The Pursuit of a Grateful Life

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When considering how to move forward in a time of uncertainty about the future, I’ve found that there are some practical, propelling steps that can aid us in forward momentum. I’m a big fan of Emily P. Freeman’s podcast, The Next Right Thing. And most certainly, doing the next right thing is the best way forward, but how do you go about figuring out what that thing is?

After I gave birth my my twin boys, I found myself in a very strange place of feeling paralyzed by all of the focus in taking care of them (and my three older children). I found myself a little sad, and maybe it was post-partem depression or just a function of my personality, but I needed a hopeful way forward.

Enter Ann Voskamp and her book, One Thousand Gifts. I read the book, captivated by her lyrical writing style and the similar ways she and I process the world through symbols. The greatest gift I received from her was the discipline of gratitude. A friend challenged her to count one thousand ways God loved her and His gifts to her. She began to see His hand in the good, the beautiful, and the hard. I was inspired. I began keeping a gratitude journal, and I’ve kept it off and on for nine years. I surpassed 5000 gifts this year. This is a discipline that is a lifeline!

However, what I’ve discovered in all of this gratitude-keeping is that gratitude can’t merely be written down or even spoken aloud. It has to be lived. I can sit down each morning, write in my gratitude journal, and then have complaints on my tongue within a matter of minutes. I can functionally deny the gratefulness I just expressed with one word of discontentment, because isn’t it true that gratitude and contentment are sisters? Isn’t it true that complaint and discontentment go hand in hand? Why do I slip so easily from gratefulness to complaint?

Last year, I began the repeating spiral of discontentment, anxiety, and wanting to escape my current situation by running away. I could see that it was fueled by looking to the past or the future with the proverbial rose-colored glasses, but escaping it seemed impossible. It was my daily existence. I decided to return to a book I read many years ago, Calm My Anxious Heart, by Linda Dillow, in hopes of finding the help and inspiration to stop the cycle. Upon rereading this book, I was most struck by this manifesto written by a missionary in Africa:

1. Never picture yourself in any other circumstances or someplace else.

2. Never allow yourself to complain about anything–not even the weather.

3. Never dwell on tomorrow–remember that it is God’s, not ours.

4. Never allow yourself to wish this or that had been otherwise.

5. Never compare your lot with another’s.

Linda Dillow, Calm my anxious heart

Wow. When I read that, I was floored. This woman had no indoor plumbing, no air-conditioning, and taxing daily chores that we modern women in industrialized countries can’t fathom. It’s interesting that all of these admonishments are directed at the places we allow our thoughts to roam. When our thoughts run to fantasizing about a different life or circumstances, discontentment grows, and then it blossoms and gives birth to complaining. This is a daily struggle for yours truly.

Corralling meandering thoughts reminds me of that time in Anne of Avonlea when Anne Shirley’s cow, Dolly, repeatedly escaped and tramped into Mr. Harrison’s oat field, ruining his crop. Dolly just liked what she saw on the other side of the fence and stepped outside of her boundaries. I think our thoughts can be destructive like that old cow, but when carefully attended to and given limits, our focused thoughts will produce contentment in our hearts. Out of that contentment will spring true gratitude. How do we get from lip-service gratitude to deep contentment that overflows with a grateful spirit?

We have to repent for our complaints. I’m not talking about laments before God; I’m talking about griping and grumbling about how our kids don’t do enough to help around the house, or complaining that it’s too hot outside, and imagining that life would be better if ________________________________ was different. Pour out your laments about life to the Father; He can handle them and wants you to cast your cares on Him, because He does care for you (1 Peter 5:7). Earnestly repent for complaining. When we complain, we aren’t trusting Him. When we daydream about ideal days, we miss out on the fact that He is actually WITH US right now in this hard situation. I’ve been spending some time in Exodus this week, and it is really shocking to read the complaints of the Hebrews a short time after they escaped the oppression of slavery in Egypt. They had God’s presence protecting them in the cloud, they were led across the Red Sea on dry land, and God provided sweet water instead of bitter water. Still, they grumbled. And as I kept reading, I saw the complaints pile up. Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 10. He says,

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.

Paul the apostle, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 (ESV)

It will not do for us to experience the love and deliverance of God if we yearn for more than Him and what He has to offer us in our own wilderness hardships. They ended up wandering into idolatry, and funny enough, all these idealized images of how life should be are just idols. We want to enter into His rest, not hardening our hearts, wandering aimlessly, seeking mirages of fulfillment in the desert. Let’s turn our backs on complaint.

We also have to discipline our minds and our mouths. We must ask Him for help to be vigilant against the pull to look elsewhere for contentment and satisfaction. We have to rein in those wandering thoughts, and replace them with truths about Him and His presence with us. This is really what we’re longing for, right? To know that we’re not alone in this? To know that He is with us and for us? He is. It’s in His very name, Immanuel, God with us.

We have to take action. When you’ve repented and asked for help, you then have to be responsible to re-focus. I’m sure it’s different for every personality, but for my personality, I have to GET MOVING. This can be as simple as gaining momentum by completing the tasks in front of me, the things I am responsible to do. It is important for me not to give my mind the unrestricted downtime of fruitless wandering–stillness before the Lord–YES!–free-range thinking and feeling that is unproductive–NO! Every time, I am led astray by these thoughts that are not rooted in reality. I have to focus on Paul’s list in Philippians 4:8 and ask myself, “Is it…

  • True?
  • Honorable?
  • Just?
  • Pure?
  • Lovely?
  • Commendable?
  • Excellent?
  • Worthy of Praise?

In addition to exercising self-control in our minds and mouths, we have to exercise our bodies. Exercise disrupts thought patterns and gives us a chance to refocus on something different. I’m always amazed at the difference I feel when I get up out of my negative slump and move; I feel radically different. We’re not meant to be idle, dwelling on the negative situations in our lives. We’re meant to be movers, shakers, and world changers.

This is not an overnight journey, friends. This is a lifetime of surrendering your will for His, for following Him like a sheep follows her Good Shepherd, and for living the abundant life He promised which is more about the transformation He’s accomplishing IN you than just changing your circumstances. “He is with you, and in you,” (John 14:17, ESV).

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