March 24, 2015

An Attitude of Gratitude

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. Thornton Wilder

We talk about gratitude a lot in our culture, but we find it difficult to practice. The consumer mindset, instilled by media and advertising, combined with our human tendency to compare, leaves us coming up short. We’re told – and, often, believe – that what we have isn’t enough.  We’re conditioned to automatically accept that the next electronic gadget, the next pair of designer shoes, the next tropical vacation, or the next romantic relationship will fulfill us. But, material goods, exciting experiences, and other people can never quench the spiritual thirst in our lives.

Only God can slake our deepest thirst with His living water. Cicero wisely observed, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” When we are thankful, we become content and full of the peace that only He can provide. Focusing on how grateful we are for what we have prevents us from becoming bitter and greedy for more.

Jesus’ experience, as recorded in Luke 17, is an example of how people who are given a second chance at life sometimes forget to thank the source of all good things. “Now on His way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As He was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met Him. They stood at a distance and called in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’” (verses 11-13). These ten men had one thing in common – their plight was hopeless. Leprosy was the most dreaded disease of Jesus’ day. The first sign of leprosy was a death sentence. Once identified, the leper was forced to leave home, family, and friends and was cast outside the city. A strict law even stated that people with leprosy couldn’t be within fifty yards of a person who didn’t have the disease. If they did, they were pelted with rocks and stoned to death.

Can you imagine never being touched again? Never feeling the hug of a child, never feeling the arm of a parent around your shoulders, or never feeling the embrace of your spouse? That’s what these ten men had experienced for years.  Some of them had probably had leprosy since they were children. They’d given up hope after they had tried everything and nothing had worked. But, then, something amazing happened. They encountered the Carpenter from Nazareth, the One said to be the Messiah. “He [Jesus] looked at them and said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests,’ And as they went, their leprosy disappeared.” (Luke 17:14, NLT).

It was incredibly rare for someone to be healed of leprosy; but, apparently, it had happened before because a law existed, requiring a leper who was healed to go to the priest. The priest would determine whether or not the leper was cleansed and allowed to return to his family, friends, and community. So, it’s striking that Jesus told these ten lepers to go to the priest before they were healed, as if their health had already been restored. It was a test of their faith. Did they really believe Jesus was who He said He was? They obeyed and passed the test.

Just imagine this ragged bunch of men as they were walking to the temple. They looked down and saw the blotches on their skin had completely disappeared, and they quickly realized they were healed. They could go home again! Such an unbelievable gift was surely celebrated; there was most likely jumping and shouting and whatever their equivalent to high-fiving might’ve been. So much incredulous joy and such urgency to get to the priest, to get home, to get their lives back. But, along the way, one of them stopped and said, “Hey, wait a minute, guys. I have to go back and thank the One responsible for this. I have to express my gratitude to the Giver of this incredible gift.” The other ones might had said, “We have to go to our families. We haven’t seen them in years.” But, he must have responded, “Yes; but, I want to go back to thank Jesus first.”

Perhaps, the most significant part of this entire story occurred next. “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him – and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:15-18). This guy was from another country; yet, he was the only one who came back to thank Jesus. “Then He [Jesus] said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’” (verse 19). This man finally had what you and I take for granted each and every day. He had new life. He had his health. He would live to see tomorrow.  But, he realized it was a precious gift that God had given him, so he went back to thank Jesus. The hard truth about the whole story is that he was the only one.  Out of ten, he was the only one who expressed gratitude. He went back and threw himself at Christ’s feet.

Gratitude has the power to change us completely. This former leper was not just physically healed; he was also spiritually healed. There is power in gratitude to heal us spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. An attitude of gratitude opens up our hearts to God, enabling us to really see the world the way it is, to experience life to its fullest, and enjoy each breath. That’s the power of thankfulness, but you can almost hear the hurt in Jesus’ heart as He asked three questions: Weren’t there ten? Where are the other nine? Did only one come back to thank Me?

Now, before we judge too harshly the nine who didn’t come back to thank Jesus, we need to look at our own lives. What is it about our human hearts that allows us to take so many things for granted? Once we get the very thing we desperately want, we don’t thank God for it. How often do we get in a jam and plead with God to provide what we need? “God, I’ll do anything,” we say. “Just help me this one time, and I’m yours for the rest of my life.” When He does provide, even if it’s not always exactly what we want when we want it, we neglect to thank Him.

On that day, ten men received a gift; but, only one unwrapped it. Ten people received life that day, but only one realized there was more to his life than his time on earth. This is what gratitude does – it changes you. It opens your hearts to God so you can experience all the blessings He has for you.

When I think about the way gratitude can increase our capacity to love, I think of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! My favorite line in the whole story occurs right after the Grinch has realized the true meaning of Christmas: “And some say the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.” Gratitude expands our hearts the same way. We become fully aware of the details of the life we love, the simple things that delight us, and, perhaps most of all, the people God has placed in our lives. Simply stated, gratitude expands our capacity to enjoy life.

Ingratitude has the opposite effect. It causes our hearts to shrink and become colder. It blocks the flow of God’s wisdom and blessings in our lives. In fact, the opposite of a heart of gratitude is a heart of dissatisfaction, grumbling, complaints, and negativity. Whenever I’m being negative, I can’t help but feel that God is disappointed with my attitude, that it’s a slap in His face after all He has given me. When we thank those around us, it only increases the love between us. When we express gratitude to God, it increases our capacity to experience a full life without regrets.

Personal Challenge:

  1. Make a gratitude list of five or six things that you often take for granted.  Stop and thank God for each of them.
  2. Make a list of the people in your life for whom you’re most grateful. Think of the ones you most often overlook. Make a point to thank them today.