Twelve ways to cultivate a thankful heart
© 1997 by Paul Thigpen
Each one of the ten had a tale of personal horror to tell, but the stories were all the same.
The nightmare had crept slowly across their bodies: white patches, lumps in the skin. Then the numbness had crawled up their limbs, stealing the strength from muscles and the feeling from fingers and toes. Finally, the faces had grown disfigured beyond recognition; the hands had stiffened into claws, and all that remained of the feet were crippled nubs.
Worst of all were the jeers from the children whenever the men passed too near a village. "Lepers!" they screamed, spitting the word like a curse. "Come too close, and we'll stone your ugly faces!"
So long ago these ten had been young and handsome, healthy and well-to-do, full of desires and dreams. But that seemed like another world, another lifetime. Now they were the walking dead.
One morning, as they approached yet another village to beg, they heard the children shouting once more. But this time there were no jeers. Instead the crowds were cheering the name that for months had spread like a whispered wildfire through the leper colony: Jesus.
The leper-healer from Nazareth stood by the village well, not far from the twisted outcasts. And he was looking their way.
All at once ten hoarse voices erupted in unison: "Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!"
He smiled — the first smile turned in their direction for many years — and said simply, "Go show yourselves to the priests."
He hadn't come close, hadn't even touched them. The ten examined one another.. Clearly, nothing had changed. Were they once again the butt of a cruel joke?
One of them, a Samaritan, turned back to the road, set his face toward Jerusalem and the temple, and motioned for his comrades to join him. "If the priests throw me out," he said, "then let the crowds stone me. What's left to live for?"
He hobbled down the dusty path, his crutch making holes in the scorched clay. And as the others followed, less in faith than in desperation, the miracle came. They were cleansed. Suddenly. Totally. Unconditionally.
Nine men shouted and raced down the road like boys in a game, peeling off their rags to welcome the sunshine on their now childlike skin. They never even looked back, never saw again the Face whose light had dawned on their darkness and ended their nightmare. But one man — the Samaritan — spun around, ran to Jesus, flung himself at His feet. Tears spilled down cleansed cheeks. He looked up, trembling, and whispered two words.
Foundation for Holiness
I tremble just to read the gospel account of the ten cleansed lepers. I shudder at the terrible suffering they must have endured and thrill to the glorious joy they must have felt when Jesus turned their world upside down.
But I also tremble when I ask myself the obvious question: If I had been among those ten men healed that day, would I have run away with the nine, or bowed down with the one? Would I have rushed off to enjoy the gift, or stopped to thank the Giver? In short: Would Jesus have found in me a grateful heart?
The question sobers me because I know that a continual attitude of gratitude is one sure sign of a soul crucified to pride and selfishness. The thankful heart is foundational for a holy life. In a sense, we could define prayer itself, as St. Therese of Lisieux once did, as "a cry of grateful love" launching out to God.
To be grateful, after all, is to see God, the world, and ourselves aright — to recognize that all of life is a gracious gift from His hand. We are all God's debtors. Without the chastening perspective of that reality, all the other virtues are skewed.
I tremble as well to remember that ingratitude is a clear indicator of the heart turned in on itself — of the proud, restless ego that is never satisfied, that believes the world owes it whatever it can get. Whether complaining that the gift is not good enough, or too absorbed in the gift to say thanks, the ingrate spurns the Giver in favor of self.
Does that seem too severe a judgment? We need only look at the terrible fruits of ingratitude to find that it's not. When the Apostle Paul examined some of the most tragic depravities of the world in his letter to the Romans, he found a thankless heart at the root: "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Romans 1:21, emphasis added).
Those who refuse to thank God for how He has made them and what He has given them walk in darkness, not able to see the light of reality. They've exchanged the truth about His grace for the lie of self-absorption. The result, says St. Paul, is envy, greed, murder, deceit, sexual perversion, slander, rebellion, and more (Romans 1:22-31).
Disciplines of the Grateful Heart
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.
When a frost seems to settle on my heart, I've learned, gratefulness is a habit to be cultivated, a labor of the soul that seeks God. As with the other virtues, we can't employ a mechanical technique to make us thankful. But we can recognize that the movements of the heart are most often responses to what the eyes of the heart perceive.
In many ways, then, gratitude is a matter of vision. We can learn to direct our attention to those things that draw us to God in appreciation for who He is and what He has done. In that regard, here are a dozen insights I've discovered along the way:
1. Give thanks as a holy discipline independent of feelings. True gratitude involves the heart as well as the lips. But sometimes when our hearts are cold our words can be sparks that kindle us again.
In any case, our lack of feeling does nothing to change the reality, as the old church liturgy says, that "it is right to give Him thanks." We owe God our expression of gratitude. That's why the Scripture repeatedly commands us to thank Him (Psalm 136; Ephes. 5:19-20; Col. 3:17). Once we realize that thanksgiving is not a polite courtesy but an urgent duty, we move beyond a slavish dependence on the way we feel moment by moment.
2. Give thanks for the 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.
We should keep in mind how the world would have seemed to that grateful leper Jesus cleansed. Ever after that miracle, he must have given thanks for twenty full fingers and toes, for the power just to run and leap again, for the smiles of children who once would have fled him in horror.
3. Look for the hidden blessings. St. Paul told the Colossians to be "watchful and thankful" (Col. 4:2). Often we must keep ourselves alert to the graces God gives subtly or indirectly.
Sometimes we grumble that 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 endowments, wishing they were prettier or stronger or smarter. Sometimes we fail to realize that 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 especially 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, "Give thanks in all circumstances," not for all circumstances (1 Thes. 5:18, emphasis added). St. Paul modeled that kind of gratitude himself: While he sat in chains in prison, he gave thanks for God's goodness and encouraged his friends not to complain (Phil. 1:3; Phil. 2:14).
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 just hours before the horrible death He knew was waiting (Matthew 26:26). 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 — that "the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God" (John 13:3). Because of that 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 by 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 the folks in the unemployment line. 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 (1 Chron. 23:30). In a more private context and a later generation, we find Daniel kneeling to thank God three times a day (Daniel 6:10).
In our home, as a way of cultivating an "attitude of gratitude," we've established a family bedtime tradition. Just before we pray together and tuck the kids in, each family member has to say one thing that happened that day for which he or she is grateful. Sometimes this little discipline is difficult, especially if someone has had a trying day. But even then, as my wife recently sighed one evening, we can thank the Lord that the day is over!
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 otherwise have overlooked.
King David knew this reality. He said to God, "I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people" (Psalm 35:18, emphasis added). And when Jesus thanked the Father for hearing his prayer to raise Lazarus, He said the words aloud for the benefit of those around Him (John 11:41-42).
9. Try a voluntary fast from something you take for granted. As familiarity breeds contempt, so absence makes the heart grow fonder. Give up eating for a day, and 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.
10. Keep a record of God's faithfulness to you. "Count your blessings," as the old song says; try listing them in a regular journal that you review periodically. One family I know keeps a "Thank-You Book," complete with pictures, dedicated exclusively to recording answers to prayer and other blessings from the Lord.
11. 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, the 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.
12. 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. St. 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" (2 Cor. 9:12).
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 as the nine lepers did. Instead, like that healed Samaritan, we'll be sure to run toward the Lord, fall at His feet, and whisper often the words He delights to hear:
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