As the holiday season is now upon us, we are challenged to consider how to be grateful amidst unique stressors-- including a global pandemic, significant political ferment, and varying degrees of societal fears and mistrust. As with most stressful circumstances, individual responses vary from anger and frustration to fear and grief, and even denial. Although it sounds counterintuitive to be grateful in a time or situation that is painful and undesirable, gratitude may just be the best response to recent events.
Scripture teaches, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you” (I Thessalonians 5:18).Verses like this, though difficult to fully comprehend, are powerful when practiced and redemptive when rightly integrated into the heart and practice of a believer. They are far more than a cliche such as “count your blessings” which has truth in its intended use but has often mistakenly been used to invalidate true suffering. Coercing oneself or others to be grateful during times of pain can be irritating and counterproductive. Gratitude is best employed as a practice and not a quick fix—making it best understood as a spiritual discipline. Gratitude during hard times is not a natural stance. Perhaps this explains why Paul is urging the Christian Thessalonians to intentionally make it routine. Paul certainly demonstrates this practice through his ability to be grateful while imprisoned and persecuted for his faith, writing in Philippians 4:16, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Being grateful has impact on more than an individual’s spiritual life. The field of neuroscience consistently reports that individuals who practice gratefulness have less depression and anxiety, better physical health, and a greater level of individual resilience during difficulty. Research on gratitude shows that it increases harmony and happiness in relationships, by enhancing communication and trust.
Despite the known benefits of gratitude, it is not necessarily easy to apply. Being grateful to God or others requires acknowledging one’s humble state. It tears down the pride of entitlement and bitterness of the soul. Fostering gratitude in a time of trial may feel difficult and painful as it is a paradoxical response to an unwanted reality. But gratitude isn’t minimizing suffering—it is seeing that there is still something good about life in the midst of suffering. Sometimes depression moves into one’s life like a thick fog and obstructs any view of beauty or happiness. As one of my former clients once told me, “The only thing I could be thankful for right now is sunlight.” I told her, “That’s a great place to start.” You don’t have to “feel” grateful to start the work of gratitude. You can struggle with painful realities and be thankful at the same time.
The discipline of gratitude can simply start by thanking God for something each day. Some people have found that keeping a gratitude journal is helpful. Writing a few grateful statements down each day could start to open a pathway to greater joy. Gratitude is not merely emotive—it is also an action.
It is intention to posture oneself toward what is good, beautiful, or praiseworthy in life.
So today, “give thanks.” This biblical guidance serves more punch than platitude when dealing with the emotional gravity of our fallen world.