But there’s one another tool that has been huge in my life — it’s so simple, but so challenging. It’s something I recommend for homework with many of my counselees and students. However, because it’s so simple, and also so challenging, not many follow through long enough to see the benefit. And to be totally honest with you, there are many times when I myself didn’t see the benefit. Times when I stopped for a while. In fact, there was a period of over a year where I failed to do this. And I noticed the effect most profoundly when I found my notebook from 2014 just a few months ago.
I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember that 2014 had a lot of ups and downs, as tends to happen in life. But as I flipped through this notebook, all I saw were the highlights; and all I remembered was the closeness I had with the Lord during that time; the answers to prayer I was receiving; the joy and the peace I felt. It was my gratitude notebook.
It was a simple spiral-bound notebook, but on each line I had written a number, and then something I was grateful for. I had done it almost every day, and identified at least 5 things each time. As I read through it a few months ago, I was shocked to discover over a thousand different things I’d chosen to be grateful for that year. Everything from not catching a cold from someone at church, to going to see a movie with friends, to an opportunity to share the gospel with someone. Looking back on these things renewed my perspective like you wouldn’t believe.
The crazy thing about spiritual disciplines – things like prayer, scripture, gratitude, submission to authority – is that the results, while beautiful and life-enriching, are usually delayed. We don’t see the immediate benefit, and in contrast, we feel the pain of the discipline involved in doing those things, so we often struggle with the motivation to push through and keep doing them even when we don’t feel like it. I think that’s why they’re called disciplines. They are challenging, sometimes painful at the front end – but, as Hebrews reminds us, later on, they reap a harvest of righteousness.
How do we find the will to press on? By faith. Choosing to believe that God will do what he has promised. Choosing to believe that God doesn’t ask us to do anything that’s not for our benefit and long-term good. Choosing to believe that if we are obedient to him, we will receive the good things he has promised. And when we act on that faith, we begin to experience his grace (the power God gives to do what God says) that enables us to persevere and keep doing the next right thing; regardless if that next right thing is choosing to find something to be grateful for, or choosing to tithe when finances are rocky. And then, wonder of wonders, we receive the promise! When we choose gratitude, we receive the peace we’re promised in Philippians 4. When we choose to trust God with our money, we find that we somehow have all that we need, as he promised in Malachi 3:10.
And so we walk by faith, believing that by doing the hard things now, we will reap a great benefit later. And that benefit doesn’t end, either. While I received a great benefit during the year I kept that notebook in the form of a better perspective, joy, peace, and closeness with the Lord, I also am still receiving a benefit every time I look back at the lists of things God did for me that year.
Gratitude is so simple, and yet so challenging.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to be thankful when you just got cut off in traffic? Of course you do. That’s why you don’t general burst out in a praise song during rush hour on the highway.
But what would happen if you did?
It’s exactly when we find it hardest to be thankful that we must find a way to choose gratitude. That’s when it counts. That’s when everything changes. It’s easy to praise God when everything is going our way; but will we choose gratitude when things are falling apart? Will we praise him when we lose, just as when we win?
It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. And you won’t be able to do it until you have made a habit of gratitude in your life. Make a pattern of being grateful when things are good, and it’ll be that much easier when it’s hard.
But maybe life is hard now. The last thing you feel like doing is finding something to be grateful for. What you really want is to vent; to express your frustration and anger to anyone who will listen. But deep down inside, I’m sure you already know that’s not what God would want you to do. You want peace – will you do what it takes to get it?
Philippians 4 says choose gratitude. Pray with thanksgiving. Think about the good things. Peace will come. Supernatural peace, at that. Sometimes that means making yourself sit down and not get up until you’ve written down 10 things you’re genuinely thankful for, and then praying that list back to the Lord.
I say genuinely, because when we’re in a funk, it’s easy to get snarky with it. I once counseled a woman who struggled with bitterness and anger. She kept a journal that she turned in to me weekly, and I noticed that it quickly became a tool for venting and indulging in her anger and resentment. By the end of the week, her entries were downright nasty. She’d come in to my office defeated, as all she’d really done is reinforce her bitterness through her journal. She’d thought writing it out would help; but instead, it added fuel to the flame. The next week, I added a twist to her homework: after each journal entry, she must identify at least 5 things she’s grateful for. She wasn’t too happy at the assignment, but agreed. The next week, as I read her journal, I couldn’t help but laugh. She did well the first day or two, but by the third or fourth day, she’d begun to spiral. Her writing got larger and more angry looking, and her list read something like this – “I’M THANKFUL FOR THIS HORRIBLE AND UNCOMFORTABLE BED I HAVE TO SLEEP ON NIGHT AFTER NIGHT!!!!!!!! I’M THANKFUL FOR THIS DISGUSTING FOOD I HAVE TO EAT!!! I’M THANKFUL THAT I’M A HORRIBLE PERSON AND NO ONE EVER TALKS TO ME RIGHT!!! I’M THANKFUL THAT NOTHING EVER GETS BETTER!!!!!”
Friend, that is not gratitude. That’s bitterness.
Gratitude takes a bad situation, surrenders it to God, and seeks his perspective. Gratitude takes uncomfortable living situations and says, “I’m thankful that I have a place to stay and God is providing for my needs, even if it’s not what I’d normally choose.” Gratitude takes difficult people and says, “I’m thankful that God has given me an opportunity to forgive people who are rude, and teaching me how to love the unlovable.” Gratitude takes discouraging circumstances and says, “I’m thankful that God loves me, and that in spite of how I feel or how things look right now, God is working all things for my good.”
But you know what? Gratitude isn’t just for major life issues. The majority of things in my gratitude notebook were simple – things like new shoes, beautiful weather, coffee, and a good book to read. Finding gratitude in the small things helps us to find it in the big things, too.
I’m not a natural optimist. It takes a lot of work for me to be grateful, to see the bright side, to see the good. That’s why I make myself take the time to sit down and find things to be thankful for. When I do, I find peace, joy, and a godly perspective of my day, my problems, my life. I can’t stay discouraged when I’m grateful. I can’t be bitter when I’m thankful. I can’t be angry when I see what God is doing. It’s freeing beyond description.
Do you struggle with discouragement, depression, anger, resentment, bitterness, fear, envy? Do you want to break free of it?
Start here. Choose gratitude. Readjust your perspective. Focus on God. Focus on his goodness in your life. Choose to see his hand in everything.
How amazing would it be to start a gratitude journal right now, fill it every day, and be able to look back at it this time next year and see all that God has done for you?
In a word: passionate.