For the longest time, I’ve struggled with the Christian virtue of gratitude. As a child, I remember having difficulty figuring out how to express my appreciation in a way that felt meaningful. This difficulty continued into adulthood. It wasn’t the lack of gratitude that troubled me, but the ever-lingering question: “Am I really expressing true gratitude?”
To me, there seems to be a difference between light, airy gratitude, and a weighty, thick kind of gratitude. The former, like vapor, fades away soon after it’s been acknowledged. The latter weighs on the heart. It’s the delineation between causal acknowledgment and utter appreciation. Airy gratitude says, “Gosh, the sunset looks nice,” then walks away. Beholding the same sunset, weighty gratitude barely says a word because something of God’s transcendent love is moving in their heart. Sense the difference?
This has been my struggle. How can I really articulate what I’m grateful for, like really express it to another human or to God? How does one describe the feeling of their whole being overflowing with an intoxicating fountain of gratefulness? Can our finite human minds even really grasp the weight of salvation and the reciprocal gratitude that we owe to our God? Can we grasp the enormity of it? Can we truly express how it makes us feel?
I did not begin to understand the weight of rich gratitude – and embrace its fullness – until I noticed its absence in my life. During a particularly difficult season, I realized that I was becoming uncharacteristically critical. Not the good kind of healthy criticism, the kind useful for advancement and progress, but a dangerous kind, the kind that sees fault in everything and everyone. It was the kind of criticism that feeds on bitterness. My heart was growing bitter, and I was utterly convinced that the world was a dark, dreary place, devoid of joy. Startled by this fog of negativity, I figured something needed to change.
Prompted by the Spirit, I was reminded of a simple, yet powerful mindfulness activity: find three things a day that you are grateful for and write them down. I committed to writing every evening before bed just to see what would happen. It took a little effort at first. Honestly, I struggled to come up with things that were positive. But, begrudgingly, I started noticing the good things: I was glad for a good meal, a good drive home, etc.
Slowly, after a few weeks, things changed. I had trouble picking just three things to write down. My days seemed to overflow with gratitude. What’s more, the simple gratitudes seemed to grow richer, gaining weight. The sunrise on the way to work took on glory. The touch of my wife’s hand against mine was layered with memories and meaning. The air after a rain, fragrant with the smell of earth, was sweeter. I started to notice the brilliance of grace between all the darkness. As I looked for blessings rather than curses, my heart became attuned to God all around. I was inundated and overwhelmed, humbled to experience such grace.
I think there is a connection here with Paul’s encouragement to pray always with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). The fog of bitterness and criticism is one of the enemy’s greatest weapons. It takes root, steals joy and clouds the heart’s ability to stay attuned to God. But God gives us a tool to counter this darkness: gratitude. Where bitterness and criticism destroy, gratitude nourishes and uplifts.
Things shifted most distinctly for me when I considered gratitude as a practice rather than a feeling. It requires regular work, but the cultivation of gratitude allows our souls to unfurl – like the petals of a flower – toward our God. Blessedly, this is not something we do alone. The anointing of the Spirit, who co-mingles with our willingness, enables us to look at the world in a different way. And it surprises me every day.