The Bible tells us to rejoice. All the time and in everything. I spend my days juggling a toddler, freelance work, volunteer positions, a husband, friends, and a household. I cook meals that are too complex. I regularly overschedule my days. I am not continuously mindful of my very good God or my role as his ambassador. However, at the end of the average day, I can look back over the blurry busyness and, as instructed, rejoice. I can thank God for the privilege of having a family and home to care for, and for the means to employ my God-given abilities.
But when there is legitimate pain and loss—during seasons of suffering that stretch on while questions and prayers linger unanswered, I don’t always land in a place of gratitude at day’s end. Gratitude can be elusive.
Nevertheless, God’s Word calls us to this consistent attitude of thanksgiving, so it must be possible. And it must be good for us. But how do we become habitually grateful? Like establishing any good habit, we practice intentionally—and it helps to keep a written record like a gratitude journal.
The Bible gives no specific mandate to keep a physical gratitude journal, but we see myriad examples of individuals expressing gratitude in their distress and going on to be victorious, if only in spirit.
In general, practicing gratitude draws us closer to God and keeps us focused on all he has done. It can help us through specific times of trial, too. Consider these examples:
Gratitude closes the gap
When Jonah offers gratitude to God in chapter 2 of his story he is in acute danger—he’s been thrown overboard into the open ocean during a fierce storm, then swallowed by a giant fish. In the story, Jonah’s problem was that he was disobedient to God. He took his eyes off his sovereign, trustworthy God and focused on his earthly circumstances. In the belly of the fish, he has a little time to consider. He remembers how he called out to God in the swirling current with seaweed wrapped around him sinking into the deep, and how God remembered him. This prayer of gratitude isn’t offered only once Jonah is back on the beach, but while he is still in the fish. He gives “shouts of grateful praise” (verse 9) and is filled with confidence in God. After his prayer, he is vomited out on dry land—but the real answer to prayer is the restoration of relationship and trust in the Lord.
We can learn from Jonah. Like him, when we are afraid or feel guilt or shame, giving gratitude to God ushers us back into God’s presence, helps us submit to him and his will, and brings us his peace. It may not fix everything. It may not fix anything, but it renews our connection with our heavenly Father, who promises to comfort us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Gratitude heals our hearts
David’s entire story is beyond the scope of this single blog, but during one dramatic event in David’s life, we see on display our human tendency to meddle and manipulate (see 2 Samuel 11). David sees and sleeps with Bathsheba, a married woman. She becomes pregnant and David has her husband killed to cover it up. He then marries her. David’s abuse and treachery “displeased the Lord” (verse 27) and his sin results in the death of his and Bathsheba’s son. During the baby’s illness, David fasts and prays, pleading with God to spare his son. When David learns of the child’s death his servants expect he will react poorly, but instead he dresses and goes to the house of the Lord to worship (2 Samuel 12:20).
There are times when things just aren’t good and they’re not going to get better. The loss of a loved one is devastating, and the world seems desolate. In those times, the only refuge to be found is in God.
In my own life, I have responded to harsh losses with anger at God, jealousy of others, and anxiety over my future. It’s only when I began to journal and contemplate the most fundamental of God’s blessings—eternal life and unfailing love—that expressing my pain became constructive. I followed the pattern in Psalm 13 of voicing my complaints, but then trusting and rejoicing.
Make gratitude your own
We should let ourselves be guided by gratitude: Paul urges us to renew our minds and stop conforming to the pattern of this world—a pattern of entitlement, materialism, comparison, and anxiety (Romans 12:2). Renewing our minds means thinking on the true, pure, noble, right, lovely, admirable, and praise-worthy consistently (Philippians 4:8-9). It means remembering the mighty works, as well as the mundane, everyday graces of God. It means keeping track of answered prayers—even, or especially, if they aren’t answered in the way you expected. A gratitude journal is a written, hold-it-in-your-hand record of God showing up in your life every day.
How, you ask, do I establish this all-important ritual? Start by buying a journal or setting up a document on your favorite digital device. Then set aside time once a day or once a week. I enjoy journaling first thing in the morning as it sets the tone for my day.
When you start out, use prompts to stretch your mind. For instance, initially, a long list of general things may come to you—salvation, family, health, job, home—but expressing gratitude for those broad items is just scratching the surface. Go deeper and try to write five reasons why you’re grateful for those things. Why are you grateful for your spouse? Why are you grateful for your job? Why are you grateful for your relationship with God? You could stretch out this exercise, focusing on one reason each day for five days or longer. Another favorite prompt is writing out the things you’re grateful did not happen. Did you have a near miss in traffic? Get a clean report from your doctor? Write about it in your journal. I think and hope you’ll be overwhelmed with joy as God begins to show and remind you of all he has really done.
Gratitude matures us
More than once I have put away my gratitude journal in the morning, walked out of my bedroom or my house, and have immediately been confronted with a trial. I’ve responded well at times and poorly at others. Don’t lose heart if your humanity still gets the best of you—we won’t be perfect until Jesus takes us home. Instead, know that it’s possible to consider it pure joy when you face hardship. The discomfort you feel is faith producing perseverance in you (James 1:2-4).
And on the days that we fail, or it seems we have nothing to be grateful for, we must remember that we are purchased and redeemed by Christ’s blood. God himself will strengthen us to patiently endure whatever trial we’re going through—even to endure it with joy (see Colossians 1:10-13). Much of that strength comes from gratitude, so when we strengthen the gratitude muscle, neither intense sprints nor long trials of suffering will wind us as easily. We are able to more efficiently and effectively move from pain and anxiety into rejoicing and the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
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