Cultivating an attitude of gratitude
As we begin a new year, it’s already a cliché to say it will be like no other. Every year is, but the unexpected can cause us to see things more clearly, perhaps even exaggerate.
As we look ahead to certain uncertainty, any natural grumpiness we might have can so easily be exacerbated.
There are many ways in which even we in the comfortable West face hard times. Restrictions on freedom and social isolation do affect us, even those who enjoy times of solitude. For those who have employment, the sheer volume can overwhelm. Those who are furloughed or have lost work face other worries. Normal routines for those who do not have contractual obligations but may still be just as busy and hardworking, are replaced with very different challenges.
All this can lead to a deep sense of dissatisfaction and displeasure. Grumpiness turns to grumbling. Any mention of gratitude grates.
In thinking through how we might cultivate an attitude of gratitude in this turmoil, we are not for a moment denying that there is real trouble and toil in our lives. To close our eyes to this would be as foolish as a dinghy sailor denying the black clouds and white tips of waves were any cause for concern.
So what place gratitude in the midst of such turmoil?
It can help if we try and unpick what is fuelling our complaint. Where there is real suffering, then it is good to acknowledge this. Open the psalms and it won’t take long to find crying out to the Lord. “Why O LORD, do you stand so far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry to mercy”. (Psalm 130:1-2). God’s word guides us to cry out to him in lament for our pain, as we look to him to rule and overrule in our suffering.
In contrast, our grumbling so often grows not because of the pain but because we’re not getting what we want.
Some of this is obvious. The restrictions we face are seen as preventing us from doing what we choose to do. We know the government has to take some steps, but we can think this should be more for others than ourselves.
It is more sensitive when we are affected more personally. How might we cultivate an attitude of gratitude when we’ve lost our jobs? When a loved one is in ICU? When we’ve be bullied at work? When someone has clearly and shamelessly lied about us and we have no recourse to correct it?
Such circumstances can really make us wonder about the phrase ‘with thanksgiving’ in the oft quoted verse: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
Here’s a possible framework as we try and grapple with this.
Remember God is so sovereign that we will never understand everything he is doing. We need to remember this when (we think) everything is ‘going well’ and when (again, we think, in our own estimation) things are going badly. Our current situation may be painful. But this does not stop God from being God and working his purposes out. Jesus shows on the cross that he is both in agony, and not without hope. Jesus was able to do this because he had willingly let God be God.
Know that God is so loving and personal that it’s OK to cry out to him as God. It really is. When Paul says “in every situation”, he means just that. Nothing is too big. Nothing too small. God’s sovereignty should never prevent us from saying ‘ouch, this hurts’.
Remember to include thanksgiving in the midst of all our cries and complaints. It’s what the verse says, and there’s a very good reason for it. The more we cultivate an attitude of gratitude when we perceive things are calm, the more we will be inclined to be able to do this when the storms embrace us.
A decade or more ago, I was in a particularly difficult situation which caused weeks of sleepless nights. Actually, it’s happened more than once, but this was one which felt was really out of my control. I spent many an hour asking, ‘why me?’ because – in this situation at least – I had done what really seemed the right thing at each step, as had others in the team I was in.
It took me a while to remember this verse, and the ‘with thanksgiving’ element. When I did, as well as listing my troubles, I decided to write down all those things I was thankful to God for, not just about life in general, but in the specific situation I was in. It turned out the list was very long! In fact, the more the list grew, the more I could see God’s gracious hand at work in what had until then seemed to be a nightmare.
Although the predicament was eventually resolved (thankfully – though it did take several months), the result of listing so many reasons to be thankful caused a substantial change of heart. The process of thanking God turned my eyes and understanding from me and my woes to look to God, not so much for the good things he gives but because of the good God he is.
Next time you sense those grumbles growing, how can you see reasons to be thankful, even in the midst of genuine pain?