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How to Choose Gratitude When Stressed

How to Choose Gratitude When Stressed

It almost felt like a heart attack. But I had never had a heart attack, so I wasn't sure. After all, I was only 15 years old. I glanced down at my hands tightly gripping the seat in front of me. My knuckles were white because I was holding on for dear life. My heart was racing, and my breathing was shallow and fast. It sure did feel like I imagined a heart attack might feel. Except the pain was different. The pain was more like an ache - like a hole in my soul. It started when the preacher looked out into the large group of teenagers gathered to hear him speak. He pointed his finger at me and seemed to look straight at me as he said, "If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?" That's when my so-called heart attack began.

Then it hit me. I wasn't having a heart attack; I was having a soul attack. There was a hole in my soul, and the only thing that could fill that hole was a personal relationship with Jesus. My mind knew that I had no relationship with Jesus. All I had was a church membership.

As a child, I walked down an aisle, filled out the required church membership card, and was even baptized. Over the years, I did not miss a worship service unless I was deathly ill. I directed a children's choir and started a group that sang for our church and other churches in the area. The cherry on top of my hypocritical sundae was that I played the piano and sang solos for many worship services. I tried to do all the right things and say all the right words in front of all the right people. It wasn't enough. I needed Jesus!

That night, I let go of the seat in front of me and almost ran down the aisle. Finally, I gave up the fight. I surrendered. That hole in my soul was finally filled. Jesus Christ changed the trajectory of my life forever that night. I will never understand why Jesus chose a little nobody girl who lived in a shack on the edge of a small Texas town to do the things he has allowed me to do since the night I gave my life to him. It is his mercy, his grace, his love, his plan. God created me, formed me, redeemed me, and called me by name. To think that God knows my name rocks my world. But there is more. God has a unique plan for my life. The plan came first. I was created in response to that plan. I am not an accident or a discounted version of someone else. The Father has already been where he is asking me to go. He has ordered my steps.

I have traveled the world, met and worked with some of the most dynamic servants of God, written fifteen books, and shared my story with thousands of women around the globe. In addition, I am a pastor's wife, the mother of two incredible children, and Mimi to six fantastic grandchildren. I am so blessed, but I am also broken. I have survived the road of clinical depression, infertility, adoption, full-time ministry, sexual abuse, chronic physical pain, and the daily stress of life. Yet, through God's power, I have emerged with joy, strength, and victory.

How? Through it all, I have learned the truth that God is drawn to broken people. So, anything that makes me cry out to God can be counted as a blessing. And I am so very grateful – grateful for who he is and what he has done in and through my life. The psalmist expresses the bottom line of my heart:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Psalm 107:1

This is a great first verse. But the whole Psalm is impressive because it describes what happens to grateful people. It also explains what happens to people who are not grateful. Everyone has tough times in life. Jesus promised us that in this world, we would have trouble. So far in my seven-plus decades, He has been painfully accurate. We all have tough times. We all struggle. As the old song says, "All God's people got trouble." 

How do you handle those tough times in your life? Notice that there are four groups of people mentioned in Psalm 107. Three groups react to tough times without gratitude - and end up even more wrecked. One group chooses gratitude in their tough times - and God multiples their impact. Let's look at those four groups. Try to identify the one where you naturally fit. And try to choose the one group in which you want to be. Let's read the first three verses of Psalm 107 to set the stage. First, God is instructing his people to express their gratitude.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Has the Lord redeemed you? Then speak out! Tell others he has redeemed you from your enemies. For he has gathered the exiles from many lands, from east and west, from north and south. Psalm 107:1-3

God has redeemed his people. He has rescued them. He has gathered them. And He challenges them to express their gratitude, to tell others what God has done for them. The rest of the Psalm describes the four types of responses the people give. How do they respond to God's redemption?

Some people return to their old ways. Sadly, it is human nature after being rescued and redeemed to return to our old ways. To go back to the stuff that nearly killed us before. To return to the wilderness. Remember the children of Israel? God delivered them from slavery and poverty. And yet, on their way to the promised land, they wanted to go back. They longed for the security of slavery – which makes no sense at all, but that is precisely what we tend to do. We glorify the old days in our minds. If we could go back, things would be better.

Verses 4-9 describe those who return. Check out the key phrases: "Wandered in the wilderness," "Lost," "Homeless," "Hungry," "Thirsty," "Near-death." When they return to God, he welcomes them and puts them back on the right path. But still, they tend to go back to their old ways. The Proverbs describe this person: As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness. Proverbs 26:11

Some of us return to our old ways when God rescues us. Some people retreat into themselves. It is also human nature to retreat into ourselves after God has delivered us. Verses 10-12 describe those who retreat. Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom, imprisoned in iron chains of misery. They rebelled against the words of God, scorning the counsel of the Most High. That is why he broke them with hard labor; they fell, and no one was there to help them. Psalms 107:10-12

These people retreat into their self-made prisons. Check out the words that describe the results of retreating into themselves: "Darnkness," "Gloom," "Imprisoned in chains of misery," "Alone," "Isolated."

Just because your prison is your own personal depression or isolation does not make it any less of a prison. It is human nature to retreat into the jail cells in our souls. There is a line from an old folk song, "The Sound of Silence," that goes like this: "Hello, darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again." Some folks retreat into their own darkness and depression - because it is familiar. It is easier to stay in the darkness than it is to claw our way to the light. So how do people respond to the deliverance of God? Some people return to their old ways. Some people retreat into themselves. Some people rebel and run. 

Verses 17 and 18 describe this group: Some were fools; they rebelled and suffered for their sins. They were knocking on death's door. Again - notice how this group is described. Rebellious. They run. They rebel. They resist. Those are the ways they cope with stress and struggle. I fit into this group. When I am under stress and don't turn to God, I want to get in my car and drive West.

All of us tend to do one of these three things when we are under stress:

• Return to our old ways.

• Retreat into ourselves

• Rebel and run

These responses lead us away from God. They lead us away from gratitude. They lead us away from the Kingdom impact the God has designed us to have. There is a fourth choice when we are stressed. A good choice. A godly choice. Some people choose gratitude. Stress comes into every life. Bad things happen to all of us. Some people return to their old ways. Some people retreat into themselves. Some people rebel and run. Some people choose gratitude.

The godly will see these things and be glad, while the wicked are struck silent. Psalm 107:42

The godly go through the same trials the ungodly go through. Following Jesus is not a "get out of jail free" card. It is more of a "you can have gratitude even in jail" card.

The godly choose gladness. The godly choose gratitude. The goldy choose to give thanks. The ungrateful return to their ways. The ungrateful retreat into themselves. The ungrateful rebel and run away. But it is not enough to be grateful. It is not enough to have gratitude. Gratitude and gratefulness for what God has done for you will set your soul free. But telling others about what God has done for you is where impact takes off.

Check out verses 31-32: Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. Let them exalt him publicly before the congregation and before the leaders of the nation. Psalm 107:31-32

The grateful keep chasing God. The grateful keep celebrating what God has done. The grateful tell others what God has done for them. The impact of gratitude can be huge because when we tell the story of what He has done for us, others find their way back to God. Now that is impact. That is eternal. That is worth any pain or disappointment we experience. Where are you today? Grateful for what God has done - I hope that is the case. But are you returning to your old ways? Are you retreating into yourself or rebelling and running from God? Or are you rejoicing in what God has done for you - and telling others about it?

Photo credit: ©Kike Vega/Unsplash

Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.