No doubt most of us have moments when our hearts spring up with thanks for God’s goodness. But at times we may also find ourselves in wintry spiritual seasons when our sense of gratitude freezes over.
During these seasons, gratefulness is a habit you can cultivate. As with other virtues, you can’t employ a mechanical technique to make yourself more thankful. But you can learn to recognize that the movements of the heart are most often responses to what the eyes of the heart perceive.
We can learn to direct our attention to things that draw us closer to God in appreciation for who He is and what He has done:
1. Give thanks, even if you don’t feel like it
True gratitude involves the heart as well as the lips. But sometimes when our hearts are cold, our words can spark our hearts back to life. Even if we don’t feel thankful, it doesn’t change the reality that it is right to give God thanks. Once we realize thanksgiving is an urgent duty, we move beyond a slavish dependence on the way we feel moment by moment.
2. Give thanks for small and ordinary things
Someone once said the only thing necessary to make us unappreciative of a blessing from God is that we should receive the blessing often and regularly. With blessings, as with relationships, familiarity often breeds contempt, but absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you give up eating for a day, those few words of thanks before your next meal will take on a whole new meaning. Run your errands on foot for an afternoon, and you’ll be grateful for your car. Or spend some time on your next business trip looking at the pictures in your wallet or purse and thanking God for the family members and friends you miss having around.
3. Look for the hidden blessings
Sometimes we must keep ourselves alert to the graces God gives us subtly or indirectly. Sometimes we grumble the gifts we have are different from the gifts we would have chosen for ourselves. Think about how often, for example, we hear people complain about their physical appearance or other natural abilities, wishing they were prettier or stronger or smarter. Sometimes we fail to realize not every gift we seek would be to our benefit. For some, beauty leads to vanity, physical strength to belligerence and intelligence to pride.
4. Thank God in the midst of adversity
God doesn’t ask us to be thankful for the sorrows that come our way, but he does want us to demonstrate trust in his care by thanking him in spite of them. The Apostle Paul said to “give thanks in all circumstances,” not for all circumstances. He modeled this kind of gratitude himself: when he sat in chains in prison, he gave thanks for God’s goodness and encouraged his friends not to complain.
5. Turn your attention from your problems to God’s priorities in your life
We may have to take a step back to see the big picture if we want to be grateful for what God is accomplishing in us. Jesus gave the Father thanks for his last meal hours before the horrible death he knew was waiting. How could he be grateful for such a seemingly small thing when he was about to endure such suffering? Jesus could be grateful because he saw the bigger picture of God’s plan. Because of this perspective, Jesus could give thanks for a last supper that would establish the glorious new covenant he had come to make possible.
6. Give your attention and care to those whose lives make your particular blessings stand out in comparison
Have you been grumbling that you can’t afford a new couch for the living room? Go serve in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Have you found it hard to thank God for your boss? Talk a few minutes with those looking for a job. Do you complain about minor aches and pains? Pray for someone with a terminal illness. Your gratitude to God is sure to grow.
7. Set aside time daily to express thanks to God
In ancient Israel, a daily habit of thanksgiving was so important to the life of the nation that the Levites were officially appointed to stand in the temple every morning and evening to thank God. In a more private context and later generation, we find Daniel kneeling to thank God three times a day. Sometimes, the discipline of finding something to be grateful for is difficult, especially if you have had a trying day. But even then, you can thank the Lord that the day is over! Try listing these in a regular journal you review periodically.
8. Thank God publicly and corporately
When we join with other believers, we can encourage one another with our accounts of God’s goodness and faithfulness, and we see blessings in our own lives we might have otherwise overlooked.
9. Show gratitude toward others as well as God
Make it a point to tell family and friends how grateful you are for their kindness. Stock up on thank you notes and use them generously, even for small favors. Thank the folks involved in your daily affairs: the bus driver, office janitor, the grocery store clerk. The more you appreciate all these people, the more you’ll appreciate the one who put them in your life.
10. Give generously to those in need
Giving can be a concrete expression of gratitude to God that imitates his own graciousness, and it leads others to thank him as well. Paul told the Corinthians that such generosity “is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”
In all these ways we learn to turn our attention outward toward God and others so we can see our lives for what they truly are: an inestimable gift of divine grace.
If we cultivate the discipline of gratitude, we can overcome the temptation to turn our backs on the Lord in self-absorption. Instead, we’ll be sure to run toward the Lord, fall at his feet and whisper two simple words: Thank you.
This article first appeared as "Returning Thanks: Twelve ways to cultivate a thankful heart" in the November/December 1993 edition of Discipleship Journal magazine.