Living a life filled with gratitude is key to our spiritual journeys.
“I think gratitude is really the catalyst for all of our spiritual growth because it opens the door for us in so many ways to experience God’s goodness, to recognize God’s goodness. It impacts how we respond in service, in relationships, in our ministries, in our family,” says the Rev. Cathy Boileau, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “The power of gratitude is that it allows us to see how God is working in our lives and that God is the center of the story and not us.”
Growing in gratitude requires intentionality. We have to work at it.
“What we count, we tend to increase… If we are a person who tends to count our blessings, there are more blessings to count,” says Dr. Kent Millard, president, United Theological Seminary and author of "The Gratitude Path." “If we count our problems, there are more problems to count. Am I complaining or am I giving thanks? They are mutually exclusive,” Millard says.
Take a cue from Jesus
The story recounted in all four gospels of Jesus feeding 5,000 people near Bethsaida illustrates Jesus modeling gratitude.
“And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people” (Matthew 14:19 NIV, italics added).
Later in the New Testament we learn Paul was also a big fan of the practice. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 the apostle leaves no room for anything but gratitude when he writes, “In everything give thanks.”
The Rev. Susan Oeffler, pastor at First United Methodist Church of Rice Lake and Canton United Methodist Church, both in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, advocates that gratitude can bring balance to lives and to a world that can feel out of control.
“The uncertainty of the world is not going to change, but we can change. We are not built to always be stressed out,” she says, adding that gratefulness in our lives leads to feeling grace, which leads to seeing beauty in the world and reduces anxiety.
“Every time someone asks you ‘how are you doing?’ return with ‘I am grateful,’” Oeffler says. “These simple words cause each of us to recheck our gratitude meter and be thankful.”
Pain is real
When Millard’s wife of 47 years passed away, he found an unexpected relationship between his grief and gratitude.
“I found myself writing about how lonely I was and how much I missed her,” he says. “In the midst of writing about the pain, I could not deny that I was deeply thankful for a community of people who walked me through the loss.
“When I expressed my gratitude, the grief began to dissipate.”
Though painful situations do occur, Boileau believes that gratefulness helps us better navigate challenges.
“Grateful people are more resilient,” she says, “because they understand everything they have is a gift. So when that ‘thing’ disappears, they are more able to thank God for the gift.
“Gratitude is that which calls to mind God’s presence,” she says. “I think focusing on what God is doing helps us to trust Him with all the things that aren’t healed or aren’t full enough.”
Cultivating gratitude step-by-step
John Stephens, senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, echoes Millard’s idea about choosing to focus on our blessings rather than our problems. Philippians 4:8 calls us to do just that, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)
“Paul is saying, ‘I want you to change the way you think.’ And you’re going to have to allow God to help you,” Stephens says.
“All of that gets you to a place where you’re able to live a life of thanksgiving and gratitude, because as God starts pulling us back together, that oneness, that quiet, that rest, that peace of God that comes in our lives, that expands our spirit,” he says. “That’s what allows us to live a life of gratitude.”
“When you have a gratitude mindset, it’s easier to not have fear and denial and perfectionism control your thoughts,” Oeffler says. “It also may lower your blood pressure, increase your energy and block those negative feelings. And you recognize that even though there are things that can go wrong, you still have things to be thankful for.
“That’s so great,” she says, “that something as simple as giving thanks can do all of that.”
Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.
This story was published January 22, 2020.