What are the chief responses to a past so full of things, that, if one is not careful, can weigh us down and make the long race of life a difficult journey? The Biblical people had at least four answers to this question. The way of repentance, the discipline of forgiveness, the life of gratitude and the search for wisdom.
True story. A church group from New Bern, North Carolina, had traveled to the Caribbean on a mission trip. As you probably know, the conditions at the posh, luxury resorts are a far cry from the impoverished way of life endured by many others on these tropical islands. During this particular ministry trip, their host took them to visit a leper colony on the island of Tobago. And while there, they held a worship service in the campus chapel. As you can imagine, the sight of emaciated lepers filing into their seats on the bare pews bore deeply into the minds and memories of each visitor to this unaccustomed scene. But no memory left its mark like this one: When the pastor announced, “We have time for one more hymn. Does anyone have a favorite?” he noticed a lone patient seated awkwardly on the back row, facing away from the front. At this final call for hymn requests, with great effort, the woman slowly turned her body in the pastor’s direction. “Body” would perhaps be a generous description of what remained of hers. No nose. No lips. Just bare teeth, askew within a chalky skull. She raised her bony nub of an arm (no hand) to see if she might be called on to appeal for her favorite song to be sung. Her teeth moved to the croaky rhythm of her voice as she said, “Could we sing ‘Count Your Many Blessings’?”
The pastor stumbled out of the pulpit, out the door, and into the adjoining yard, tears of holy conviction raining down his face. One of the traveling party rushed to fill his place, beginning to sing the familiar song in this unfamiliar place, arguably the most “unblessed” of any spot in the universe. A friend hustled outside, put his arm around the sobbing pastor, and consolingly said, “I’ll bet you’ll never be able to sing that song again, will you?” “Yeah, I’ll sing it,” the pastor answered, “but never the same way, ever again.” 7 Leave it to a grotesquely deformed leper to remind us that grateful people are characterized by grateful words, while ungrateful people are given to griping, complaining, murmuring, whining. Some grumble at why God put thorns on roses, while others wisely notice–with awe and gratitude–that God has put roses among thorns. Hear what people are saying when they talk about the everyday events of their lives, and you’ll see in an instant the difference between gratitude and ingratitude.
One of the fundamental qualities invariably found in a grateful person is humility. Gratitude is the overflow of a humble heart, just as surely as an ungrateful, complaining spirit flows out of a proud heart.
But many decades in a wheelchair have taught me to not segregate my Savior from the suffering He allows, as though a broken neck–or in your case, a broken ankle, heart, or home–merely “happens” and then God shows up after the fact to wrestle something good out of it. No, the God of the Bible is bigger than that. Much bigger. And so is the capacity of your soul. Maybe this wheelchair felt like a horrible tragedy in the beginning, but I give God thanks in my wheelchair … I’m grateful for my quadriplegia. It’s a bruising of a blessing. A gift wrapped in black. It’s the shadowy companion that walks with me daily, pulling and pushing me into the arms of my Savior. And that’s where the joy is.
Where does gratitude rank on your list of Christian virtues? In an arsenal that’s supposed to include things like mountain-moving faith, radical obedience, patient long-suffering, and second-mile self-denial, for many, gratitude feels like an optional add-on. Nice if you can get it, but not all that critical to making life run the way it should.
the capacity to respond to adversity with faith and gratitude is not limited to spiritual “superheroes” and biblical characters. For every Joni Eareckson Tada or Corrie ten Boom, there are countless others whose names and stories few have ever heard, who endure the worst that life has to offer and still come up thankful. Not unscarred, not unmoved, not functioning out of reality like robots, but still spotting reasons for hope and promise. They seem to know that the only thing more debilitating than what they’re going through would be going through it ungratefully.
You’re not likely to find thankfulness paired with stories of sacrifice in your average candy and greeting card aisle (where gratitude is thought to live). But out in the byways of real life, a grateful heart must often strap on sword and shield, summon up its deepest courage, and brace itself for battle.
Ingratitude is toxic. It poisons the atmosphere in our homes and workplaces. It contaminates hearts and relationships. Moms and dads can break the spirits of their children with it, and husbands and wives can deaden every sensitive emotion in the mate they once swore at a church altar to love and to cherish from that day forward. We can be obsessive about spritzing away the disease-carrying, odor-causing bacteria from our tables and countertops, but nothing is more contagious in our homes than an ungrateful spirit.
Well, maybe one thing is.
Gratitude, I’d say, is equally as contagious as its evil twin. If you’re sick and tired of living in a home where all the joy and beauty has been sucked out through negative, unappreciative words and attitudes, you can make a change. You can become the kind of person you’ve always wanted to be around. The kind of person who makes the Jesus and His gospel winsome to all who come within the reach of your grateful, “happy spirit.”