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What Is the True Power of Gratitude?

thankful and grateful woman smiling with eyes closed and prayer hands over heart, thanks be to God

2020 was a strange and stressful year. The coronavirus pandemic, the struggling economy, political division, and racial tension were all front and center. 2021 had to be better - right? As far as I can tell, not so much. Two tough years in a row. It has been easy to focus on what is wrong instead of what is right this year. This is one of the reasons we need to learn to practice gratitude. We need to learn the discipline of celebrating what is right in our lives.

I believe gratitude is a lost art, a spiritual discipline we often ignore. And yet, gratitude is essential to keep our hearts full and our lives on track. Gratitude is often thought of as a second-hand emotion. Not in the top ten list of emotions. But more on the second tier. What if gratitude is at the top of the list of important emotions? What if the practice of gratitude helps us battle anger, depression, and anxiety. What if gratitude is actually the antidote for many of our negative emotions? Christian author Dallas Willard says this about gratitude: “Gratitude is an expression of appreciation, an articulation of what we have received. Like a receipt, our gratitude is evidence of the transaction of grace from God.”

We are admonished over 300 times in the Bible to give thanks. 300 times! It is a central theme in Scripture because it is a significant need in our lives. We need to rediscover the lost art of gratitude. The national pastime has become complaining. As Christ-followers, we want to be different. We want to learn to be grateful.

The spiritual practice of thanksgiving changes our lives. The keyword here is practice: If you want to become a baker, you need to practice baking. You can practice on me. If you want to be a runner, you have to live the lifestyle of a runner. That is not on my bucket list. If you want to be a musician, you have to adopt the practices of a musician. As a pianist, I can testify that it takes a lot of practice to become a good musician.

I have learned that gratitude is a powerful and vital part of my journey with Jesus. True gratitude is not an incidental ingredient. It is not a stand-alone product. It is essential in the life of the Christ-follower because we all need the power of gratitude. That’s right - let me say it again. We all need the power of gratitude. Gratitude to God is a powerful life-changer.

Check out what Scripture says about gratitude: 1 Thessalonians 5:13 “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” There is an important truth in that verse. Be thankful in all circumstances - not for all circumstances. I am not thankful FOR much of 2020 or 2021, but I have managed to be thankful in both of these chaotic years. I am not thankful for my back problems. I am not thankful for my struggle with clinical depression. I am not thankful for my husband’s 55 heart procedures. But I have learned to be thankful in all of these hardships. Why?

Gratitude has the power to change my character. How? How can learning to practice thanksgiving make a difference in our lives? How can gratitude change who we are and make us more like Christ? Gratitude is the difference between being contrary and being contagious. Gratitude is the difference between whining and worshipping. Gratitude is the difference between missing God and experiencing God. Chesterton said two remarkable things about gratitude: Gratitude is the crowning gem of character. Gratitude is the entry point of character development.

Let’s explore these three spiritual truths from the Scripture today. How does gratitude change my character? First - Gratitude changes me from cantankerous to contagious.

There is a great kid’s book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It is one of those kid’s books that has an even stronger message for us adults. It highlights how easy it is to get into a “gloom, despair, and agony on me” mindset.

Life is sometimes hard. Those hard times can pile up, and we can get sideways. We can become grumpy, even cantankerous. Cantankerous is one of my favorite words. It literally means “bad-tempered, argumentative, uncooperative, crusty and grumpy.” Been there. Done that. Ask my family. Here is one of the phrases I use when I am cantankerous: “Is life ever easy?” What do I need when I am cantankerous? A booster shot of gratitude! The book of Esther in the Old Testament says it this way: Esther 9:22 “Their sorrow was turned into gladness and their mourning into joy.”

Gratitude turns our sorrow into gladness. It turns our mourning into joy. And one of the great things about gratitude and gladness and joy is that they are contagious. They rub off on others. God wants to use gratitude to change us from cantankerous to contagious.

Second - Gratitude changes me from whine mode into worship mode.

I have learned this truth. In every circumstance in life, I have two choices. I can whine, or I can worship. What is the difference? Whining focuses on what is wrong. Worship focuses on what is right. Whining focuses on my circumstances. Worship focuses on God’s work on my behalf. Whining focuses on me. Worship focuses on God. I cannot worship without giving thanks. David was a man who had a lot to whine about in his life: Enemies trying to destroy the nation he ruled. Rebellious son who tries to kill him. Death of a newborn child. Dealing with his own adultery and trying to find his way back to God.

He had plenty to whine about. Yet, time and time again, he chose to worship. How did he do that? How did he move from down to grateful? A key truth explains how David learned to worship when his circumstances seemed to entitle him to whine. The secret is in Psalm 100. Psalm 100:4 “Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.”

The way into God’s presence is with thanksgiving. Gratitude changes our whining into worshipping. The power of gratitude is amazing. First - gratitude changes me from cantankerous to contagious. Second - gratitude changes me from whining to worshipping. Third - gratitude keeps me from missing God.

Here is a big principle I have come to believe. God is always at work. Always. At work. On our behalf. God is at work all around us all the time - but we often miss it. We can’t see it. We need our eyes opened, and that is exactly what gratitude does!

There is an incredible story in 2 Kings 6. Elisha is a great man of God and a prophet who has made a few enemies along the way. Here is the setting. Elijah is alone with his servant and suddenly finds himself surrounded by a huge enemy army. His young apprentice panics as he considers what will surely be his last day on earth. And then Elisha tells his young apprentice that “those that are for us are greater than those that are against us.” The servant must have thought that Elisha had lost it! And then Elijah prays for God to open his servant’s eyes. Elisha prays this prayer: 2 Kings 6:17 “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!”

God answers that prayer, and the young man sees that the army of God is between them and their enemies. The young servant was in such a panic that he almost missed what God was doing - until gratitude helped him open his eyes.

The messier life gets, the more we tend to miss God. But He is there for us in the mess. Every mess gives you two choices: miss God or meet God. Choose to meet God in the midst of your mess. What have you panicked about today? What has your soul up in arms? What are you stressed about? Meet God amid your storm. Don’t miss Him - meet Him! Thank God for being with you in your tough times. Practice gratitude while you are in the storm and watch God begin to open your eyes to what he is doing for you. First - gratitude changes me from cantankerous to contagious. Second - gratitude changes me from whining to worshipping. Third - gratitude changes me from missing God to meeting God.

Are you ready to begin unleashing the power of gratitude in your life? Here is a simple exercise I want to give you for the next month. Start today. Start a gratitude journal. Each day for the next month - write down two or three things for which you are grateful. Then thank God for those things every day this week. Every day. That simple act of thanksgiving will begin to unleash the power of gratitude in your life. May the power of the practice of gratitude rise up in all of us this upcoming holiday season!

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/AaronAmat

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, Fit for Life, and 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.


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