Living With Gratitude Has Not Come Easily For Me
The deepest roots of Christian thanksgiving go back to the Old World, way back before the Pilgrims, to a story as old as creation, with a two-millennia-old climax. It’s a story that keeps going right on into the present and gives meaning to our little lives, even when we’re a half a globe removed from history’s ground zero at a place called Golgotha.
Look Through the Lens of Thanksgiving
Living with gratitude has not come easily for me.
I know I should count my blessings, but sometimes it’s just easier to count my miseries.
That comes more naturally. And miseries capture my thoughts and interrupt my days more readily than blessings. But counting my miseries seems to shrink my soul, and in the end I am more miserable than when I began.
Counting my blessings may be arduous at first, an act of taxing obedience rather than an overflow of joy, but in the end it opens up space in my heart. When I choose to focus on what I have been given, rather than linger over what I’m missing, I feel happier. More content. Less agitated.
And when I choose to face my miseries directly and find blessings in them, something miraculous happens. I view all of life differently. I see my circumstances through a lens of faith. And I am able to declare with confidence that, even in the worst of circumstances, God is still good and there is much to be thankful for.
For years I pictured the first Thanksgiving as the Pilgrims’ joyful celebration of a bountiful harvest, sharing with the indigenous people God’s abundant provision in a fertile new land. But celebrating the first Thanksgiving was an act of faith and sober worship, not a natural response to prosperity and abundance.
In the fall of 1620, the Mayflower set sail for Virginia with 102 passengers on board. On December 16, they landed in Massachusetts, far north of their intended destination, just as winter was setting in. This northern climate was much harsher than Virginia’s, and the settlers were unprepared for the cold season ahead. Winter brought bitter temperatures and rampant sickness. Shelter was rudimentary. Food was scarce. People lay dying.
That winter, all but three families dug graves in the hard New England soil to bury a husband, wife, or child. By the spring of 1621, half of the Pilgrims had died from disease and starvation. No one was untouched by tragedy.
And yet in the midst of these monumental losses, the Pilgrims chose to give thanks. They saw in Scripture that the Israelites had thanked God in all their circumstances. Even before provision and deliverance came, the Israelites were instructed to give thanks. King Jehoshaphat saw the power of thanksgiving as the Israelites’ enemies were routed before their eyes while they were praising God (2 Chronicles 20). And the words they used were similar to the beautiful refrain that runs through so many Psalms, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
The Pilgrims and Israelites chose to be grateful for what they had, rather than to focus on all they had lost. They had to look for blessings. Actively and deliberately. Their thanksgiving was not based on pleasant circumstances, but rather on the understanding that God was to be thanked in both prosperity and adversity. Their gratitude was not a “positive thinking” façade, but a deep and steadfast trust that God was guiding all their circumstances, even when life was difficult. Viewing their lives through a lens of gratitude changed their perspective.
I have found that viewing life through a lens of Godward gratitude can change everything.
Choose Your Focus
A close friend of mine is a photographer. She sees things I would never notice. We can drive by an old, faded barn, and I see a dilapidated building in need of paint, while she sees a beautifully weathered structure with great character. She focuses on unique angles and lines, observing intricate details that don’t even register with me. She’s willing to look past the obvious and relish the small things. My friend ends up with breathtaking photos of scenery that I would have completely overlooked. All because of what she chooses to focus her lens on.
In the same way, how I view my own life is dependent on what I choose to focus on. From some angles, it looks like a mess. But from other vantages, it is beautiful. My perspective all depends on where I direct my lens.
Several years ago, when I was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, I was devastated. It is a debilitating progressive disease. The doctors told me that my diagnosis meant setting aside the way of life I was accustomed to and starting a whole new life. A life where I did less and rested more. A life where my arms were to be used for essentials — no painting, no scrapbooking, no cooking. A life where dependence on others was necessary and independence was a thing of the past.
This new life was excruciating. I didn’t ask for it, and I certainly didn’t want it. I saw nothing to be thankful for. All around me was loss. It seemed that everything I loved doing had been taken away. Connecting with people, showing hospitality, creating beauty — these were what had inspired me. And all of those outlets were gone. I was pitiful, miserable, and disconsolate.
Yet it was out of this challenging loss that my online writing began. In the same week, three separate friends encouraged me to start writing. So I prayed, and God seemed to confirm their words. I had never aspired to be a writer. I certainly didn’t feel gifted as one. Up until then, my only writing had been in my private journal.
But nonetheless I started writing, even though my heart wasn’t fully in it. Writing didn’t require signifiant physical effort since I could use voice-activated software to get my words on the screen. I could do it at my own pace if I was exhausted, and I could connect with others without ever leaving my home. It has been a tremendous blessing and privilege to share with people what God taught me in the darkness.
I would never have chosen this path for myself, and from certain angles, my life looks bleak. Yet from other angles, it is beautiful. I see God using me. I am grateful for all he’s done in my life. And I am excited about the future. When I view my life with the lens of thanksgiving, I can see how much I have to be grateful for.
I don’t know what the future holds for me — and you don’t know what it holds for you — but I can promise you this: If you are in Christ, the one who holds you is guiding all your circumstances. And for that assurance, we can all be thankful.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Desiring God. She blogs at danceintherain.com, although she doesn’t like rain and has no sense of rhythm. Vaneetha is married to Joel and has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. She and Joel live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vaneetha is the author of the new book The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering