The Habit of Thankfulness
A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer and was told he probably has one to two years of life left. Pretty serious news to digest, to say the least.
But you wouldn’t know it to talk with him, or pray with him. His whole emphasis in life since that potentially crushing news has been to focus on—of all things—thankfulness! Numerous times I’ve heard him say we should all be more thankful for what God has given us—we can see, we can walk, we can work, we have an income, we’re part of a good church, we have family that cares about us, etc. But instead, too many of us focus on what we feel is wrong in our lives and what we don’t have that we wish we did have.
In the face of stage four cancer, he has decided to be thankful.
Thanks or Complaints?
Have you ever heard of Elisabeth Elliot? If ever anybody had the right to complain, it was her. She and her husband Jim were missionaries in the South American jungles in the mid-1950s. They had barely been married three years when Jim was killed by the Indians they were reaching out to. She was left alone with their ten month old daughter. But rather than going back to the United States, she stayed—actually moving into an Indian village and living and serving there for the next seven years. When she finally did return to the USA, she remarried. But four years later her second husband died and she was once again a widow.
One of her most well known quotes is, “It is always possible to be thankful for what is given rather than to complain about what is not given. One or the other becomes a habit of life.”
She wasn’t just writing pithy sayings for motivational calendars. Elisabeth Elliot knew what pain was and what real thankfulness was. And she knew which habit she wanted to develop.
The Habit of Thankfulness
Which habit is yours? Are you thankful for what you have, or do you complain—out loud or inwardly—about what you don’t have? The Bible actually says we should always be thankful: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18
This attitude of thankfulness was sorely tested in our family when our youngest son Nick died unexpectedly at six months old. We had always believed the verse quoted above, but how could we be thankful in the midst of those circumstances?
Shortly after his death I was reading in the paper about violence in Serbia, and I came across an article about a woman who lost all of her children and her husband when a bomb fell on their home. Coming face to face with the difference between my situation and hers, I quietly prayed, “Thank you, Lord, that I still have my wife, our other children, our home, my job, a church that supports us…” and on and on. Once I started thinking about my life that way, I realized there was still a lot to be thankful for—even in the midst of pain and heartbreak. Our family decided to try to continue the refreshing act of thankfulness, and avoid the bitterness of complaint.
Thank you for…
For the last eight years before I retired, I was very unhappy with my job. I looked at a few
other options but nothing else panned out. I realized I just needed to hang on where I was until I could retire.
I wish I could tell you I never complained, but I did—a lot. However, there were some bright spots where I remembered to focus on what I had rather than what I didn’t have. “Thank you, Lord, for a steady paycheck. Thank you for lots of paid vacation. Thank you for our health benefits. Thank you that I’ve never had to stand in an unemployment line. Thank you that we’ve never had to worry about how we were going to pay our bills. Thank you…”
Once you start concentrating on the good things, the list can get pretty long. Wonderfully, cheerfully long! But it does take that initial effort to switch off the complaint track. Fortunately, since God prefers thanks to complaints, He will help you make a similar list if you ask Him!
Four Day Weekends and Turkey
It’s November, and lots of families have a habit of verbally expressing what they’re thankful for when they gather for the Thanksgiving meal. It’s a good habit, but what if we decided to extend that practice to all the other days of the year, rather than just one Thursday? What if we chose to focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have? An even better habit!
Try this: whenever you catch yourself complaining, take a look at your situation from another angle and see what there is to give thanks about instead (like I sometimes did with my unpleasant job!). Look for the proverbial silver lining. And if you need help, ask the Lord to bring things to your mind. I promise you: He will!
You just might discover that following that Bible verse—”Give thanks in all circumstances”—is a little bit easier than you thought.
About the author
Mike Anderson majored in Bible at the University of Northwestern and has been a student of the Bible his whole adult life. He is newly retired and still learning the ropes. At First Evangelical Free Church he teaches 5th grade Sunday school and co-leads a small group. He enjoys biking, reading, writing, and hiking. Mike and his wife Debbie make their home in Lake Elmo and enjoy having all of their kids and grandkids in the Twin Cities area.