…gratitude is a form of intercession. Only it must not be like the gratitude of the Pharisee, who condemned others and justified himself (cf. Luke 18:11). On the contrary, it must make one regard oneself as a greater debtor than all [others]; one gives thanks in astonished bewilderment because one understands God’s unutterable restraint and forbearance.
— St. Peter of Damaskos (Book 1: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, The Philokalia Vol. 3 edited by Palmer, pg. 187)
“Do not push or pull.”
Those words of wisdom were written in bold block letters across the back of a tractor-trailer truck I passed on the highway.
The topic of gratitude had been on my mind that morning and these words struck me as one of the keys to living a life of gratitude.
“Do not push or pull.”
So often, we forget to give thanks for the things in our lives because we are too busy pushing and pulling. We are pushing away things we don’t want — despair, debt, loneliness, unemployment, death — and working hard at pulling things to us that we do want — happiness, love, contentment, employment, money, homes, life. We cannot fathom a life where we do not either push or pull — often simultaneously.
We so often see our lives as an ongoing struggle, an endless pushing and pulling. We crave inertia — every move made so we can just stop and maybe experience moments of peace and quiet in our lives. And sometimes they come to us — those moments of peace, those moments of grace. They are fleeting however, simply because we have not learned how to live our lives in gratitude — thankful for every moment in our lives, whether good or bad.
The words, “grace” and “gratitude,” have the same Latin roots, “gratia” or “gratus,” which means, “pleasing.” When moments of grace come to us we are pleased — we feel loved, embraced by God’s loving-kindness and unconditional love. Grace comes to us in moments of joy as well as moments of unrest and sadness. Grace does not depend on our state of mind or the circumstances of our situation. Grace is the divine love of God freely bestowed upon us — especially when we least expect it. Gratitude should mirror this grace. We should feel grateful no matter what our circumstances. Not in the way the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 felt grateful because his life situation was superior to the despised tax collector, like St. Peter of Damaskos points out, but grateful that we are alive in each moment, no matter how painful or joyful that moment may be.
Paul counsels us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17 to, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”
“Give thanks in ALL circumstances.” This cannot be stressed enough. Gratitude means that everything of life is “pleasing” — the joy, the sorrow, the pain, the elation. Life is messy. Life is never clearly one way or the other. Our lives are never black and white, as much as we may want them to be. There will always be moments of intense pain and moments of intense pleasure and many more moments of neither in between. Gratitude means that we are happy to be alive in each moment. It means that ALL of life is pleasing, merely because it IS life. Gratitude means that we are always aware of God’s presence in every moment — whether we choose to call those moments good or bad.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn tells a story about a man who raised horses. One day, the horses tore through the gate and they all ran away. “That’s bad news,” said his neighbor. “We’ll see,” said the ranch owner. Two weeks later, all the man’s horses returned, and the gate was fixed. “That’s good news!” said the man’s neighbor. “We’ll see,” the rancher replied. A few weeks later, the rancher’s son fell from one of the horses and broke his arm. “That’s bad news!” the neighbor clucked. “We’ll see,” the rancher said. Several weeks later, war broke out and the government rounded up all able bodied men to go to war. The neighbor’s sons were pressed into service, but the rancher’s son was spared, because of his broken arm.
The point is, we often don’t know what is bad news or good news in our lives. Things that may seem terrible now will seem like good fortune later, and vice versa. We cannot judge the things that come to us. Instead we must be grateful for all of them — giving thanks in ALL circumstances.
‘Inner health made audible’
Lest you think I’m being a Pollyanna about things, let me tell you what kind of a year I’ve had! I’ve had two very serious car accidents this year (one coming just four months after the other) in my year old Honda Accord. Anyone who has ever dealt with car accidents and the insurance headache that comes afterward knows intimately the frustration I have been through this year. I have cussed, screamed and asked “why me, Lord?” over and over again. I have been anything but grateful for the troubles that came my way. But, in retrospect, there is much to be grateful for. In both accidents, though they were serious, no one was injured. My car was fixed both times. Insurance has paid for rental cars, medical bills and other expenses. I am grateful that I am still here, alive, happy and well. Was I grateful while the events were happening? Nope, not one bit. I spent much of my time bitter and angry. Should I have been grateful? Yes, most certainly. I probably would have spent less time bitter and angry and more time joyful for God’s presence even in frustrating and frightening circumstances.
C.S. Lewis observed that “praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” He wrote how had problems giving God praise when he first became a Christian. He complained that God seemed to be some megalomaniac who demanded that his subjects praise him relentlessly.
“Worse still was the statement put into God’s own mouth, ‘whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoreth me’ (Psalm 50:23). It was hideously like saying, ‘What I want most want is to be told that I am good and great.'”
Instead, praise should be something that wells up within us without effort, not something we do simply because some deity demands it from us. Praise should be something we are so filled with that it spills out no matter what. If our inner health consists of a heart of gratitude, it will become audible in our praise. If our inner health consists of a heart of fear, a heart of struggle and despair, constantly pushing and pulling, then it will be made audible too in the form of complaints, arrogance, denial and hatred. The Pharisee in the temple made his inner health audible — he praised God that he was not like someone he despised. His heart was not filled with gratitude, but with fear — fear that he might have more in common with that lowly tax collector than with God.
Two human feelings
There are only two feelings we can have as human beings — love or fear.
