About 12 years ago, I started doing something that I call very simply “The Good List.” It’s a list of 10 things each week that I’m thankful for. At the time, I was in the midst of one of the darkest seasons of my life. It was just hopeless in my mind. By my personal power and whatever I could muster on my own strength, there was just no hope for my life, for my future. The details of that are really no longer important, but what is important is that Jesus rescued me. What he did not do immediately, however, was to remove me from some of the difficult situations I was facing each day. Storms raged on pretty much daily, and God didn’t seem much interested in calming any of them… except for the one within me. I had tried for years to change my own mind and heart with positivity and hard work and all of the self-helpy things that the world will try to tell you is all you need to be happy, but to no avail. None of my tactics or thought processes or positive choices worked. At least not for any extended period of time.
But in a glorious life-changing epiphany that I boldly define as a miracle because it was nothing short of that, Christ intervened very powerfully.
I had wallowed in self-pitying-why-me-this-is-so-unfair-how-can-they-keep-getting-away-with-treating-me-this-way garbage for so long that entitlement mentality had attached itself to me as securely as my very skin. I went nowhere without it. And to be clear, it is still my very firm opinion that I was being mistreated and sinned against all those years ago, but the magnifying glass I held to the sins against me was firmly and exclusively fixed on just that. Sins against me. I had no vision of anything else. Not my own sins and the grace Christ had so freely lavished upon me in spite of them. Not the blessings I enjoyed every single day. Not the hope I had in eternity.
The Gospel. Jesus. JESUS! All I can say is that he crashed into me and changed the subject. Just utterly changed the subject. He reminded me of his finished work on the cross that rescues me from eternal separation from Him. He reminded me that He and He alone is the answer to life’s struggles and difficulties. The skeleton key if you will. He reminded me that he is always with me in every circumstance, difficult or otherwise. The only true hope and joy our hearts can cling to permanently. The Gospel. This is what brought to reality in my life that it wasn’t hopeless. For me, all by myself, for sure, it was hopeless. But not with Christ.
My entire perspective changed in the span of one day. And it can only be explained by the power of the Gospel coming alive in my heart. Because my strength was gone. My heart was empty. My well was dry. In ways that ONLY Christ could have changed.
But again, my circumstances didn’t change. In fact, they remained the same for several years following this awakening in me even though my perspective had changed dramatically. Mostly.
Imperfectly, for sure, but deliberately I'm trying to change that. I decided that it would be my goal to actively seek and identify blessings every single day -- "The Good List." One for each week day and 2 each on Saturday and Sunday. These could be as silly and small as a really good meal or something that made me giggle. (Or Nutella. I decided it would be fair to list Nutella every week if necessary.) That made a list of 9. Number 10 would be something a bit more significant. An exquisite passage of Scripture that had spoken to me recently. A truth that God was revealing to me. A story of redemption. Something along those lines. A list of 10 each week.
After several years of doing this, I’ve listed a few thousand by now, but the more I list, the more I realize I could never stop writing, and I still wouldn’t cover the tiniest fraction of blessings. That’s ok. It’s not a test to complete. It’s a never-ending exercise in gratitude.
But here's the good news:
1. The gospel teaches and equips us to feel and express gratitude.
Gratitude takes practice. LOTS of practice. It is NOT the natural bent of our sinful hearts. And it never will be on our own. But this is what happened for me…
About 10 years after that first devastatingly dark season of my life, a little over 2 years ago now, the darkness settled in again. We were living in Vermont at the time where my husband was pastoring a church that we had grown to love very dearly. It was our second family for sure, which was good, because all of the rest of our family lived in Texas, and you can’t get there from Vermont, so it was nice to have that second family. Our first few years there had been so sweet and special. The church was growing, both in numbers and in depth of knowledge of the Gospel. We were attracting people from literally up to an hour away, sometimes even more, just because they so desperately wanted to hear about the power of the Gospel. (I’m not sure how much you might know about Vermont, but it is currently the least churched state in the U.S., and many of the churches that do exist there are far from Gospel-focused.) But there we were talking about Jesus, watching hearts come back to life, seeing hope on stony old faces for the first time in decades, not having any idea what we were doing really, but clinging to Christ and being obedient to his leading as much as our flawed humanness would allow. It was easy to be grateful. My lists were practically writing themselves. It was pretty much effortless.
But then in the summer of 2013, a dark cloud settled over that community that frankly still hasn’t really lifted. It started with brain cancer in a dear friend of ours. A young man named Richard who passed away at 32 years old, leaving behind a wife and 2 young children.
Within a few weeks of his passing, I started spending most of my days by the side of one of my favorite people on this planet. My friend Anne. Watching her struggle with that same hateful brain cancer. Watching her brain fail and her body wither. Eventually watching her tiny little chest rise and fall for the very last time on December 2.
