Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

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Cultivating Gratitude When Life is Hard

~~Let’s face it: sometimes life just sucks.

I’m not one to use any type of profanity, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to describe 2016. It’s been an unbelievably difficult year, filled with life-changing realities that have permanently altered our lives. And here we are, with the holidays upon us, trying to figure out how to be grateful, to cultivate the Christmas spirit, when our entire lives have been toppled and tossed.

November started with my daughter suffering yet another grand mal seizure. Her world has been rocked by the sudden onset of a disease previously unknown to any of us. Her future is uncertain.

Then came Veterans’ Day. As the military bugler played the melancholy Taps, my children found themselves taken back to that April morning when they stood by their father’s graveside, watching as his body was lowered into the ground.

With my own surgery and multiple emergency room trips for my daughter, the financial stress of this year is enough to make anyone ill. I find myself buried beneath a sea of debt that I didn’t have at the beginning of the year, wondering how God will come through, mounting pressure for the holidays.

Then there’s the false accusations, absolutely horrible things said about me. I still find myself angry, incredulous that anyone could be so low, so vindictive, so blind to the truth. Sadly, it seems the root of these attitudes lies in greed.

I’m sure I could go on with the events of this year, with reasons I am more than ready to kiss 2016 goodbye. I want to believe that 2017 has to be better, but there’s a part of me terrified to verbalize that hope.

As we enter the holiday season, I’m not seeing a lot of gratitude in my house, and there’s no magic to this holiday season.

Instead, there’s a host of other attitudes and emotions: fear, anger, bitterness, depression. There’s a sense of betrayal and rejection. There’s more hurt and pain than we can process.

Maybe you understand. Maybe your circumstances, although different from mine, ring of the same emotions. Maybe your marriage has breathed its last breath. Maybe your world has been rocked by adultery. Maybe your loved one has spiraled helplessly into his addiction. Maybe your child is suffering medical issues. Maybe your parent is locked in a world of Alzheimer’s. I don’t know your circumstances, but I know what it’s like to feel like life is just a cruel joke.

The truth is, this life is sometimes cruel. Jesus told us in this world we will have trouble (John 16:33). It’s a certainty of this broken world. But at the same time, we are told He has overcome the world (John 16:33), to consider it joy when we face trials of many kinds (James 1:2).

So I’m left wondering how we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude and capture the magic of the holiday season when life is so hard.

Focus. It seems like I return to Isaiah 26:3 over and over.

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Isaiah 26:3

When we are focused on God, our problems, our circumstances get smaller. When placed next to the Savior of the Universe who is able to do all things, our problems pale in comparison to His power. When we are focused on Him, we enjoy His peace permeating every part of our lives.

Just like Peter who was able to walk on water, we are able to navigate even the most tumultuous of circumstances as long as our eyes are Him. But as soon as we begin to look at the waves crashing around us, we begin to sink.
To cultivate gratitude, we must keep our eyes on Him and know He is bigger than all of our problems.

There I will go to the altar of God, to God—the source of all my joy. Psalm 43:4

Worship. When I finished my Bible reading plan recently, I began to look for a new plan. I quickly decided I needed to be in the Psalms.

The Psalms were written as songs of worship to the Father. Many were written in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances. Whether fleeing from his enemies or being brought face-to-face with his own sins, David had a way of turning his attention to God, of praising Him in dire situations.

And when I turn to the Psalms, my heart is also turned to God. I am reminded of His faithfulness throughout the ages, of His steadfast love for me. My burdens lift and I am able to rest in Him.

Worship helps us turn our hearts to God and away from our problems. Whether it’s a reading of the Psalms or listening to praise music, worship is essential to cultivating gratitude.

Let all that I am praise the LORD; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Psalm 103:1

Count our blessings. There has been so much turmoil this year, it’s sometimes easy to forget the many blessings we have experienced. We are blessed with family who loves us, with having all of our needs met. We are blessed with a good job and we’ve never once gone hungry. We are blessed with each other, with love that runs deep.

And we’ve had our share of blessings this year. God has brought some amazing new relationships to us, people who are helping us become all God intends for us to be. We’ve seen these relationships blossom and grow. And God has given us a new vision of the plans He has for us, a vision that far exceeds anything we could ever ask or imagine.

Sometimes I just need to sit and awe over the grace of God, of the many answered prayers and the many ways He has loved us.

Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things. Psalm 103:2-5

Remember His past faithfulness. I have walked through many trials in the last decade. Adultery. Divorce. Financial devastation. Loss of friends. Loss of family.

And in all these things, I’ve seen God take the pain and use it for good in my life (Romans 8:28).

God has been in every detail of my life, working to create a beautiful mosaic. He has been faithful to care for my every need. Through the trials, He has molded me and shaped me into His image, given me a heart of compassion. He has shown me His great love and forgiveness. He has faithfully guided me every step.

And as I reflect on His past faithfulness, I am reminded He won’t leave me now. He will carry us through, give us joy once again. He will redeem every hurt, every pain. He will resurrect us from this season.

Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. Zechariah 9:12

Focus on the future. It seems every single day I remind my daughter that God is using these trials to mold her into His image, to prepare her for the great work He has planned out for her. I pray over her daily that God will do a mighty work in her so He can do a mighty work through her.

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

I was recently talking to Cassie, asking her how she was holding up under the stress and strain of all she has going on. She amazed me with her maturity.

“It’s hard,” she began, “but when I get scared, I just remember that God is doing something in me. I try to remember He’s preparing me for my future.”

but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Philippians 3:13b-14

Yes, it’s been a tough year. But God is still good. And I know when I let Him have my full heart, we will find joy in the midst of our grief.

For all of you who are reeling from the trials of life, for all of you who are grieving as we are, for all of you facing uncertain futures from illness or loss… please know you are not alone. My children and I stand with you. We are broken and hurting in this holiday season.

But we do not grieve without hope. Our hope is in the One who came, the One whose very life we celebrate in the next month. Will you put your hope in Him as well?

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