“I know I’m supposed to be thankful in all things but I’m having a hard time being thankful right now.”
The comment came from a patient, a young woman in the hospital from some illness I didn’t understand. I had peeked carefully into our room to introduce myself as the hospital chaplain covering the 4th floor. A young seminary student, I didn’t know nearly enough to be ministering to people in crisis but I did know this: you do not have to be thankful when you’re laying in a hospital and fighting for your life.
There’s a list of Bible passages that imply otherwise. This time of year, Philippians 4:6 always makes the rounds:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
or, 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Now, I believe in gratitude as a spiritual practice. In fact, I think it’s crucial–but not the way we whip it out at our convenience. We are sometimes too quick to point someone toward thanksgiving as a way of avoiding whatever hardship is happening for them. It is not spiritual care to instruct someone who is suffering to “rejoice in the LORD always.” And glib quotes about gratitude should not be used as ways of silencing the hard feelings we simply don’t want to deal with.
But gratitude does have it’s place, even in the midst of suffering. It’s not just some band-aid we put on to cover up an ugly scar. Gratitude is the elixir we drink in order to strengthen ourselves for whatever comes our way.
As Positive Psychology has emerged as a field of science, the research on gratitude has piled up. People who practice the art of regularly giving thanks find that they have:
- Stronger immune systems
- Lower blood pressure
- More energy
- Increased happiness
- More forgiving
- More connection to others
For people of faith looking for a way forward in troubled times, it’s especially worth noting that gratitude leads to increased compassion and social engagement. I suspect this is because gratitude boosts resilience, which is our ability to overcome challenges. Practicing gratitude doesn’t shield us from sadness, nor does it inspire us to look the other way in the face of hardship. Gratitude gives us the ability to look difficulties in the face and overcome them.
Gratitude is the antidote for fear. And fear is always the enemy of faith because fear prevents us from taking action.
So, no–I’m not a fan of using passages about gratitude as “clobber texts” against those who are hurting. But neither am I a fan of wallowing in Lamentations, simply listing all the things that are wrong with us or the world. Or job is to hold both of these things together, recognizing that acts of thanksgiving give us the ability not just to lament but to Change.
Gratitude Jar: An idea for practicing gratitude with children