Have you ever struggled to give thanks? Have you ever longed to be thankful, yet gratitude doesn’t seem to be the natural attitude of your heart — or maybe perhaps given your current circumstances gratitude just quite frankly feels impossible? Well, you’re not alone.
If you were to come over for a cup of coffee this week, you would see a DIY brown, cardstock banner strung across my dining room window.
Give Thanks it says.
What you might not know, is that my heart needs this banner strung across it too. Maybe I’m hoping as I walk past these words daily that they will somehow impress themselves upon my heart.
Giving thanks does not come naturally to me.
I like to think I’m a grateful person. (Don’t we all?) But an honest examination of my heart would reveal my struggle to give thanks, and not just in the hard times, but on any given day.
You see, my thought patterns seem to be wired toward pessimism and bitterness. I’m not sure if it’s genetics or environmental factors. I’m not sure when it started or if it’s the result of my life falling apart so many years ago –or a combination of all those things.
What I do know is that when I’m struggling with something or when my soul feels downcast, there is an overwhelming presence of negative thoughts and stories I’m making up running through my mind, and gratitude is far, far away.
Sometimes the negative thoughts seem so natural, and that’s where the danger lies, in how easily and quickly they slide in unnoticed. I have to catch myself and be alert because I’ve learned how dangerous and destructive their presence can be.
When I am alert to the negative shift in my thinking, I can visualize each thought as a bright wave of electrical current racing through and lighting up certain pathways and wires in my mind. When this happens, the negative thought patterns override the pathways of healthy thinking and prevent the presence of gratitude.
At times they feel like two opposing forces fighting to stake their claim in my mind.
On days when I’m aware of this battle, I intentionally try to fight back against the negative thoughts by finding reasons to be thankful and thinking positive thoughts. As much as I would like the presence of a “good” thought to simply replace a “bad” thought, the good, grateful thought sometimes ends up becoming distorted — sort of like it’s short circuiting.
Sometimes these distortions and my struggle with gratitude make it feel a little like I’m suffering from PTSD when everything began to fall apart years ago, from the shock of unexpected suffering, unexpected loss upon loss, and unexpected trial upon trial that came after I had spent an entire month publicly giving thanks. I’ve shared before that when this all happened it felt like a cruel, cosmic joke.
How do you give thanks when everything that matters, that you just gave thanks for, seems to have been taken away from you?
How do you give thanks in the midst of suffering and tragedy?
It felt impossible. There were days when I believed it was impossible. But eventually I learned how to give thanks, even when it cost me. (You can read about that here).
Unfortunately, even after I learned how to give thanks again (which was a huge victory), I still continue to battle and struggle with thanksgiving, and some days, yes, it feels a bit like PTSD. Like I’m taken back to the trauma and pain where gratitude distorts, fear flies, and joy feels impossible.
As I try to think a good thought, a thankful thought. I grab my journal and write my thanks down in ink, but with each stroke of the pen, my mind goes to battle. I wrestle with each word I write. I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten. I can see the grateful thought twisting and the negative thought trying to smolder it with lies.
Negative thoughts intrude that try to get me to abolish everything I want to give thanks for.
They try to instill fear in me by telling me that whatever I name and give thanks for will be taken from me. They’re dismissive and try to rob me of simple joys by telling me that small thing I’m thankful for, like the taste and aroma of a sweet, caramel latte, is silly and insignificant, so why bother to give thanks for it. Or the lies attack from another angle and tell me that giving thanks for such simple, trivial privileges that most of the world doesn’t have makes me spoiled and boastful, things of course that I do not want to be. They lie and tell me that if I can live without it, then it doesn’t matter, and, therefore, I don’t need to give thanks for it. They tell me to only give thanks for what “really” matters and what can’t be taken away.
Something I read years ago unlocked another one of these lies that had distorted my thinking and held me captive. I had come to believe that if I’m thankful in this tragedy, then the reality of my pain and broken heart would be completely dismissed, like none of it mattered, like it wasn’t even there. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down who said it or where I read it, so please forgive me, but this is is the essence of what I had read:
Gratitude does not negate the pain.
This idea transformed and freed me. Gratitude doesn’t dismiss the pain or brokenness. Gratitude in the pain opens a pathway to heal the brokenness.
When we give thanks in our brokenness, when we’re weary, mourning, suffering, struggling, and we boldly choose to give thanks, Jesus moves to work in us and bring healing and joy and life. In fact, dismissing and negating gratitude in the pain only adds more pain.
In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes:
“On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it into pieces…” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Jesus, on the night before driving hammer and iron piercing through ligament and sinew, receives what God offers as grace…the germ of His thanksgiving… Jesus offers thanksgiving for even that which will break Him and crush Him and wound Him and yield a bounty of joy.”
We see the ultimate lessons in giving thanks when it’s hard, in the midst of brokenness and pain, in the Gospel messages of salvation and communion. Jesus shows us it is possible.
It might be a battle and a struggle to give thanks, for many reasons, but it is possible to give thanks, in any circumstance –and God’s Word in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, tells us to.
When I’m longing to give thanks, but find myself struggling to, what’s causing the struggle? Are there invasive thoughts hissing lies?
When my soul is weary or downcast, are my thoughts focused on the weariness and cause of my pain or are they turned heavenward finding a supernatural way to give thanks?
I’m learning to ask and answer these questions in my struggles. I’m learning to recognize that some of my struggles come from the absence of grateful thoughts and that sometimes they are the result of the enemy’s lies infiltrating my mind.
Even as I struggle, I’m learning how to overcome and enter into authentic thanksgiving which is shifting my thought patterns and the attitude of my heart from downcast to joyful. I’m witnessing a transformation occurring in my mind and heart.
*This is the first post in our friend Kristin’s two part series on struggling with giving thanks. You can find more of her writing on her blog Kristin Vanderlip – An Expectant Heart