“Gratitude, thankfulness is spiritual dynamite. To thank God in all things, for all things is medicine the weary world needs to live life with purpose.” Patty Hubbard, writer
Recently, a stomach virus struck our household. As the lone adult still standing, I found myself running around the house with a container of Clorox wipes in one hand and an empty trash can in the other, trying to contain the mess that seemed to be spreading everywhere. My children were whiny, my toddler felt terrible without understanding what was happening to him, and my husband just wanted to crawl into bed and wait for it to pass. Everyone needed something at once.
I needed rest. I was exhausted.
Most of us eventually have to tend to an unpleasant task when we’d rather be almost anywhere else doing almost anything else. It’s easy to become discouraged and feel despair in trying times, and I often fall into the tempting trap of feeling sorry for myself. What’s an overworked, underappreciated mom to do?
The answer has always made me roll my eyes.
Yeah, right. Rejoice? I do sometimes feel joyful, but not usually while I’m cleaning toilets. Rejoicing in trial has always seemed like an impossible order to me. But St. Paul is clear in his instructions to the church in Thessalonica…and since we are part of the Body of Christ, these instructions are for us, too:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV)
How, exactly, are we supposed to give thanks when what we really feel like doing is complaining? Here is a four-step plan that I use to help redirect my spirit when it wanders from the thankful path:
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
This might seem like merely popular spirituality, but it has the potential to transform us. If we make it a discipline at the beginning and/or end of each day to write down a few things for which we are grateful, we’ll begin to see the blessings all around us.
Our eyes get used to looking for the things we seek. If we spend our time searching out the good, true and beautiful parts of our lives, those are the things that begin to draw our attention. When we see evidence of these good things, we find even more opportunities for gratitude. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of thankfulness for God’s goodness in our lives, and we feel better.
I write down three things every morning, and I find this trains me to look for additional things during the day that I add to my list as I go. It has made a big difference in my outlook. For example, on the days that I was dealing with sickness in my family, I was thankful for indoor plumbing with hot water, working laundry machines at our house, and the rocking chair by the front window for comforting my toddler.
2. When a trial appears, turn it on its head.
When a complaint or gripe surfaces in our minds, we don’t have to let it run away with us. We have the ability to take that thought captive and turn it into something else. I tend to spiral downward with negative thoughts and let them spin out of control, making whatever minor disaster has just befallen me into a major catastrophe. Usually, my children are the ones who get the fallout. I walk into the bathroom and find toothpaste smeared everywhere- the counter, the doorknob, the mirror, the floor, and my heart sinks. Oh, this is terrible! Look at this sticky mess! It will take me forever to clean this up! My kids keep messing things up and leaving them for me to handle…they will never grow up into people who can clean up after themselves! They’ll be total slobs! They’ll make terrible roommates and spouses! What am I doing wrong…why can’t I teach them to clean up properly?
Instead of allowing my mind to run down this path, I could stop that thought in its tracks and flip it into a prayer of gratitude for exactly the thing about which I was about to complain: Thank you, God, that my children are learning independence. Help me to patiently teach them and guide them as they grow and learn. This one is harder for me than writing lists of gratitudes, but it has great potential to help me reframe the difficult moments in my day. If nothing else, it puts me directly in touch with God every time I find myself complaining, and that can only be a good thing.
3. Create a grateful mantra.
A mantra is a repeated, short phrase that is memorized and embedded in our brains. We can fall back on it when our own thoughts and words fail us as a way of pulling ourselves back on track. It might be a prayer, a fragment of a song, a scripture verse, or a positive quote. Whatever it is, the idea is to get into the habit of saying it during times of stress or when we are tempted to complain. (It counts even if we have to say it through gritted teeth!)
Some ideas for a gratitude mantra are:
In all things, give thanks.
Thank you, God, for ______.
This is the day the Lord has made!
The Lord is my strength and my song.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Father, I need your help! (Lord, make haste to help me!)
4. Establish accountability.
Finding a partner for support when we’re working on a new skill is always a good idea. Just like exercise, gratitude takes practice. As our thankful muscles get stronger, we’ll be better able to respond when negative circumstances tempt us to complain. In the meantime, having a buddy to help keep us on track might make it more likely that we can stick with the plan when things are tough.
What do you do when you find yourself in the middle of a storm of unpleasantness, about to go down with the ship? Would one of these ideas work for you?
Copyright 2017 Abbey Dupuy