Gratitude: Our Best Defense

by Annie Higgins 

As much as we might not like to admit it, we live in a culture of scarcity and fear-mongering. Advertisers, the media, well-intended friends and family, and often our own minds, lob messages of “not enough” at us on a regular basis. Messages like: “I don’t have enough (time, money, friends, sleep, exercise, or designer fill-in-the blank).” Or worse yet: “I’m not (smart, talented, pretty, skinny, successful, or worthy) enough.” This leads to anxiety because we’re telling ourselves that if we don’t get more of that thing then we’re not okay, and it can lead to despair because very often what we are focusing on is an unrealistic expectation.

My experience as a therapist has taught me that people are incredibly skilled at holding onto these negative messages and dismissing the positive. Some psychologists attribute this ‘attention to the negative’ to a coping strategy used to avoid pain and danger going forward. I agree, but I believe this goes much deeper than that. I think this is rooted in the great tension between our God-given design for love and connection and the lie deep within all of us that we’re not really worthy of that love and connection. Unfortunately, the shame and fear that this tension creates leads us to do the very opposite of what would be most helpful to us!

What does all of this have to do with gratitude? I’m so glad you asked…

When I ask my clients what their goals are for counseling, nearly all of them say something like: “I just want to be happy.” That sounds good, but I think that happiness, as a goal, is unrealistic. You see, for most people, happiness is contingent upon circumstances. It sounds like: “when I get the __________________ (time, money, success, etc.) I’m lacking, then I’ll be happy.”

I propose that a more realistic aspiration is the cultivation of joy. Am I just arguing semantics? I don’t think so. I found this definition of joy on Theopedia.com and I think it summarizes the distinction: joy is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope. So here’s the key: If we cultivate and live out of this orientation of the heart, then those messages of not-enough cannot survive.

So how does one cultivate joy? By practicing GRATITUDE!!! (There it is!!)

I have deep respect and admiration for the research and works of Brené Brown. In her book called The Gifts of Imperfection, she discusses her research on the relationship between gratitude and joy. Here she discusses “three powerful patterns that emerged” from the data:

  • “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.
  • “Both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • “People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

Brown points out that gratitude is a spiritual practice, but I would take it a step further. I believe that gratitude is the Biblical defense against fear and scarcity!

Philippians 4:6-7 says “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV) The charge to “not worry about anything” seems incredibly difficult, but it is imperative to keep it in context with the rest of the verse. The charge is actually: instead of remaining in a state of worry, go to God with your needs and desires – but do so with thanksgiving.

This works because when you are consciously choosing to remember all the good things in your life (blessings, ways that you’ve grown through trials, needs that are continually satisfied) it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to remain in a state of worry. Here we are doing the very opposite of focusing on the “not enough” messages. We are focusing on all of the ways that we actually have exactly what we need, and this helps us to trust in God’s goodness and provision in areas where we still have unmet desires.

So what does it mean to cultivate gratitude? It’s more than just the ‘attitude of gratitude’ platitude that we’ve all heard before. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown underscores the importance of practice. She says, “It seems that gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works – it’s not alive.”

It seems as though God has been teaching me a lot about this practice over the past couple of years through various relationships and resources, two of which are books related to strengthening our attention to the good messages and blessings in our world. Both One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp, and A Sudden Glory, by Sharon Jaynes, are great resources if you know this is an area in your life that needs some attention.

There is no specific template for cultivating gratitude, but here are several practical ways to combat the mentality of scarcity and develop the lens of gratitude:

  • Pay attention to the good. Each morning set your intention to see and acknowledge positive, peaceful, enjoyable attributes in yourself, others, and the world around you. Don’t wait for extraordinary events, pay attention to the daily doses of joy available in your ordinary routine.
  • Pray for God’s help in this. Ask Him to see His provision all around you that you may be missing.
  • Keep track. Whether you make a gratitude journal, write a blog, share in your Facebook status, or text a friend, find some way of documenting the things for which you are grateful. Then occasionally go back and read over it if you need a perspective adjustment to get over the ‘not enough’ messages.
  • Make joy a family affair. Share what you are thankful for during dinner, send gratitude texts during the day, pray prayers of gratitude before bed.
  • Make sure that you are modeling Phil: 4:6-7. When you pray, take time for remembering and praising God for His provision in your life.
  • Change your self-talk. When you notice the ‘not enough’ messages, gently redirect and say “I’m feeling vulnerable in this area and that’s okay, but I am so thankful for ______________.” For example, when I sat down to write this article my initial thoughts were, “I haven’t written in a while, I’m out of practice, I’m not a very good writer anyway, maybe I shouldn’t do this.” Thankfully, I caught myself and changed my self-talk to “I want to do a good job on this and that’s okay, but I don’t have to be perfect. I’m thankful that I am competent for this task and energized by the topic!”
  • One more from Brené Brown, who as part of her blog (http://brenebrown.com/my-blog/) does gratitude posts on Fridays, which include “what I’m trusting in, what I’m grateful for, what inspires me, and how I’m practicing my faith.”

I do not believe that this is a quick fix. However, I do believe that being intentional about gratitude will grow us into people who are more joyful and resilient than we ever imagined we could be. I believe that is what it means to have the ‘peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.’

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