The Discipline of Gratitude

discipline of gratitude

How is it, I wondered, that a guy could get mobbed, robbed, beat up and unfairly sent to jail — and be thankful for it all? My friends and I were studying the book of Acts, and we were amazed at the apostle Paul’s personal resiliency and joy amidst challenge and persecution. We wanted to know, “What’s his secret?”

The book of Acts in the Bible is the historical account of the growth of the early church. After Paul’s conversion, he stopped persecuting Christians and started preaching the good news about Jesus. But it cost him. He survived beatings, shipwrecks, and constant danger. How did he maintain a spirit of hopefulness and a deep faith in the love and goodness of God through it all?

The secret, I believe, shows up again and again in Paul’s letters. He wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Could the discipline of gratefulness be the key that unlocks an abundant life for the Christian, even in times of deep sorrow, and physical and emotional suffering?

Not many would immediately think of Paul as a gifted psychologist, but I believe he understood well the human psyche and what it needs to flourish. Our emotions are linked to the ways we think — and thinking well is both a grace from God and a discipline that takes focused attention. That is why Paul urged followers of Christ to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2b). He also urged them to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).

Gratitude doesn’t always come easily, though. It takes practice; we have to train our minds to be thankful. As M. Craig Barnes observes in his book, When God Interrupts , only one of the ten lepers whom Jesus heals, a Samaritan — an outcast — returns to thank God (Luke 17:11-19).

But, when we begin to notice the goodness of God and give thanks in the mundane, difficult, and yes, joyful seasons of life, we develop a greater understanding of how perfectly we are being loved by our heavenly Father. And this knowledge of being loved perfectly by Jesus drives out fear and anxiety (1 John 4:18b) and ushers in a spirit of peace and joy.

So at the end of a busy season and full semester, I offer my thanks to God.

— John Terrill