AFTER MY WIFE DIED, I kind of stopped noticing colors for some time. We had always enjoyed the fall colors together. Autumn was her favorite season of the year, but without her by my side, the leaves just didn’t seem colorful anymore. Instead, everything looked gray and bland. The places we had once enjoyed together seemed unattractive without her. The songs I had once sung sounded meaningless. The future I had once envisioned seemed empty. Like many people grieving the death of a loved one, I was so focused on what I had lost that it was difficult for me to notice or appreciate the blessings I still had. To be completely honest, the last thing I wanted to practice was gratitude.
King Solomon wrote, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4).
God understands that we cycle through different emotions. We can come to Him in sorrow, joy, anger, or fear—and be completely honest with Him about how we are feeling. He will respond with compassion and kindness. But regardless of the circumstances and conflicting emotions of our lives, God still wants us to practice gratitude. He knows that gratitude will remind us of His love and power and will enhance the quality of our lives.
My aunt Hilde modeled gratitude to me in a beautiful way. She could relate to my pain because her husband had died in a tragic car accident a couple of years earlier. But she chose to remain grateful and challenged me to do the same. She encouraged me to do a simple gratitude exercise that I found to be very helpful. Each day for a week, I was to write down 10 words of things I was grateful for as well as 10 sentences explaining why I was grateful for each thing. The sentences could even be turned into prayers. For example:
Eyes. Thank You, Lord, for my eyes, because they allow me to see color and to see the faces of people I love.
Hands. Thank You, God, for my hands, which allow me to write, to do good, and to touch other people.
Toothbrush. Thank You, Lord, for my toothbrush, because it helps my mouth to feel fresh and clean, which also helps give me confidence.
When I first started the practice, it was challenging to know what to write. But gratitude is like a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows. At the end of the week, I had 70 things to be grateful for, but I also had a new perspective. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I had increased my capacity to enjoy the “hidden” blessings that had been there all along.
Do you have any “hidden blessings” that you could enjoy more? Do you feel burdened and frustrated with the negative or unfair aspects of life? If so, perhaps gratitude can bless you like it has blessed me.
God has invited and called His children to be people who exercise gratitude. “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. Giving thanks means remembering that someone has done something good for us and expressing that goodness in words. God wants us to express our gratitude for the life He has given us and the many beautiful things He has created for us to enjoy.
On this side of eternity, life will never run smoothly or perfectly. But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful! Beauty meets and greets us unlike anything else in the world. It startles us in breathtaking ways, moving our minds and hearts to consider its Source. The fragrant smell of a rose, the majestic waves crashing on the shore, the affectionate twinkle in a friend’s eyes—each experience of beauty echoes God’s love and reminds us of the beautiful things He has prepared for those who love Him.
Like goodness, beauty is part of God’s created reality. Although it surrounds us, it’s something we often miss. Developing an attitude of gratitude will open our eyes to the beautiful things in nature, the beautiful people, and the beautiful experiences in life that we often overlook. Gratitude allows us to be thankful for the simple blessings and valuable people around us, without demanding perfection or satisfaction all the time. Interestingly, the word “gratitude” is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness.
By practicing gratitude, virtuous people shift their attention from the imaginary things they don’t have to the reality of the blessings they do (still) have. Gratitude grows out of an awareness of God’s generosity and a curiosity to explore the specific ways He has shown His love to us. Such gratitude widens the horizon of life and increases our capacity to experience pleasure.
Instead of focusing on the things we lack or the things we are unable to do, we can deliberately reflect on the many things we do have and are able to do. Gratitude fosters a mindset that brings satisfaction in its wake. It also raises our awareness of the many opportunities and possibilities we have to share God’s blessings with others. This can be as simple as sharing a smile, expressing appreciation, or doing a random act of kindness.
A Harvard Health article entitled “In Praise of Gratitude” states: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”1
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” —Melody Beattie
Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a leading researcher and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, scientifically tested the impact of various gratitude exercises on over 400 people. While gratitude journaling proved to be beneficial, another practice was even more powerful. Participants received an assignment to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to a person who had contributed to their lives but had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. After delivering their letters, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. The study showed that the impact was greater than that of any other gratitude intervention. These positive effects lasted for a month.2 No wonder God calls us to express our thankfulness—He knows it will bring us joy and will be a blessing to those around us.
Imagine the tremendous benefit you can receive as you cultivate an attitude of gratitude: positive emotions, memories of good experiences, increased physical and mental health, stronger relationships, and increased resilience to cope with adverse situations. These benefits are well worth the minimal effort required to practice gratitude.
Giving thanks indeed changes life for the better. I can personally testify to this. Learning to be thankful and to express gratitude following the death of my wife, Ulrike, was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever learned, but it opened up a perspective that has transformed my life for the better. Those who gives thanks live not only more gratefully, but also more contentedly and healthfully. Gratitude leads to peace and contentment. According to a wise Amish proverb, “Contentment is not getting what we want but being satisfied with what we have.”3
My aunt challenged me to practice gratitude, and I want to challenge you. Every day for the next week, write down 10 things for which you are grateful. After you have written down 10 words (e.g., eyes, bed, friend, etc.), think for a moment about what these things actually mean to you (e.g., What do my eyes mean for me? What do they enable me to do that I wouldn’t be able to do if I were blind? What does my bed mean to me? How would life change if I always had to sleep on a hard, cold floor? What does my friend mean to me? How would life be different if I didn’t have this friend in my life?).
Then take each word and write a short sentence expressing your gratitude to God, the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17). You can say: “Lord Jesus, thank You for my eyes with which I can see colors and read books. Thank You for my bed that keeps me comfortable and warm. Thank You for my supportive friend who makes life so much more enjoyable. Thank You for . . .”
Next, speak each of these sentences out loud so that you can hear your own voice. The more you engage your senses (seeing, touching, speaking, hearing) in expressing thankfulness, the more firmly the grateful thoughts will be fixed in your mind.
The next day, repeat the process with 10 new things. If you want to intensify this exercise, repeat the items from the previous day (or days). At the end of just one week, you will already have 70 reasons to be grateful! If you keep building the habit, gratitude will change your life—guaranteed!
2 M. E. P. Seligman et al., “Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist 60, no. 1 (July–August 2005): pp. 410–421, as quoted in Fisher, The Heart of the Amish, pp. 163, 176.
3 Fisher, The Heart of the Amish, p. 160.