Our eyes and ears become increasingly more open to his love and blessings, and our faith and compassion for others deepen. We begin to develop a fruit of gratitude as we believe God’s promises and grow more thankful; this is similar to how one develops the fruit of the Spirit.
What is the fruit of the Spirit? These are: “love, joy, peace, forbearance (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). We grow in response to what God is doing in our lives, and if we keep a good attitude, we are thankful. Henri Nouwen taught that when we encounter the fruit of the Spirit in others, we experience them as gifts. 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.” (Lifesigns 70-71) Thus, “gratitude flows from the recognition that all that is, is a divine gift born of love; it is freely given to us so that we may offer thanks and share it with others.” (Robert Jonas, “Henry Nouwen” P 69).
Paradox of Gratitude, suffering and ministry: “How to have a Good Day”
So gratitude grows despite the paradox, and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, gratitude can grow deeper alongside the paradox of suffering and joy. Earlier I mentioned about people working tirelessly despite having difficult circumstances. Some people could call that having a bad day, but they still press on with what they have to do. Iris leader Surprise Sithole believes that it is always possible to “have a good day” despite circumstances, and he passed this belief on to missionaries Rolland and Heidi Baker. Rolland shares, “One day we [Surprise and Rolland] were running a bush outreach meeting in Malawi, and on this day, Surprise delivered what was, for me, his most memorable sermon. Malawi had been in famine most of the year. The crops had failed. It was extremely hot, almost 50 degrees C. The people hadn’t had any proper food in months. A lot of people were sick, and the bubonic plague had just come to this particular village. Surprise’s sermon that day was entitled, “How to have a Good Day.” No matter where we are or how bleak the circumstances, Surprise is always having the best day of his life. Irrepressible joy like this culturally clashes with much of the church. I didn’t like it myself for a long time.
What I’ve learned, though, is that we minister to others out of the places in our lives where God has ministered to us. God works in us to produce a miracle, and we minister that miracle to others. God has given Surprise the gift of joy. When he ministers, the Lord uses this joy, supernaturally, to touch others. Some might think it inappropriate. Actually, it is entirely inappropriate. He is bringing an authentic expression of joy to those who have none, and Jesus is producing joy in them. Think about what Jesus has done in your life and how you express it to others, sharing His blessing.” (Heidi and Rolland Baker, Reckless Devotion. P 23-24)
Gratitude and “Miracle Grow”
Surprise has grown in the paradox of suffering and joy (read his book Voice in the Night) through thankfulness and gratitude to the Lord. It shines out of everything he does in ministry, and Heidi Baker is very similar. When you hear Heidi share at the end of the Compelled by Love film, she looks over her life and ministry and says that she is so grateful to Jesus for all he has done – in their ministry and generally for his sacrifice and love for all of us. Earlier Jonathan David said that I was becoming like Miracle Grow. However, gratitude in the midst of difficulties, gratitude in the midst of outreach and ministry is an important key to growth in these conditions. It is one of the keys of the persecuted church that connects joy and suffering.
Earlier I mentioned Henri Nouwen. I had the privilege of meeting him when I was a student at University of Toronto. He spoke at St Michael’s and talked about putting our brokenness under the blessing of the Lord. He would heal our wounds, then minister through them to others. Jesus embraces all of our lives, the sorrow, the joy and every moment. Nothing is separate from God. “Jesus calls us to recognize the gladness and sadness are never separate, that joy and sorrow really belong together, and that mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. That is why Jesus calls us to be grateful for every moment that we have lived and to claim our unique journey as God’s way to mould our hearts to greater conformity with God’s own. The cross is the main symbol of our faith, and it invites us to find hope where we see pain and to reaffirm the resurrection where we see death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment of our life can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads us to new life. (Henri Nouwen, “All is Grace” 39-40)
So gratitude directs us to where the Father would lead – since it keeps our eyes on God. He leads us into action, and he leads us into rest; all depending on the season he puts us in. That is the paradox. Suffering and joy? Gratitude in the midst of difficulties? Can we even figure out thankfulness and gratitude? Not entirely – but we have spent five posts on this aspect of our faith. It is one that goes well beyond a feeling of being blessed to being carried into what God has for us. Gratitude should be unending, because our faith journey does not stop. Jesus is always leading us somewhere.
Next time we will further explore the cup of suffering and joy. It’s a lesson the persecuted church through the ages can teach all of us. Until then, be blessed, and grow in God.
Laurie-Ann lives in Ottawa, Canada. She works for Kingdom Culture Ministries (in Gloucester, Ontario) in social media/pastoral care and administration. She attends that church and St Paul’s Anglican Church in Kanata, Ontario. She is available to speak to small or large groups on a faith donation basis.
Laurie-Ann working remotely on social media-pastoral care ministry