“The great difference between the two feelings is that love is always creative, and fear is always destructive,” according to Emmet Fox. Gratitude cannot grow in a life dominated by fear. Fear will always destroy any sense of gratitude we may have. Gratitude can only grow in a heart cultivated to express God’s love to the world.
The Pharisee’s biggest fear was that he might be like other people — “extortioners, unjust, adulterers … ” — without realizing that it was exactly this fear kept him far from God. The tax collector, on the other hand, was just glad for the chance to come to the temple and humble himself before God.
“God, be merciful on me a sinner!” was his cry, and so it should be ours. Our gratitude must stem from the deep realization that we are a “greater debtor than all [others].” We give thanks because we are astonished that God would exalt one like ourselves. We have to marvel at God’s “unutterable restraint and forbearance.” And we must marvel at this from a heart of love, not a heart of fear.
Our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters seek to strike fear in the hearts of God’s children, telling us if we don’t toe this line or that, or if we don’t give up what they call this sin or that sin, then God will abandon us to hell. They seek to instill fear of God in our hearts — a fear that unless we’ve got all our spiritual ducks in a row we’ll be cast into the lake of fire for eternity. Their message does not come from love but from fear — fear that destroys life instead of inspires life. Their message is one of pushing and pulling — pushing away our “sins” so that we may pull “grace” into our lives.
Grace is not a matter of pushing or pulling. One cannot pull the grace of God into their lives — one only experiences the gift through love or they miss it all together. So it was with the ten lepers that Jesus healed in Luke 17:11-19. Ten were healed, but only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank Jesus. Only one actually received the gift of grace because he reacted with gratitude instead of fear. The others were just glad that this holy man had helped them push away their illness. At least one struggle in their lives was now over. They were healed physically, but only one was healed both physically and spiritually.
How often do we forget to thank God for what is happening in our lives? Not just for the big things, but also the small things? Not just for the “good” things, but also for the things we think are “bad?”
Cultivating a grateful heart
One of the Syriac Fathers, John the Solitary, gives us a simple exercise to start us on our way to a life of gratitude:
“When evening comes, collect your thoughts and ponder over the entire course of the day: observe God’s providential care for you; consider the grace He has wrought in you throughout the whole span of the day; consider the rising of the moon, the joy of daylight, all the hours and moments, the divisions of time, the sight of different colors, the beautiful adornment of creation, the course of the sun, the growth of your own stature, how your own person has been protected, consider the blowing of the winds, the ripe and varied fruits, how the elements minister to your comfort, how you have been preserved from accidents, and all the other activities of grace. When you have pondered on all this, wonder of God’s love toward you will well up within you, and gratitude for his acts of grace will bubble up inside you.”
We can begin to cultivate a grateful heart by simply taking stock of the simple things in our lives — God’s care for us, the moon, the sun, the colors around us. Look deeply at your life and what God has done for you from moment to moment. You cannot help but feel that gratitude welling up inside of you. Let it burst through into everything in your life.
Bring this sense of thanksgiving into your prayer life. Think about how much time you spend in prayer petitioning God or whining about some situation going on in your life that you want God to change. Do you ever stop to give God thanks? Colossians 4:2 reminds us to be watchful in prayer “with thanksgiving.” God wants to hear our wants and needs, but we have to remember to thank God for everything God has done for us — not because God demands our praise, but because our gratitude is so great that we cannot help but praise God.
Take this gratitude out of your prayer life and put it into your everyday life. Thank the people around you. If someone holds a door for you, thank them. If someone says, “bless you,” when you sneeze, thank them. If someone lets you cut in front of them in traffic, thank them. Show your gratitude in small and big ways. Someone helped you with a work project? Send them a thank you note or flowers. Let your praise be an indicator of your inner health — show the world that you are grateful that you are in it and grateful to have others around you.
Recently, on a message board, I thanked the fundamentalist posters there for their constant attacks on my faith. I told them, “thank you for reminding me that I have yet to master myself. The fact that I find it necessary to continuously argue with you about my faith shows me that I have yet to reach a place of true security with my own faith. Thank you for teaching me that I have a long way to go before my own faith is strong and secure.” My post flabbergasted them and some even softened their tone toward me. Showing our gratitude to the world at large, not just to God, helps to cultivate a constant flow of love from our hearts and changes all fear to love.
Put aside ideas of “good” and “bad.” Like our rancher friend, we often don’t know what is “good” news and “bad” news at first blush. Take a “we’ll see” attitude when circumstances change. Be grateful to God in all circumstances whether you might want to perceive them as “good” or “bad.”
Do not push or pull. Gratitude does not seek to push things away or pull other things to us. Gratitude is an acknowledgement of what “is” in our life. When we push or pull we seek to avoid what “is” in our lives. We deny the power of living in present moment, the power of giving gratitude for the present moment, when we push and pull. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow and instead “let the day’s trouble be sufficient for the day.” All we have is right now, this very moment. Tomorrow is promised to none of us. What we must be grateful for is this moment, what we have now, where we are now. That’s not to say we cannot think about tomorrow, or we cannot plan for tomorrow, but we must realize that this moment is it — and be grateful in each moment we have.
It might seem easier to push and pull in our lives than to let go and trust God, but in the long run, all our struggles never lead us to the peace that God promises. To realize that peace that passes all understanding we must cultivate and attitude of gratitude. To do that we must let go of our fear, our anxiety and our need to constantly push and pull at the circumstances in our lives. Living in gratitude does not mean that our lives will be free from strife and problems, but it does mean that we no longer fear the turmoil of life and instead gratefully give them over to God who promises us abundant life.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.