What does it take to live a life of gratitude?
As Christians we know we should be thankful people. As humans, we recognize that thankful people are typically more positive to be around. We would much rather spend time with grateful individuals than ungrateful individuals. Being ungrateful makes one bitter and negative. However, grateful people are often a blessing to be around. Being grateful is a universally recognized positive trait. So what does it take to live a life of gratitude?
Typically our gratefulness is in some way related to the number of positive and negative events we experience. We are often thankful for positive events in our lives. We get a promotion at work or are recognized for a job well done. We enjoy a positive family vacation. A repair that we feared would be expensive ends up coming in below estimate. Our house sells quickly, or we are able to find a house quickly. All of these events lead to positive feelings. However, if we have a disagreement at work, or we get in a fight with our spouse, or our car breaks down…all of these events lead to negative feelings which make it difficult to be positive. Shouldn’t gratefulness, however, be based on more than just the transactions between positive and negative events in our lives?
This is especially evident when we consider past events. We are often thankful for positive past experiences. As we look back on life, we find joy when thinking about our wedding day or the birth of a child. We are thankful for job transfers into areas we enjoyed working, or even a promotion. We think of relationships with mentors and friends who blessed our lives in amazing ways, and we find gratitude in these moments. We may even say that we see God in these moments, or these friendships. However, past events that caused pain we often try to avoid thinking about. We mourn the death of relatives and friends. We avoid thinking about the job we were fired from. We avoid places and situations that remind of us past relationships that fell apart. Thus we are grateful for positive moments and we avoid negative moments. Again, should it not be more.
Perhaps the answer is to consider what leads to gratitude in the first place. As I think about my own life, I am often most thankful for those moments when I receive something that I clearly do not deserve. I am grateful for the unending love of my wife that I so clearly don’t deserve. I am grateful for relationships in which the friend has offered friendship or forgiveness that goes beyond normal friendship. I’m grateful for church members who in a time of need paid my children’s medical bills. I’m grateful because ultimately in all of these moments I’ve seen God. I see God present in the love of my wife. I see God present in the forgiveness offered by friends. I see God present in the generous giving of those I’m in community with. I’m grateful because I recognize God is present in these moments. My gratefulness is tied to God’s presence.
Thus, if God’s presence leads me to be thankful, then I must recognize that all moments, both positive and negative, are opportunities for gratitude because God is present in all moments. I often see God in the positive moments, but I must admit that God is also present in the negative moments. As I mourn the deaths of family and friends, God is present in that mourning providing comfort and peace in a time of need and I can be grateful for God’s presence. As I try to heal from a job loss, and the pain associated from that moment, I recognize that God is with me helping me to heal, and leading me to places of greater trust. While these events are painful, and I want to avoid them, recognizing God’s presence in them not only leads me to healing, but also helps me to be a grateful person.
Every moment then is an opportunity for gratitude because in every moment God is present. As Henri Nouwen states, “gratitude is to live life as a gift to be received thankfully, both the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, because God’s presence is in the middle of all that happens.”
Living a life of gratitude begins by recognizing God’s presence in all moments, celebrating God’s presence in all moments, and being thankful for God’s presence in all moments. Gratitude is not based on our emotions at any particular time. Gratitude is instead praise that no matter what, whether good or bad, God is present. And being in God’s presence is always a reason to rejoice.