Inside that time, another dear friend began experiencing fainting spells on the same day her husband fell from a ladder and shattered his leg. And while they were in the midst of getting their own medical issues resolved, her Dad began experiencing bleeding in his brain and passed away a very short time later.
It was blow after blow after blow. These are just a few examples of the list that just kept going. Even more cancer, other illnesses, depression, broken relationships, wayward children, financial stress, difficult job situations or no jobs to be found. On and on and on. It was devastating. And magnified by the fact that all of this was happening within a very small community, so the “caregivers” for all of these situations were few and exhausted.
And here’s the thing. After 10 years of making my “Good Lists,” I wasn’t any better at “looking on the bright side” than I had been all those years before. I wasn’t naturally waking up with a song in my heart, cheerful and positive and ready to conquer the day.
No. I was weak and weary and terrified and mostly pretty worthless in regard to my impact on any of those situations. What to do with this mess?
Well, this is what those silly little lists taught me…
Where could I go but to Jesus? Where could I find any other rest or comfort or hope or peace? You see, I had practiced recognizing God’s blessings. I had rehearsed gratitude for his never failing goodnesses to me. I had searched for and listed some of the endless ways he loves me. And I had just enough “muscle memory” at this exercise to send me fleeing to the cross when trouble came. Not because I had become a better or stronger person. Because I had found Jesus in the tiniest details of life over and over again every single week. I saw his faithfulness. Because the Gospel had been training my heart to seek and understand blessings. Because every time I looked for Christ, I found him. Every time. Because He’s always there.
If we have the eyes to see, He’s always there. This was not some exercise in self-actualization or whatever we’re calling it these days. Becoming your most fabulous you or being the awesomest unique little (self-absorbed) snowflake. This was having evidence of Christ’s faithfulness to me over and over again. In these silly little lists that said to me, “On this day, this is what Christ did. On this day, this is what Christ did.” Every day of my life, I had documented a blessing straight from Christ. And those were just the ones I had written down, and I knew that.
My stubborn heart of flesh was (and is still) being slowly conditioned to know how to respond to suffering and difficulty. With gratitude. Gratitude for the days and weeks and sometimes months at a time when the suffering isn’t so prevalent. Gratitude for gift after gift and blessing after blessing. Even gratitude for understanding the many ways Christ works through suffering. But by no means does this come naturally. It takes practice. Exercise. Consistent, deliberate repetition. The only way I know to do this is through the power of the Gospel. I will never be “good at this” any other way.
2. The gospel shapes our perspective on the things for which we should be grateful.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundations of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)
Let’s do a quick list of things to be grateful for from this passage, shall we?
~God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places
~He chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him
~He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ
~In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses
~He lavished upon us the riches of his grace
~He made known to us the mystery of his will, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth
~In him we have obtained an inheritance
~When we believed in him, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it
Are you suddenly less concerned about whether or not you get what you want under the Christmas tree this year? I sure am. I mean, I’ll forget tomorrow morning as soon as I get another ad for some shiny new kitchen device that I “need”, right? But if I read this again… And again and again….
What more could any of us possibly want or need or hope for in this life than to be sealed with the Holy Spirit for an eternal inheritance? To be blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places? To be lavished with the riches of his grace? Does that word “lavished” affect anyone else as much as it does me? This is limitless grace. Limitless. God doesn’t do just enough to save us from hell, as if that wouldn’t be amazingly more than we deserve all by itself. No. He lavishes us with the riches of his grace. Limitless grace. More than we could ever possibly use up every single day all day long. He just pours it over us constantly. How could we ask for anything more? Does this affect your perspective at all?
Common graces are absolutely gifts from God, and we should see them as such. But the key word there is gifts, not necessities. Gratitude comes much more readily when we feel undeserving, when we feel God’s provisions as lavish and generous beyond our needs. And when we read this passage and see that all that we truly need is covered right here in these words, it shapes our perspective to see that pretty much everything else in life is extra. So much more than we need, but God still sees fit to bless us in such ways. Do you feel loved when you think about this? Does it give you cause to be grateful? God is so generous with us. So generous.
3. The gospel re-establishes our identity so that we understand who we are in light of whose we are.
In truth, doesn’t everything flow from this? It seems to me that comparison and jealousy are 2 of the greatest thieves of gratitude that we face daily. But when we understand our true identity in Christ, not only are we less likely to compare ourselves to others and what they have, we even tend to lose our taste for anything that isn’t Christ himself. Suddenly, our neighbor’s (temporarily) new car, our co-worker’s promotion (which still isn’t really the position they want), and our in-laws’ recent vacation (which is now over by the way) pales pitifully in light of our eternal position in Christ.
When we understand all that we have in him and what is our true hope for the future, that other stuff matters so much less.